To start my new year’s resolutions aright, I am reflecting back on why am working with the New American Baccalaureate, seeking to empower transformational liberal arts education. The truth is that my commitment to this work does not stem from research on the value of a liberal arts education (although there is plenty of that), but from romance: Whole-person liberal arts education was my first love. I fell in love with it because it was my first educational home, and in it I begin to finally really be at home with myself. This home was at a small integrative and innovative liberal arts program at the edge of the desert two hours from LA. The Johnston Center for Integrative Studies of the University of Redlands (formally Johnston College) was one of those flowers of the sixties and of the much fabled flush funding in higher education of that day. It exemplifies all that is cherished in small residential liberal arts education: a student centered living/learning community, with close relationships with faculty, small seminar based classes, and creative integration of breadth and depth in the liberal arts, unique to each student. It helped me fall in love with all a liberal arts education could be; a place for the transformation and formation of rich holistic persons, persons who in their own way can serve the public good, and all the while “havin’ a good time” (as James Graham Johnston, the original benefactor to the then college, put it).
Of course, as all good relationships do, mine has matured. I understand my partner is an all too human creature, complicated and complicit in the darker side of US history. Yet, this love is ever more cherished for knowing what these schools can become when acknowledging their limits, facing and making amends for past injustices, and striving over adversity: sites of personal and cultural revitalization. As all first loves, although highly idealized, it has memorialized certain values in me. It has imprinted on me the value of that kind of intense, communal, and transformative education, and how we ought to make the rite of passage into adulthood. It is this love that I have spent my early career in higher education trying to foster and advance with pragmatic policy, so these schools can serve others in their own formative quests. It is also for this reason that my heart aches to see so many of these kinds of institutions struggle to survive and continue to disappear from the American higher education landscape.
Like with climate change in the age of the Anthropocene extinction, we have already hit a long dreaded tipping point, a point of no return for many institutions of US higher education. The most vulnerable are small liberal arts colleges and universities (often referred to as SLACS). As Marlboro’s recent merger and all but closer illuminates, even a strong endowment doesn’t protect these institutions from long dreaded demographic trends. Recent articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the spread of closures amongst SLACS, especially in Vermont, predict these are just the beginning of what is to come. The sources are all too clear, increasing reliance on revenue from tuition, plus the ever growing costs of running a residential college, with an every increasing competition for the same donors, as public institutions seek to woo the same funders. This situation is further put into disarray by rapidly changing student demographics, with less interest from students in going to a SLAC isolated from an urban area where part-time work and support would be more easily available.
The crisis itself strikes me as representative of a general situation we find ourselves in globally, where all our cherished loves are threatened, and unable to escape their fates. From climate change to the populist right we find ourselves caught in the oldest patterns of civilization, the demise of our environment and beloved institutions to self-caused cultural decay.
We are caught in what the Italian Renaissance philosopher Giambattista Vico called in his account of the cycles of history “the age of men,” that is one with a mythos of lost and decay. In our mythos, the gods have disappeared and no longer respond to our pleas, the heroes have fallen, and now we find ourselves alone with our own pettiness, egotism, and failure. Although we seem to have exhausted our foundational myths and ideas, it is also in such moments that new creative, small, and intensive communities of higher learning tend to appear and play a unique role. From Plato’s Academy to John Andrew Rice’s Black Mountain College, such transformational communities of higher learning, working on a small scale, with the thinnest of operating budgets, have played a role in protecting and modeling alternative ways we can live together when the going gets tough.
If Berea College, can be founded, as it was, as an integrated community, school, and church in the slave holding South on the eve of the US Civil War, then be scattered, and then come together again, to be a threat to white supremacist hegemony in Kentucky, we too can make things work. It is of paramount importance to help our SLACS, survive, adapt, and do their great work, for they can be such shining spots in the world when the going gets tough. This years, let’s remember what good friends, with the barest of budgets can do together for transformational learning in the toughest of times. We too can always build a little space for deep and vibrant personhood, alternatives to all the challenges we see, and spaces for solidarity and civic capacity in the most challenging of times.
By Eli Kramer