The anti-college is on the rise

Sunday, June 30th, 2019

The anti-college is on the rise, Molly Worthen (Apostles of Reason) notes, in the New York Times:

A small band of students will travel to Sitka, Alaska, this month to help reinvent higher education. They won’t be taking online courses, or abandoning the humanities in favor of classes in business or STEM, or paying high tuition to fund the salaries of more Assistant Vice Provosts for Student Life. They represent a growing movement of students, teachers and reformers who are trying to compensate for mainstream higher education’s failure to help young people find a calling: to figure out what life is really for.

These students will read works by authors ranging from Plato and Herbert Marcuse to Tlingit writers. The point is to “develop and flex a more rigorous political imagination,” according to one course syllabus. They will take on 15 to 20 hours a week of manual labor in Sitka, and set their group’s rules on everything from curfews to cellphones. Last summer’s cohort discouraged the use of phones during class and service hours and ordered everyone to turn off the internet at 10 p.m.

This is Outer Coast, one of an expanding number of educational experiments born out of a deepening sense that mainstream American colleges are too expensive, too bureaucratic, too careerist and too intellectually fragmented to help students figure out their place in the universe and their moral obligations to fellow humans.

There are alternative colleges that replace traditional courses with personalized study; gap-year programs that combine quasi-monastic retreats with world travel; summer seminars devoted to clearing trails and reading philosophy. They aim to prove that it is possible to cultivate moral and existential self-confidence, without the Christian foundation that grounded Western universities until the mid-20th century. They seek to push back against the materialism and individualism that have saturated the secular left and right, all at an affordable price. It’s a tall order.


Outer Coast, founded in 2015, offers one partial solution. Bryden Sweeney-Taylor, who is 38, helped found the program in order to give young people a taste of the education he received at an older countercultural experiment, Deep Springs College, which was founded in 1917. Deep Springs — a tuition-free, highly selective two-year liberal arts college and working ranch near Death Valley in California — combines intense study, manual labor and intimate community to give students “a sense of the purpose of education not just being for oneself but for something larger than one’s self,” Mr. Sweeney-Taylor told me.

Outer Coast — which was co-founded by Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, an Alaskan who dropped out of Yale to serve in the Alaska Legislature — plans to eventually expand into a two-year undergraduate program. The aim is to recruit Alaska Natives and other students from underrepresented backgrounds, but also to develop a program that reformers elsewhere might copy — which means “being as financially lean and economically efficient as possible, creating a replicable model for these micro-institutions,” Mr. Sweeney-Taylor said.


After graduating from Yale in 2010, Ms. Marcus founded a Deep Springs-style program for women: the Arete Project, in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. She has recently opened a second, coed program in rural Alaska.

The Arete Project — the Greek word means “excellence” in the broadest sense — calls itself “education for citizenship, stewardship and leadership.” It operates on a “pay what you can” model and bans alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and recreational drugs. The project began as a summer seminar with plans to grow into a yearlong undergraduate program (participants can earn college credit). Like Outer Coast, it immerses a small group of students in the demands of self-governance, study and manual labor. Students read a mix of “classical texts and contemporary texts,” Ms. Marcus said.

The curriculum has been a source of contention. “Some students feel strongly that Plato has a great deal to offer their intellectual situations, and some can’t believe they’re being asked to read a dead white man,” she told me. Moreover, romanticizing the pursuit of the pure “life of the mind” risks alienating working-class students. “For organizations that want to be accessible to students in all walks of life, as we do, that means having some kind of value proposition that translates into other parts of their life.”


A second set of new programs — the humanist individualists — owe more to the experiments of the counterculture era: schools like Evergreen State College, founded in Olympia, Wash., in 1967; Kresge College at the University of California, Santa Cruz, founded soon after; or the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, founded in Boulder, Colo., in 1974 by the poets Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. These schools combined an interest in Eastern spirituality with the principles of humanistic psychology and the human potential movement, which emphasized the goodness in all humans and their gift for self-actualization.

In the 1960s, psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers challenged the dark, animalistic portrait of human beings advanced by behavioral psychologists and disciples of Freud — not to mention the grim vision of original sin in traditional Christian theology. Their ideas caught on among educators at a time when students were already in revolt against traditional curriculums. The result was the further collapse of eroding general education requirements in favor of radical student choice, which may have felt empowering in the short term, but added more confusion and doubt to universities’ sense of mission.


The trends that inspired Kresge and Evergreen State have only accelerated. Michelle Jones taught organizational behavior for 15 years in mainstream academic institutions, and in that time “higher ed became more of a business — all the administrators, all the K.P.I.s” (key performance indicators) “all detached from student experience,” she told me. After she got tenure, she said, “I paused to reflect, and I said, ‘I don’t think this is the job I thought it was going to be.’ ”

In 2015, she founded Wayfinding Academy in Portland, Ore., which offers a two-year associate degree in “self and society.” The curriculum is less conventionally academic than those of Outer Coast or the Arete Project, and more personalized.

Students shape their coursework with tutor-counselors called guides. They receive narrative evaluations instead of grades and design independent projects that help them learn “what it takes to do something epic” and how to “find their way back to their purpose when they feel lost,” according to a syllabus for a course on “Making Good Choices.” In that class, assigned readings and videos ranged from interviews with Noam Chomsky to a handout on “Anti-Oppressive Facilitation for Democratic Process” by a group called the Aorta cooperative.


  1. Grasspunk says:

    People learn on their own without a college or anti-college organisation. I get offers from people who want to learn about my style of farming a fair bit. Several per year. I have two offers in my inbox now. These people will work several hours a day for some food and board, although some offer to stay in their own tent or camper van.

    They want to learn what I do so they can do something similar for themselves on their own land. They don’t need credentials because they want to be self-employed.

    I turn them all down because we’re pretty private people and also the kids are at the age where I am better off spending my time working with them. Maybe I’ll soften in a year or two.

  2. Kirk says:

    The current model of “higher education” cannot last; it’s too inefficient, and the products coming out of the system are intellectually deficient and defective.

    So, once enough evidence builds up that your diplomas aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, then something else will arise. What? Wouldn’t venture to predict, but I honestly believe that we’re at the beginning stages of the whole thing rendering itself essentially irrelevant. The contradictions are simply adding up, and once they reach the point where the consensus is that a college degree is of no value, well… It’ll go on to be a quaint residual thing, kept up for the tradition of it all. You’ll still have Oxford and the like, but they’ll be irrelevant to most people.

    You can see the outlines of all this starting, with Macron’s attempt to break France free from the tyranny of the Grandes Ecoles. It’s only going to accelerate the more vapid stupidity these institutions produce. 57 genders, my ass…

    You spend some time rooting through the modern academy’s work product, and you suddenly start to see a certain sense to the ideas of Pol Pot, developing the desire to put some of them into effect.

  3. CVLR says:

    To paraphrase Kirk, legitimacy is worth a lot. And it’s one of those things… you lose a little at first, and then all at once.

  4. CVLR says:

    Deep Springs, unfortunately, started admitting women. Granted, it was the logical next step, after it had become entirely diverse.

  5. Felix says:

    There’s a huge girder holding up the bubble in higher education as it is practiced now: Government jobs. They can require and explicitly pay for credentials.

  6. Wang Wei Lin says:

    Sounds like Mao’s down to the coutryside program. Manual labor and indoctrination albeit with a western liberal flavor.

  7. Kirk says:

    Indoctrination happens, no matter what. It’s a question of what the indoctrination consists of, and whether or not it works.

    The current indoctrination program we’re following manifestly does not work; I suspect that we’re due for more than a bit of a comeuppance, and that the current dysfunction cannot last.

    Last time this happened to this degree was during the period we think of as the transition from the monolithic Church/Aristocracy era of the High Middle Ages into the modern era. The institutions that built up after that have finally managed to corrupt themselves to the same degree that the church was, and have signally started to fail.

    Look at the trade in indulgences. Is that really any different from “Carbon Trading”? Is the fervor with which the adherents of the academy pursue their heretics any less?

    The whole thing is due for a massive reorganization, and I venture to predict that it will come in this century, maybe even within our lifetimes. The contradictions and contrary facts are too well lined-up, and something will have to give.

    I rather suspect that the really big problems are going to accrue about the time the demographic facts of the population crash become brutally apparent, possibly in conjunction with some global-scale pandemic. Possibly man-made, possibly natural–I eye the current Ebola outbreak with a seriously jaundiced eye, wondering if this might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. If it does break out, and get here to the US, watch the genie of migration go back into the bottle, and the Europeans start up their death camps/transportation programs all over again.

    I’ll laugh my ass off if China manages to bring home a pandemic with their colonial program in Africa… Imagine Ebola percolating through those huge conurbations they’ve built, and what the effects will be on that vaunted population of theirs. It’d be darkly ironic if the Chinese went from not caring about how many Chinese they kill to suddenly being scared spitless of any sort of losses.

    The world is in for an ugly century or two, and I wonder how well we’ll do, coping with it. Ebola, mini-Ice Age, solar minimum? LOL… Idiots. All of them, internationally and nationally–They should be scared silly by the current outbreak, and should have put global early warning and controls into effect, but what are they actually doing? Expediting the whole damn thing. There are actually refugees in Dallas, right now, who were in the Congo well within the incubation period for this variety of Ebola.

    We’re a nation run by idiots, on a planet full of nations run by cretins. It ain’t going to end well.

  8. Wang Wei Lin says:

    Kirk… Excellent analysis as usual. Ebola in China would not be handled with kid gloves. The communists would have as usual a brutal response to such an epidemic.

    A global ebola pandemic could have a similar impact as the Bronze Age collapse given the immigrant invasions around the West.

  9. CVLR says:

    Yes, Kirk, absolutely. I have repeatedly observed the parallels between the eve of the Reformation and now. The similarities are eerie, right down to the paradigm shifts of communications technology: printing press and Internet.

    Setting that aside. Just economically, the situation is breathtakingly fragile. Something as simple as a geologically modest solar flare could easily interrupt the JIT food delivery system for weeks or months. If anything happens to cause the supermarkets to go unsupplied for any reason, you’re looking at WTF levels of rioting within a week.

    If I were any of you, even if I didn’t intend to abandon my urban mecca, I’d stash away some hard-to-reach land and the supplies and self-sustaining ecosystems necessary to keep me going for some undefined length of time. If nothing else, it’s probably a safer life insurance policy than AIG.

  10. CVLR says:

    Wang, I think that that’s an uncharitable interpretation. Maybe it’s more like a monastic interlude of solitude, self-reflection, and freedom from technology than it is an indoctrination center for whatever passes as “liberalism” these days.

    I would’ve killed to have gone there. Or better yet, any college before all colleges were run by MBAs.

  11. CVLR says:

    urban constantinople

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