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The rise of American ‘anti-colleges’

The rise of American ‘anti-colleges’

Disenchantment with the impersonal nature of the current education system is leading to a return to an old-school idea which puts character development ahead of standardized academic achievement.

It’s a bit like Lord of the Flies with a happy ending. Take a cohort of earnest young people, put them in a physically demanding environment and let them work things out for themselves. They are encouraged to create their own rules and structures and strengthen their own identities via a two-year long academic social experiment. Essentially the students form and govern their own ideal society. The overarching idea is that students take away something valuable that mainstream higher education (according to the reformers) fails to give them: a calling, a sense of place in society, a firm identity.

The latest example of such a project to hit the news is Outer Coast, an alternative college in Sitka, Alaska. Its curriculum is ‘one for the whole person, built upon the three pillars of Academics, Service & Labor, and Self-governance’.

The Service & Labor part is reminiscent of Kibbutzes. Students serve in growing and harvesting food, building construction and maintenance, general housekeeping and community placements in Sitka society.

The self-governance part doesn’t mess around. The students hire the faculty, determine the curriculum and form the admissions committee to select incoming classes.

The academic side is all about finding yourself. Generally there is much philosophy and an exhortation to ‘develop and flex a more rigorous political imagination’.

Outer Coast was co-founded by Bryden Sweeney-Taylor, an alumnus of an older countercultural experiment called Deep Springs College, founded in 1917 in the high desert of eastern California by L.L. Nunn, who said to his students:

“The desert has a deep personality; it has a voice. Great leaders in all ages have sought the desert and heard its voice. You can hear it if you listen, but you cannot hear it while in the midst of uproar and strife for material things. ‘Gentlemen, for what came ye into the wilderness?’ Not for conventional scholastic training; not for ranch life; not to become proficient in commercial or professional pursuits for personal gain. You came to prepare for a life of service, with the understanding that superior ability and generous purpose would be expected of you.”

Such lofty moral goals are easy to mock in our standardized and conformist culture, but they do ask serious questions of the mainstream education system and its cookie-cutter nature. In an educational environment where students are not permitted to mention climate change in their graduation speeches because it is ‘too political’, some fresh thinking is definitely what is needed.