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January 26, 2012

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Among the first hires in the Arthur Morgan era, Professor Hendrik Willem Van Loon came to Antioch College to teach history in 1921. Born in the Netherlands in 1882, Van Loon came to the United States at 20 to enter Cornell University, ultimately earning a doctorate from the University of Munich in 1911. Despite his academic credentials, Van Loon's career in higher education would prove all too brief. As a lecturer in history at Cornell, his flamboyant teaching style made him immensely popular with his students, but owing to their poor exam scores, his colleagues judged him ill suited to scholarship. He in turn judged them as merely jealous of his popularity, and in 1917 he resigned to pursue a career in writing and journalism.

Archival photo of Professor Hendrik Willem Van Loon
HW Van Loon of the college faculty in the 1920s

He published the first of over fifty books, The Fall of The Dutch Republic, in 1913, an extension of his dissertation. One reviewer perhaps unknowingly captured the essence of Van Loon's long, prolific publishing career by suggesting that he dared to "write history as if he enjoyed it." In 1922 he received the first ever Newberry Medal for his tour de force, The Story of Mankind, a history of western civilization for children (lavishly illustrated by the author himself) that he completed in 1921. Van Loon as a result was about the most prominent member of the faculty of the newly reorganized Antioch College. Van Loon created possibly the most endearing and enduring image of the chaotic beginnings of Morgan's Antioch, that of a young undergraduate reading while walking to class and about to collide with a construction worker's ladder, under the title "The Antioch Idea."

Van Loon would not stay much longer, however, for in 1922 he resigned his post as chair of Social Sciences at the college to take a position at The Baltimore Sun, no doubt at the invitation of his close friend, H.L. Mencken. A towering if acerbic figure in 20th century American journalism and one of the nation's foremost cultural critics, Mencken was known as "The Sage of Baltimore." The following letter, written to Van Loon from Mencken's once famous home address on Union Square, is pure Mencken. Skeptical of seemingly everything and keen to judge any new development in higher education as anti-intellectual, particularly if it strayed from the cherished German university model, he has little if anything kind to say about Arthur Morgan's New Antioch. Mencken plays no favorites, however, as seen by his characterization of Johns Hopkins University. A notorious "wet" in the "dry" days of Prohibition, he concludes with an invitation for Van Loon to join him in a copious amount of what must be his latest homebrewed beer (In brewing parlance, one Seidel is slightly more than a pint).

H.L. Mencken
1524 Hollins Street
Baltimore, Maryland

May 22nd 1921

Dear Van Loon,

The Antioch scheme is very persuasive; it would at least avoid the childish futility that is the chief mark of college training. I think its weak point lies in the difficulty of getting a sufficiency of suitable candidates, at least during the first ten years. Whenever a school announces a new scheme it is immediately deluged by all the half-wits who have failed under other schemes. I doubt that Morgan's staff would have the resolution to turn these vermin away. The careful selection of pupils is a high ideal, but it is hard to execute. The Johns Hopkins Medical School executes it, but that is only because the Johns Hopkins can always get four times as many students as it can accommodate. It took years to reach that position. I speak, of course, of the Medical School. The University, which is quite distinct, is now little more than an eighth-rate high school. When it abandoned the old German plan of a graduate school and began to teach journalism, the care of automobiles and other such things, it instantly attracted all the idiots, and now is indistinguishable from a home for feeble-minded children. This is the danger that menaces Morgan. He will get plenty of applicants, but most of them will be, not the superior fauna he dreams of, but simply boneheads unable to pass the entrance examination at Yale, Amherst, and the Ohio Baptist University. However, the scheme is certainly worth trying.

If you travel westward by way of Washington, to see all the great men there on display, stop off in Baltimore and I'll give you 200 Seidel of the best malt you have ever tasted. It has the precise flavor of Franziskaner Bock.

H.L. Mencken

Illustration of the campus, drawn by Van Loon
Illustration of the campus, drawn by Van Loon