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Journalist John Palmer Gavit Visits in 1923

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When journalist John Palmer Gavit (1868-1954) visited Antioch College in 1923, it was still in the early  stages of the reorganization of Arthur E. Morgan; the students his revolutionary new program attracted would not graduate for another three years. Reprinted here is a digest of three articles he produced from that visit, during which he lived among the students.

Like so many of the reporters covering the Antioch of the 1920s, Gavit is impressed primarily by Morgan himself. While he might be a tad bewildered by Morgan’s “Antioch Plan,” which is to say cooperative education, he is confident of its potential. His impressions of the College and its appearance will seem familiar to any observer of campus of the last fifty years or more.

Campus circa 1920

Campus circa 1920

John Palmer Gavit
After a Visit There

Reprinted From the New York Evening Post
and Boston Herald

          In 1922 and 1923 John Palmer Gavit, special correspondent for the New York Evening Post, visited a considerable number of the leading American colleges and universities from New Hampshire to California in an effort to understand their purposes and aims. His findings were published in the New York Evening Post.

          Toward the end of the pilgrimage he visited Antioch, living in the men's dormitory and observing at close range. As a result of this visit he wrote three articles for the New York Evening Post and the Boston Herald giving his impressions of the college. The following is a reprint of the more significant portions of these articles. The parts omitted deal chiefly with the earlier history of the college, and with details of the college program. 

* * * *

          Antioch College is located at Yellow Springs, Ohio, adjacent to Springfield and Dayton.

          EVERYWHERE they have asked about Antioch—not only people at colleges that I have been visiting for a year and a half, but parents, school teachers, business men, manufacturers; young folks thinking about going to college. Everybody was more or less interested, if only curious, and the real ones, open to any new thought or new methods if only they can be shown to have virtue of practibility, were agog. Dr. Charles W. Eliot, who brought Harvard from the status of a small local college to world-wide service and fame—the one outstanding figure of international reputation gained wholly in the field of American! education—told me by no means to miss seeing "Antioch." He described it to me as "the most interesting and perhaps the most important experiment now going on in the whole range of American education."

          Like most others, I did not know that “Antioch” was the name of one of the oldest colleges in America; founded in 1853 under the auspices of the denomination called “Christian” (whence, indeed, the name “Antioch”) with Horace Mann of Massachusetts, one of the greatest figures in the history of education in America, as its first president. It is at Yellow Springs, in the southwestern corner of Ohio, and so-called because of a great unfailing spring of water so surcharged with the red oxide of iron that it splashes its whole neighborhood with a deep orange hue.

          Antioch College was revolutionary even then. Horace Mann was not conventionally trained as an educator; he was a lawyer, who got into politics in his home state of Massachusetts.

          So I went there and met Arthur E. Morgan, who sits as president in Horace Mann's place. He is, so far as I can see, in all the essentials of wide knowledge, intellectual grasp, and administrative power, a perfectly good college president, even if he is not college bred and has no bale of the honorary degrees with which it is the custom of American colleges to decorate each other's presidents. He is almost wholly self-educated; but I place him among the three or four outstanding figures in the list of American college presidents.

          Morgan was famous enough without Antioch—chiefly for his great engineering achievement in taming and harnessing the Miami River after its disastrous flooding in 1913 of the city of Dayton and its whole river valley for seventy-five miles. He was only less famous for the flock of first-class schools which he established along that valley for children of the hordes of men who worked under him on the “Miami Conservancy” project, and especially for the Moraine Park School which he founded in Dayton. Because of this evidenced interest and competency in education he was invited to join the board of trustees of the moribund Antioch College (of which up to that moment he scarcely had heard) and by the bare logic of the situation was forced to assume the presidency which has become his life-work.

          So Antioch is both a tradition and a vision. It is like an ancient apple tree into whose gnarled and dying trunk a new life has been injected, a new and youthful organism engrafted.

          Four ancient brick buildings, heavily vine-clad, surrounded by a campus not yet under much “landscaping” control, although they do play baseball there, and golf after a fashion, comprise the Antioch plant. The main structure, which has a certain austere beauty with its two quaint pointed towers, contains all the recitation halls, library, chemistry laboratory, gymnasium, assembly hall, and administrative offices. The other buildings are the dormitories for the men and women, respectively, and the Horace Mann House, a three story residence, now used for college industries.* The president and members of the faculty live in separate houses about the town of Yellow Springs. There is, also, not far from the college proper and an organic part of its establishment, the “Antioch School,” founded in the first instance for the children of the faculty, but recognized now as the lower, from-the-ground-up part of the Antioch educational scheme.

          Old and dingy. To one coming from recent visits to Bryn Mawr, Stanford, Princeton, Chicago, Williams, where relatively ample money and architectural skill and vision have established beauty and convenience, it seems pathetically old and dingy. It is so hard not to confuse issues and to be diverted from vigilance as to spiritual essentials by completeness of equipment and attractiveness of externals!

          But even at that it is amazing to see how out of slender and hard-won resources Morgan has made the place habitable, put it in working order, and installed the indispensable equipment.

          You may forget the dingy buildings and the comparative lack of comforts and conveniences, to say nothing of adornment. Besides, the conditions are frankly described by the college itself as “pioneer.” The place is not, and let us hope never will be, for people who want nickel-plush surrounding?. A new thing is being worked out there, a new spirit embodied, and those who go there must get the decoration and exuberance of their lives from within themselves—and, from one another. I told the students that I envied them the privilege of being charter members of the “New Antioch.” The day is not distant when a kind of special fame will attach to those who were there in these pioneer days; when an early Antioch degree will weigh valuably against one from many a college whose name is a guarantee of creature comforts, perfection of equipment, and architectural charm.

          Antioch is a college “of liberal arts,” in all the usual senses of the term, and the standards of scholarship, as to curriculum, degree of hard mental application required, and achievement necessary for graduation, are in no essential inferior to those elsewhere. The work the student does in an outside job for regular, current rate wages—while it may and probably usually does help to pay his or her way, and may often result incidentally in his learning a trade, business, or profession in which he will go on afterwards—is pursued wholly for its value as a coherent and organic, indispensable part of his education, as vital a factor in his “culture” as his “book learning.” If anything, more so.

          It is anything but easy to get into Antioch College. It will be increasingly difficult. Careful selection of students at entrance is a cardinal feature of the place. At no other college that I have seen is the standard so exacting.

          That does not mean the ordinary kind of entrance examination. You might get “A-plus” in every subject required for entrance at Princeton or Bryn Mawr, Vassar or West Point or Massachusetts Institute of Technology and still not “get by” at Antioch. Or you might have “missed out” on one or more of the things necessary for your high school diploma and still be just the sort of person Antioch is looking for.

* * * *

          Two distinctive things about Antioch College attract most attention. One is its half-and-half division of the students' time between “book-learning” in the college itself, and a job—a job in the ordinary sense of the word at regular current rate wages—outside, in the nearby city of Dayton or one of the other neighboring communities; a few as far away as Cleveland or even Philadelphia. The other is the fact that the full college course at Antioch takes six years instead of the four usually required. Exceptionally able and industrious students can finish in five; and there is a provision for a few “full-time” students who do not take jobs and finish m four years; but this is rather deprecated and penalized by a higher tuition fee.

          Antioch believes that that sort of education, even under its own curriculum, is inadequate. It is the belief that after six years of the combination of “cultural” study and “cooperative” work, as they call it, the student will be substantially farther along in his life progress than he would be two years after graduation under the conventional four-year system.

          Disregarding the small “Division C” of full-time students: Ninety per cent or more of the student body is divided into two divisions, “A” and “B,” which alternate in periods of approximately five weeks between study in the college and the outside jobs. Making good in your job is just as necessary for college credit as making good in your classes.

          Each job is held ordinarily by two students, constituting a “cooperating” pair, who jointly and severally contract to hold it for a year, including the summer vacation, which they divide between themselves. One works while the other studies in the college; the job is thus continuous. A feature of the system is the conference about the ins-and-outs of the job as the partners periodically exchange places. While on the job the students live where, after the fashion and at the expense they can afford, as other workaday folk do; though in Dayton, where the majority of the jobs are located, Antioch clubs have been established. 

          The jobs are found and assigned by the personnel department of the college and there is no difficulty about finding them; employers are glad to have these intelligent, serious-intentioned young people. And, obviously, the system enables the college to take care of twice as many students as it could if the whole student body were continuously at college.

          Now the primary purpose of this system is not “vocational” in any narrow sense of the word. It is not that the student may learn a trade, business, or profession; though in many cases doubtless it contrives toward that result. Neither is it that the student may earn his or her way through college; though unquestionably it does assist materially in that regard. It is inherent and coherent in the vitals of the Antioch theory of what constitutes education—real culture.

          Antioch is not the only educational institution in which study and outside occupation are combined. The University of Cincinnati, for example, has long used that method, and it is a commonplace of college life all over the country to have students in occupations of many kinds earning their way. The big difference is this—it is a crucial difference: that the University of Cincinnati, so far at least as this feature is concerned, is primarily vocational, technological; and that the self-support in the ordinary college is regarded as an outside and more or less incongruous and interfering factor—a necessary, but rather regrettable evil.

          Modern education lays and will lay increasingly its stress upon development through real activities; upon experience as superior for educational purpose to instruction; upon living as a primary means to learning; upon doing as equal and complement to reading, talking, and listening. The direct aim of Antioch College is to send forth roundly developed men and women with a running start in all the ensemble of life; trained not exclusively by reading of books and hearing the expounding of books, but also by first-hand experience with living; developed by what they have done and learned for themselves in the doing of it—in self-reliance, initiative, sound judgment, and the actual practice of responsibility in activities valuable for their own sake.

          The outside jobs are of almost every conceivable kind, from farming to stenography, from common labor in a foundry to translating advertising matter from English into Chinese. Several students have organized and operated business enterprises of their own—even a farm.

          Antioch is a college of liberal arts primarily; assuming (and I do assume) the quality of teaching skill and inspiration and the intelligence and mental application of the student, its curriculum contains essentially all that may be found in the curriculum of any other college. But I think there is a central difference, real though hard to define.

          The student is regarded not as having a mind, but as being one—a unified personality. “Intelligence” is not a separate and distinguishable organ or department of personality, which may be trained or developed at the expense of the rest. The person who has no manual deftness is to that extent defective in intelligence. The five senses and the expert manipulation of the body are not only important for the secondary uses of intelligence; they are the means by which intelligence is developed. Judgment, reflection, imagination, intuition, aspiration are sound and trustworthy only on the basis of accurate and experienced perception, and for perception the training of all the means of perception is indispensable.

          The truly educated person sees what he looks at, in all its nuances and in all of its relationships. To do that he must not only have the instinct and the skill for empirical discovery and experience; he must have a broad background of general information, covering the whole area within the circle of human knowledge and concern. Nothing conceivable within the universe can be indifferent to him.

          During a pilgrimage among a score or more of American colleges I have heard almost ad nauseam about a sacred and awesome thing called scholarship. I have found it very difficult to get a definition of it. Of many attempts no two were alike. The only one that seemed worth the breath that uttered it was this:

          The possession of a practically adequate but evergrowing body of general information, with special and detailed knowledge in one's particular field; and no less the capacity for usefully applying that knowledge in the relationships of real life.

          It will do. Antioch seems to have that idea of “scholarship.” Its course of study and activity embodies and presupposes both aspects of it. And its description of the kind of young men and young women for whom its opportunities are set forth, and the reason why it cares more about what the applicant for admission is than about what he knows becomes clear:

          “Above all are desired those young men and women who aim to be directors of their own efforts, as managers and administrators either in professional, commercial, industrial, or agricultural lines, or in household management.”

          It is no place for those who desire an arid or merely ornamental erudition for its own sake,a self-isolating membership in some imaginary “intellectual class” detached from the real world and contemplating in vacuo the magnitude and intricacies of a body of lore having no rootage in the world of men and things.

* * * *

          It is not easy to get into Antioch College; but the principal prerequisites are not scholastic. Entrance examinations of the ordinary sort cut very little figure. It is more or less assumed, to be sure, that “failure to complete a high school course...raises doubt as to the student's fitness for college work, and definite evidence of such fitness is necessary to remove that doubt,” but much more weight attaches to what you are than to what you have studied.

          Not, what have you studied? But what have you got out of what you did study? And what kind of person are you? For “only young men and women of high personal character, receptive intellect, and power of application can hope to complete the course, and those who are not impelled by serious and earnest motives are not encouraged to apply for admission.”

          So you have to submit convincing testimony about yourself, from responsible persons who think they know you as regards a rather searching list of personal qualities; you have to undergo a psychological test and file a statement of physical condition leaving little to the imagination or faith. But to top all that, you must write a letter giving not only somewhat detailed biographical facts about yourself, but as searching a self-analysis as you know how to make, and a photograph (“preferably a 'snapshot' taken of you without a hat”). Who are you, what do you think you are, and how did you get to be that way? Why do you want to come to Antioch, and what makes you suppose you can succeed here? What do you want to be and do in the world, and why?

          The examination of this material is searching, and wherever practicable it is supplemented by an exhaustive personal conference. And there is a dropping all along the way of those who, having got in, fail to show affirmatively that they understand what Antioch is all about. Flunking in examinations is the least of it.

          Experience thus far shows that an average working student must bring with him from home between $200 and $400; correspondingly more if he is not to earn part of his expense. Last year the highest actual expenditure—this was by a woman—was $873; the lowest, $330. The average weekly earnings of the men were $17.50; of the women, $15. The highest among the men was $36; among the women, $18; the lowest was $10.

          Antioch students know what it costs them. They have to. Every student in his freshman year must “get the habit” of keeping track of income and expense. For one of the most interesting and valuable features of this college is a required freshman course —three hours a week for the first half year, in what you might call personal financial hygiene. “F-1,” they call it— “Personal Accounting and Finance.”

          In this course every mother's son and daughter of them is obliged to make at the outset as a matter of required class work a personal budget of expected expense and income, and to keep books, in a standard form, and audited by the professor. The books must balance, too; else—no credit! To come out at the end with a deficit is to flunk the course, And, by the way, while there is a column for “miscellaneous”—if you put anything in that column you must pass on to the next column and elucidate.

          Another required freshman course which tends to start the student off with an appreciation of what he is about is that known as “College Aims,” leading him as it were to “budget” his purposes in life and to focus his effort.

          Is the “Antioch Plan” really functioning? It is—no doubt about it. It has still far to go; some of its program is still to a certain extent a plan rather than an accomplishment; some important things are barely under way. But remember that the “New Antioch” has been in existence only three years. The progress in that short time is astonishing.

          The weakness of the whole structure lies in the degree to which Antioch College is Arthur Morgan, whose soul and body are invested in it. His health is not of the best, and he has not yet had time to find and train his understudy. With superhuman industry and undaunted courage and enthusiasm he goes on, making bricks without straw; doing an amazing business on a shoestring. Far too much of his time and energy has to be devoted to the disheartening business of getting piecemeal financial support.

          Questions and compunctions? Certainly; one has them about any college, from Harvard to Pomona.

          To begin with: Does the fact of an interruption every five weeks, and the corresponding hiatus, interfere with the sound “scholarly” thoroughness of the study? With the cultivation of habits of concentrated and sustained mental application? On the whole, I think not. I have not been overawed by any impression of ceaseless mental toil on the part of the average student at any college! The study standards at Antioch are as exacting and stiffly “enforced as at any other place. Indeed, my distinct impression is that from the point of view of seriousness of purpose, industry, and mental application, it is rather harder to comply with those standards than to “get by” at most other colleges. As for the interruptions: Almost every member of the faculty, and almost every student, whom I asked about that, declared that they were on the whole a benefit. As one professor said to me:

          “I had my doubts about that; but I observe that our students do not ‘go stale’ in their subjects as I have seen students do elsewhere. Indeed, I suspect that the failure of many college students may be due in part to the fact that the pressure is too continuous; that there are no such breaks; that interest flags with mere mental fatigue. Our students as a rule come back from their jobs fresh and interested —especially as they have seen their theoretical work embodied and illustrated in real life. It takes but a day or two for them to get back into the routine of study.”

John Palmet Gavit

          As for the jobs themselves, although the college personnel department aspires and purports to supervise both the student in his job and the conditions in which he works, it does not and cannot do this adequately. The staff is necessarily too short-handed, and the territory is too large. It can have only superficial knowledge, and meet only the more patent abuses. One disadvantage of this is that a naive and unsophisticated boy or girl may get a very warped idea of business and industrial conditions and ethics, to say nothing of more sinister personal influences. On the other hand, an intelligently observant one gets a first-hand knowledge of what his fellow men are putting up with every day. And both will bring back to their classes in “Industrial Relations” and their interchange of experiences fresh material of great practical value.

          The “dangers,” so far as the jobs are concerned, are largely imaginary. College men and women are, or certainly ought to be, past the age when ultra protection and coddling are either necessary or beneficial. Few things are more pathetically funny than the idea entertained by many adults, especially doting parents, that at eighteen their young people are still in “innocent” ignorance and can be kept from moral harm by a constant twitching of apron strings. And when it comes to “moral peril,” those within the walls of any college that I know of are not less noxious than those of the factory and market place.

          One extraordinary and perhaps objectionable feature is the fact that one-half of the incoming freshmen must go to outside jobs forthwith, before the college knows much about them; before they get into the college at all. That is why it is especially desired to arrange for the establishment right in Yellow Springs near the campus of a few small industries, in which they can work at first under direct observation before going outside “on their own.”

          Another objection, inherent in the whole scheme and doubtless practically insurmountable, is that the acquaintance of any student is confined to his own division. Half of the student body he virtually never sees at all. That, however, is largely a sentimental consideration—in any large college one's acquaintance is necessarily limited to a small proportion of one's classmates.

          The training and experience value, in terms of general intelligence and especially of correlation with the work, personality, and general purposes of the student, must vary substantially, in degree depending upon the nature of the occupation and the character of the establishment and of the employer and direct superior. It is the effort of the personnel department steadily to improve the quality and atmosphere of the jobs in which students are assigned, and to give the personal equation of the student with reference thereto.

          Upon the faculty Morgan has expended his greatest effort, fine-combing the country for men and women who can understand and adapt themselves to an unusual situation and conception of their job. You must have very special qualities to get into that faculty. First of all, you must be a teacher. You must have “special and detailed knowledge in your particular field” and also an “adequate and evergrowing body of general information” as its background; but chiefly you must have the divine gift of inspiring others and inciting them to find out for themselves.

          At Antioch I have found, more than anywhere else, the answer to questions I have been asking at colleges from coast to coast. The experiment there is as yet potential; but I believe it will have a profound influence upon education from top to bottom, not only in America but throughout the world. I know of no enterprise of any sort in which a custodian of wealth could invest the couple of million dollars needed to insure its carrying out, with greater assurance that he was helping his country toward the making of intelligent and useful men and women for its working, thinking citizenship.

October, 1923