Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Starting a College from Scratch

While reading a stack of books about the "crisis" in higher education, Stanley Fish meets a man with a plan:

While I was trying, and failing, to make sense of all this, the second thing of the week happened. I received a visit from Stephen Blackwood, a young man fresh from receiving his doctoral degree , who told me — can you believe it? — that he is starting from scratch a new liberal arts college, Ralston College, to be located in Savannah, GA. Either blissfully unaware of the obstacles rehearsed in the woe-is-us books or wrapped in the armor of faith and innocence like a modern St. George, Blackwood, without very much experience or money, has so far managed to secure a promise of buildings to house his new enterprise, gained the moral and honorific support of Harold Bloom, Hilary Putnam and Salman Rushdie, and applied for a tax status that will allow him to recruit and admit students, all of whom will receive full tuition scholarships paid for by the funds he plans to raise in the near future.

When they get to Savannah, the students of Ralston College will find that the school year is the entire year, 12 months, that they are expected to dine together and wear academic gowns, that they will all be reading the same texts organized around a yearly theme (in successive years, the Self, God, Nature, Community and the Beautiful), that the texts will be “supremely difficult” and begin with Greek and Roman authors, many of whom will be revisited the next year under the aegis of a new theme, and that they will also be receiving instruction in the visual arts, mathematics, the sciences and foreign languages (at least two). . . . No on-line instruction, no departmental structure, no professorial ranks, no athletic programs, no teacher evaluations (student-centered education but not on the customer model) and no tenure. Back to the future! Plato and students under the plane tree in Savannah.

Wouldn't it be fun to design a college of one's own? Not to actually be responsible for getting it off the ground, which sounds like a nightmare, but just to plan? Blackwood's scheme intrigues me. I have long toyed with the notion of a school, either a college or a high school, at which students would learn both academic and practical things. The academic side would be a rigorous liberal arts program, and students would learn practical skills by being responsible for all the maintenance on school buildings and grounds, from painting trim to overhauling the engine in the van. Sometimes the fantasy involves a farm. I suppose I enjoy this notion partly because I graduated from college not knowing how to do anything beyond changing a light bulb, and I wish I were much more familiar with the material side of our civilization.

1 comment:

Jason said...

Your idea sounds similar to the curriculum and mandatory work-study program at Berea College. I suppose their nearly billion dollar endowment doesn't hurt either.