AUM Classics retires with Malarkey
- Published: August 13, 2015
The walking and talking, reading and writing, playing and bandying that has gone on in Jim Malarkey’s courses at Antioch College and Antioch University over the past 30 years is not typical of a college humanities curriculum. But then Malarkey didn’t design the program to be typical. He wanted to deliver an education that would stop people in their tracks, give them a good shake-up, and have them question everything they had assumed about the world and their place in it.
“For the students, it’s a little like falling into Alice’s Wonderland,” Malarkey said in an interview last month. “Especially for students who were used to grades, it was destabilizing, disorienting, and covered way too much reading — but we were able to reach people in a profound way.”
In June, Malarkey retired. And when he did, the humanities major, the heart of which was Malarkey’s Classics program, went with him. While AU Midwest will continue to offer humanities courses, the program the Antioch faculty called “humanities our way” comes to an end this summer.
The humanities at Antioch University were designed to guide adult students through a deep process of self discovery by looking back through the world’s classic texts — Euripides, Aristotle, Lady Murasaki, Darwin — through a team-taught, multi-disciplinary lens. In the minds of the faculty, it was an authentic way to generate curiosity, reflection and self awareness, through which students could, rather than just get a job, find their purpose and choose a life they valued. Jackson Kytle, provost of the new adult college in the mid-1980s, helped develop it.
“A classics curriculum for working adults was, then and now, a radical idea that honored the best traditions of Mann and Morgan,” he wrote in a recent email, referencing Antioch’s visionary Presidents Horace Mann and Arthur Morgan. “It was audacious to treat adults as capable of serious work and changing their lives.”
The program grew from the mission of Antioch College and became one of the curricular pillars of Antioch University Midwest. In remarks he gave at the Midwest commencement ceremony in May, Malarkey said he came to Antioch College largely because of its unique commitment to educate the whole person, and he stayed because of Antioch’s enduring insistence on “bridging the differences that divide us.”
The Humanities program embodied that mission by showing students where their complex civilizations and world views came from. They read Hegel, Hannah Arendt, Cervantes, Gandhi and Freud, and texts by Aristotle, W.E.B. Dubois and the Dalai Lama. To learn to see from others’ perspectives, the students had already, in their first Antioch course, read autobiographies from different cultures, written about their own lives, and discussed their own cultural differences and assumptions about each other. Then in relation to their Classics courses, many broadened their awareness through short study trips to Chicago, Washington, D.C. and overseas. They cooked the cuisines and danced the dances of other times and places; they enacted the plays they read, and discussed the material to grasp the perspectives of other people and other times. The program took one full day each weekend, and the students suffered, but ate it up.
According to local resident Thor Sage, executive director of Miami Valley Educational Computer Association, the program he called “Classics boot camp” was “unbelievably difficult” and “the best thing I ever did.” He never sold back a book from the curriculum, references his literature regularly, he said, and carried a copy of Will Durant’s “Life of Greece” on a vacation to Greece several years ago. And the frequent live reading and enactment of the material led to Sage’s current involvement with the Yellow Springs Theater Company, which is considering for next summer a work by Greek playwright Euripides, whose 2,400-year old humor, he said, “will knock your socks off.”
But in a cultural era that has focused more on job preparation than broadening global understanding, the humanities have been losing ground in higher education, according to a statement the president of the American Council of Learned Sciences made in a New York Times story in 2013. Over the past decade, Stanford and Harvard have respectively experienced a 15 percent and 20 percent decline in enrollment in humanities — courses such as philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language, all methods of processing and documenting the human experience. Along with funding cuts to humanities programs at public universities, nationally the percentage of undergraduate humanities majors has fallen to 7 percent, or about half of where it was in 1970.
According to Antioch University President Karen Schuster-Webb this week, AU Midwest is embracing change in its own way. Beginning in the fall, the university will no longer offer the humanities as one of the five majors in the Bachelor Degree Completion Program, as Malarkey was a core faculty member and is not being replaced.
However, Midwest will continue to make the humanities available as a concentration under the liberal studies major and emphasize a humanities approach to all the disciplines in its undergraduate programs. For example, the data analytics concentration in the undergraduate management major now includes an ethics course that will involve philosophy, critical thinking and understanding issues through multiple lenses. In this way, according to Webb, Midwest is cleaving to its mission to educate the whole person while modeling the change it advocates by responding to the needs of its adult students who want job-ready skills to insulate themselves from what they perceive as a fragile economy.
“Fewer people are attracted to a humanities major that is isolated; instead we get requests from people who say, ‘I’m interested in the humanities, but my career choice is X … can I minor in humanities?” Webb explained.
The novel way that Malarkey crafted and delivered the humanities made it grow in the beginning, Webb said, and Midwest intends to bring that into its future.
“Jim’s legacy means that for us, the humanities will continue to live,” she said.
Other graduates of Antioch’s humanities program believe the humanities are both compelling and absolutely relevant today. According to local resident Hannah DeLamatre, who graduated in 2015, the curriculum taught her to listen deeply, think critically, and embrace the lifelong opportunity to keep exploring old and new ways of living.
“Humanities is life. Jim Malarkey has created a glorious ode to life and has inspired countless [students] to go out and create for ourselves and for each other a life worth living and writing about. We need to study Humanities now more than ever,” she wrote in a recent email.
Local resident Cheryl Smith enrolled in the program as a nurse in 1995, along with a few writers, a Wright-Patterson Air Force employee, a deputy sheriff from Springfield, some political activists and a good number of non-white minorities. Malarkey was “brilliant,” she said, the students were outspoken and diverse, and the program enriched her understanding of the historical, philosophical and political growth of civilization. It also launched her into a master’s degree program in intercultural relations at Midwest (then McGregor).
“Saturday was like a date or going on holiday or something,” Smith said. “Jim was the cohesive piece — he knows a lot about a lot of different things, and he made you want to learn.”
Sage said the humanities program transformed him.
“I’m certain I would be a different person than I am today without the Classics program,” he said. “I don’t think my perceptions of the modern world would be the same.”
Malarkey went through his own version of the humanities before coming to the college in 1984. Having studied at a Marianist boys academy in Cincinnati and spent two years at West Point during the Vietnam War, Malarkey continued on to a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Texas and spent eight years teaching in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, France and finally Lebanon, where he was hired to teach at the American University in Beirut. There he met both Antioch College physicist Al Stewart, who was on leave from the college, and his future wife, Nadia, whose father, Dr. Suheil Bushrui, also taught at the university. When the civil war caused the family to be evacuated in 1984, Malarkey, Nadia and their infant son, Michael, came to Yellow Springs.
Malarkey started out in anthropology at Antioch College, but was immediately asked by then-college President Al Guskin to help develop a new curriculum at a more convenient time — on the weekend — for the kinds of adult students the college had already been attracting (including Professor Stewart’s wife, Ruth Stewart). This new degree completion program was soon incorporated into the larger McGregor School at the Sontag-Fels building, whose graduate programs aimed not only to offer an Antioch education to adults in the Miami Valley, but also provide a new revenue source for the college, which had suffered financially ever since enrollment dropped by about half in the early 1970s. The concept was successful, and McGregor quickly grew to generate about $800,000 in annual income for the college.
The humanities program at McGregor was team-taught by faculty from different disciplines: Al Stewart (physics), Naseem Rahim (international relations), Bill Marvin (philosophy/history), Steve Schicker (literature), Bob Obach (theology), and others, who would discuss the readings from their different perspectives among the students. Adjunct professor Sue Van Allen joined the program in its early inception for the love of academic exploration.
“We’re all in the same room at the same time and we just talk — we come from different places, and we’re not trying to feed [the students], we’re trying to make them think,” she said. “The students pick it up and get involved in the conversation. It’s kind of a dance — it’s immersion in the thinking of the human being in which you can see patterns in man’s psyche.”
The humanities program drew not only students but faculty to the college as well. Longtime management professor Steve Brzezinski, who retired in 2013 as vice president of academic affairs at Midwest, remembers visiting Malarkey’s class as a prospective faculty member, grumbling that they should have sent him to a marketing class. But after 90 minutes of intense, lively discussion among all 25 students about Euripides, Brzezinski was sold.
“It was dazzling — I hated it when it was over … it was magic,” he said in an interview last month. “At the end of the 90 minutes, I said, ‘Please offer me the job.’”
But that was a time when students weren’t so “obsessed,” Brzezinski said, with connecting their education to a job. He understands the predicament: expensive educations and the risk of low or no wages leads to fear, which leads to low enrollment in programs that don’t have an obvious or direct link to a vocation.
Malarkey understands it, too. But he believes that some of the fear is manufactured, and the response to it, terribly short-sighted. Jobs enable people to buy material comforts. But how does purchasing power serve personal fulfillment, active citizenship, community connectedness and appreciation of life?
“It was strange coming back from the war [in Lebanon], where people were living in bomb shelters with no freedom, to the U.S. which was in a free-fall of decadence, self absorption and material possession,” he said. “I thought, here’s a place where people have unprecedented possibilities to expand their learning, and we’re not using it!”
Higher education in general has suffered a steep decline in ambition and vision, Malarkey said, which has also affected education in Yellow Springs. He wonders if some of the meaning of Arthur Morgan’s legacy at both Antioch College and Antioch University to educate the whole person to be active, engaged citizens has been lost.
“I grew up at the time of the human potential movement, which stressed using imagination, diversity, human rights and making a difference in the world,” he said. “And I came to Antioch when the feeling was that with privilege we as Americans had a responsibility as world citizens. Now I wonder, why isn’t higher education embracing this?”
As far as some of his former students are concerned, colleges and universities owe it to humanity to support the study of the human legacy. Thor Sage is convinced of it.
“I sure hope people continue to be interested in the program — if we lose those Classics, we lose the very foundation upon which our culture is built,” he said.