I am saddened to hear of the coming closure of Green Mountain College. As a former faculty member and administrator at Goddard College in Plainfield, I also mourn the stresses on other small liberal arts institutions that point toward more potential closings. The losses are not just to the business generated within rural Vermont communities, nor to the livelihoods of staff and faculty members, nor to the many students worried about how to complete their educations, important as these issues are.
These institutions represent something very special in the history of higher education in this country: personalized learning, caring relationships between faculty and students, robust intellectual culture, and a strong grounding in progressive values and the development of capacities to enact these values in public life. It’s not that a student cannot develop socially responsible ways of knowing and acting in huge impersonal universities. They can and they do (but, of course, even large institutions are in trouble now). The difference is a bit like the contrast between seeking book recommendations from your local bookstore owner who knows you and your tastes, and purchasing a book from Amazon based on their Internet Recommender algorithm. They are, at heart, very human institutions.
Given the many uncertainties about the immediate, as well as long-term, future and the interlocking crises we face (even economists, not the most radical of professions, are now warning that not addressing the climate crisis will lead to “worldwide economic collapse”), our communities need to be having broad-based, in-depth and sustained conversations about how we plan to adapt to what may be coming down the road. Small colleges are very good at strategic planning and futures-visioning, and at making the most of limited resources.
They have been doing this for a long time. They are also good at facilitating inquiry-based, collective problem-solving, grounded as most of them are in the ideas of Vermont’s philosopher of democracy, John Dewey. These institutions should be at the very center of community conversations that need to be happening, conversations where we ask ourselves tough questions like: What kind of world do we want to live in? How can we maximize Gross National Happiness rather than Gross National Product? What are the contours of a post-commodity/capitalist culture? What kind of work is worth doing? How will we care for everyone? And, most importantly, how might we get from here to there?
Small Vermont colleges are situated on stunning landscapes in gorgeous settings, in small towns with lots of character and no shortage of practical wisdom. They have the intellectual resources of libraries, equipment and people with specialized knowledge. Saving these spaces and creating stronger bonds between “town and gown” is vital. Rethinking what our communities actually need to not just survive, but thrive, in the future requires courageous vision and imagination, and the capacity for communities to think entirely differently than we have thought in the past. We need to identify new ways of assessing community health and well-being, beyond the GDP paradigm. We need to examine carefully what a “no-growth economy” might look like in our own local contexts, and what this means for local institutions. We need to entertain the development of new forms of social and economic organization — everything from cooperatives that can produce goods for genuine local needs, barter and gift economies, the strengthening of local banks, community gardens on a scale not imagined since WWII, and the widespread cultivation of the arts. Yes, these may sound like pipe dreams, given that most of us are saddled with the trappings of the wage economy: mortgages, high energy bills, credit card debt and a lifestyle centered around work — too much of it or not enough. But futurists and economists who analyze trends like the development of AI, robotics and the climate crises are warning of a future when we might not be able to take for granted “wage labor” (actually a fairly recent phenomenon in human history). On the bright side, it is altogether possible that a life with less paid work might be more pleasurable, more thoughtful, more politically engaged and more fulfilling. Our local colleges and communities should be partners in this kind of creative thinking.
I know that there are many people working on these ideas in our state. I also know that much of the good thinking is happening in the small colleges that are currently threatened with extinction, along with the monarchs, the little brown bats and the timber rattlesnake. Vermont has been very forward-thinking in its commitment to saving endangered animal species. Let’s hope that we can do similarly well with our small colleges, and retain them as crucial components of our social and intellectual ecosystem.
Kathleen Kesson is professor emerita of teaching, learning and leadership in the School of Education at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University. She is also the former director of teacher education at Goddard College, and was the founding director of the John Dewey Project on Progressive Education at the University of Vermont.