Mark O'Maley: Unification is needed to stabilize progressive education

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As a dyslexic who has thrived in progressive, student centered degree programs — my Bachelors degree is from the University of Massachusetts Amherst's University Without Walls program, and my Master of Fine Arts from Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont — and as someone who has taught in progressive colleges including Bennington and Marlboro Colleges — as well as serving on the faculties of Franklin Pierce University, University of Colorado Boulder, and Rutgers University — I have followed the proposed "merger" of Marlboro and Emerson colleges with great interest and frustration. My interest is not in the survival of Marlboro College on Potash Hill, but rather in the survival of student centered, self directed progressive education and of "plain living and hard thinking" — as Goddard's founder Royce "Tim" Pitkin was fond of saying — here in Vermont.

In his Nov. 18 open letter to the Marlboro College community published in the Reformer, Will Wootten urges the continued working and fighting for the survival of the college on Potash Hill. But I have to ask, what's the point of each small Vermont based progressive institution fighting for individual survival when progressive education — with its students, faculties, and staffs — would be best served by the schools joining forces to create a strong unified school here in Vermont? Benjamin Franklin hits the nail on the head, saying "We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately." The survival of the ideals of John Locke, Maxine Greene, John Dewey, William Kilpatrick and Evalyn Bates are clearly more important than any individual institution's survival.

Our brave little state has been home to several pioneering educational institutions such as Goddard, Marlboro, Bennington, Green Mountain and Sterling Colleges, along with the already closed Burlington College — most which have teetered on the brink of closing at one point or another over the decades. Right or wrong, it's in each school's DNA. Pitkin thought endowments created lazy administrations, while taking away from the plain living and hard thinking. Student centered education and the very students it is supposed to serve now pay the price for that stance, paired with bloated administrations and a shrinking pool of college age students. But as Marlboro College shows us — endowments don't necessarily save schools either.

Vermont's progressive colleges have been experimental leaders who have greatly informed educational practices throughout the United States and beyond, some as part of the original Union for Experimenting Colleges & Universities, which helped found programs such as the University of Massachusetts Amherst's wildly successful University Without Walls program in traditional research universities around the country. I do believe progressive colleges in some cases such as Marlboro, have lost their way from their original founding ideals and their student bodies, closing themselves off from prospective students and shrinking their enrollments. We have lost Green Mountain College already — along with the more traditional Southern Vermont and St. Joseph's Colleges — and now face the loss of Marlboro, and all the jobs that go along with those schools. It is said that education is one of Vermont's largest employers — 16,000 students, 4,300 staff and faculty jobs equaling $484 million in salaries according to The Rutland Herald —but surely at this loss rate that won't be true for long. It pains me to say that Goddard is probably not too far behind in closing, and is Bennington as secure as one might think? I do not believe so. Bennington needs roughly 775 students to break even, and currently enrollment sits around 735 according to U.S. News & World Report. Tiny Sterling College currently seems to have the smartest financial plans of any of the small progressive Vermont schools.

The possibilities of a united progressive college made up of the best residential and low residency degree programs from Marlboro, Goddard, Bennington, Green Mountain, Sterling and Vermont College of the Fine Arts, with the best of the faculty and staff from each school, far outweigh each institution's individual survival and "legacy" desires. There are thousands of acres and countless facilities that could be sold and the income used to make progressive education stable here in Vermont for generations to come. This could also be smart community planning in the towns with the re-use of the campuses. Of course the loss of a local campus is painful, but more painful than losing all the progressive and small colleges outright? How could the University of Vermont, University of Northern Vermont, Community College of Vermont, or Castleton University be part of housing a progressive institution within a traditional college/university and the many benefits such an arrangement could offer students of both types of institutions? Middlebury, Champlain and Saint Mike's colleges? You have scratch in this game as well. What about nearby pioneering Hampshire College just down the road, which is also facing a murky future? How could it join forces with progressive Vermont schools? How could Putney's Landmark College play a role (I ask as an alumni of the Landmark School in Massachusetts) — after all, student centered education is custom built for those with learning differences. There are so many more options for the likes of Marlboro College instead of just giving away its history, name, endowment and campus to a Boston based school while turning its back on Vermont.

To me, progressive education is supposed to be about a legacy of doing what is right by and for each individual student. So, would not a united, egalitarian and progressive educational institution here in Vermont be exactly what is needed as we hurdle towards the 22nd century — instead of being left with nothing as each school fails separately and closes?

What's more important: the education or the institution?

Mark O'Maley writes from Wilmington. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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