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 Fall 2011

In Print

A Glimpse of Utopia

By Walter Rybeck

book cover

Walter Rybeck, director of the Center for Public Dialogue, studied journalism, political science and economics at Antioch College. After a career in journalism as a Latin American correspondent, reporter and editorial writer, he -became assistant director of the National Commission on Urban Problems, then editorial director of the Urban Institute. He was an assistant to Congressman Henry S. Reuss of Milwaukee and William J. Coyne of Pittsburgh. This is a chapter from Re-solving the Economic Puzzle (Shepheard-Walwyn, London, 2011), available at Amazon, in which Rybeck recounts influences that led to his prescriptions for healing joblessness and other chronic economic problems.

CERTAIN TIMES AND PLACES open up vistas where life is liberating, happier and more stimulating. They give us a forecast of what society might be. Such a time and place for me was Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, after World War II.

Antioch was a blissful antidote to army life. The honor system was refreshingly civilized. Student community managers ran campus government so democracy was no mere ivory tower theory. Faculty-student work parties fostered community spirit. Without intercollegiate competition or a star system, all students enjoyed sports. The mix of backgrounds—whites, blacks, Europeans, Africans, Asians, radicals and conservatives—helped us respect and celebrate our differences. The students, mostly war veterans, were eager to make up for lost time and their hunger for learning led them to discuss the day’s lectures long into the night.

Antioch’s unique features reflected the philosophy of engineer educator Arthur E. Morgan, president emeritus during my years on campus. After a 1913 flood took hundreds of lives and caused massive damage along the Great Miami, Little Miami, and Mad Rivers of Ohio, Dayton leaders called on Morgan to prevent future disasters. His five dams were first called “Morgan’s follies” because they formed no lakes. Apertures at the bottom of the dams were large enough for normal river flow. Only when the rivers were swollen with heavy rains or snow melt were excess flows forced to back up. Strange as “dry lakes” looked, downstream cities and industries have been flood-free ever since. Morgan designed an equally unique financing plan, using a species of local land value tax with no federal funding. 

Morgan’s reputation as the country’s preeminent river valley engineer led [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt to name him as the first head of the Tennessee Valley Authority. TVA was multi-purpose, designed for power generation, navigation, and recreation as well as flood control. Morgan integrated all these features to regenerate a poverty-stricken sector of Appalachia. TVA became the New Deal’s stellar success. Morgan shifted his focus to education after one of his dam sites near Dayton required relocating and combining two towns, Fairfield and Osborn, into a new city called Fairborn. During this socially disrupting task, he found his staff well-trained technically but poorly equipped to deal with human relations. To cultivate political and social skills, Morgan conceived a novel educational approach and searched for a college to try it out. Antioch, founded in 1853 by Horace Mann, was on the market. Morgan’s innovation was the co-op or work-study program. Vocational training was a secondary goal, the primary goal being to help students understand and get involved in community life while on their jobs.

If students were to be trusted to act responsibly on jobs around the country, they needed to be able to supervise themselves off campus and on campus as well. Unlike most colleges in that era, Antioch did not act as a nanny. Hence the honor system on campus. Students bought supplies in the untended bookstore, leaving what they owed in a kitty. They set their own hours. They took open exams back in their dormitories. Founder Horace Mann had challenged Antioch students: “Be ashamed to die until you have won a victory for mankind.” Arthur Morgan challenged students to fashion society in accord with their highest goals, inspiring them to replicate the school’s mores and values. In my mind, Morgan’s eminence as social reformer and ethicist equaled his genius as an engineer.

I conspired with Kenneth Hunt, biology professor and director of Glen Helen, Antioch’s thousand-acre nature preserve. We organized Sunday morning bird walks, opened the Glen to school camping, and held nature leadership weekends for townspeople, students, and faculty.

Eating in the Kitchen

Coretta Scott was one of my closest college friends. She was an aspiring singer before she married Martin Luther King, Jr. Hearing her tell about the indignities her family suffered while she was growing up in Alabama was heartbreaking. Black churches around Ohio invited her to sing and I went along as accompanist. Mixed-race couples were seldom seen in those times. We were never physically harmed as we traveled by bus—but if looks could kill! We were relieved to reach the churches, where the audiences invariably received me with the same warmth as Coretta. 

Lest people forget the racial climate in America in the 1940s, an incident is worth recalling. I invited Coretta and two other students to an Oglebay folk dance festival in my home town, led by folk leader Jane Farwell (herself an Antioch grad and another of my role models). We arrived in Wheeling in time for dinner with my parents at the 12th Street Grill. The manager nodded toward Coretta.

“She’ll have to eat in the kitchen.”

“That’s completely unacceptable,” Dad protested.

“If it were up to me, she could join you,” he replied, seeming to forget that he was the manager as he shifted the blame. “It would upset the customers.”

Years later Coretta cited this incident in a book, saying she ate in the kitchen while the rest of us ate in the dining room. I can only guess that an editor persuaded her that this misstatement would better dramatize the evils of segregation. The truth strikes me as a better story. We phoned the festival and asked if any dinner was left. Plenty, they said, but they had just cleared the tables from the dance hall. So we drove to Oglebay Park where all of us ate in the kitchen! The folk dancers reached out to Coretta and fell in love with her, not erasing but taking the edge off the demeaning treatment she had suffered downtown.

Coincidence

One of Antioch’s all-time favorite professors, philosopher George R. Geiger, had a sparkling humor—the honey that made his medicine go down. The “medicines” were his probing questions about the meaning of life and taking responsibility. Later, when I was a reporter in Columbus and took a Henry George class, I learned to my surprise that Geiger’s father, Oscar H. Geiger, had founded the Henry George School and that Prof. Geiger himself had written The Philosophy of Henry George, a gem of a book highly praised by John Dewey and written fifteen years before I was in Geiger’s class.

I went back to campus to ask Geiger why he never mentioned this in his courses. Henry George, he told me, was so derided in the 1930s that philosophy societies blackballed Geiger for promoting George’s ideas. He said he did not abandon his views of social justice, but he very consciously took care not to cite Henry George.

I also learned that his interest in philosophy, as well as in Shakespeare and the theater (he was an accomplished amateur actor), was spurred by his father. During his high school years, Oscar Geiger organized a literary club for his son and some of his bright buddies. Several in this circle achieved fame, including Harry Golden, editor of the Carolina Israelite, a quirky but widely read small newspaper, and author of Only in America. I was able to locate eight members of that group and help set up a reunion. After that, Geiger lost his reticence about Henry George. When our paths crossed, he would press me, “Are we making progress with the land tax?”

Transradio Press

I got fired from my first co-op job, at Transradio Press in New York. TP had grown rapidly during the war years with its one brilliant idea. Other press services were adhering to an old journalism formula, telling the whole story in the first paragraph. Radio announcers turned purple trying to read who, what, where, when, why, and how in one breath. TP came to their rescue, writing the news in short punchy sentences.

That smart idea was too easily copied. When I arrived as a TP copy boy, I was unaware that the United Press and Associated Press had installed their own broadcast divisions, adopting TP’s style to win back radio clients. I thought it was my brilliant writing that led the editor, after my very first week, to invite me to become night editor. That meant rewriting each day’s late news to make it sound fresh for morning broadcasts. I asked if I could start a week later while I crammed on the national and international news that I had lost touch with during my war years and while on campus. He agreed. Yet two days later, perhaps frustrated by his rapidly sinking ship, he fired me. That did not hurt as much as his parting shot: “You’re not cut out for journalism.” TP went out of business a few months later.

I quickly found an office typing job until it was time to return to campus. Getting fired early in my career turned out to be liberating. My world, I soon realized, had not collapsed. Thus, in later jobs, I never worried that I had to shave my convictions for the sake of my livelihood.

A Very Different New York City

It now seems like a fantasy. I often went to an eatery near TP called the Exchange Club. On the way out, a cashier by the door asked us what we had eaten and rang up the charges on his cash register. In midtown Manhattan this busy restaurant operated on the honor system. Ah, 1947!

Antioch demonstrated the potency of vision. The college I knew was very much the reflection of the vision of Arthur Morgan. Without vision, civilizations decline; with it, they can progress.