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Goddard College

08/01/02 12:00AM By Tom Slayton
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(Host) Commentator Tom Slayton has some thoughts on the decision to close down resident undergraduate programs at Goddard.

Goddard College changed Vermont and made it a better, more diverse, more interesting place. That's why there has been no small amount of grieving, both public and private, since the college's Board of Trustees voted in June to discontinue the undergraduate resident program that has been the heart of the small liberal arts college since 1938.

Goddard itself will continue to exist, but, unless things change pretty drastically, the program that established Goddard and transformed Vermont in the process, is over.

Goddard brought social diversity and urban sophistication to the little town of Plainfield intellectuals, blacks, Asians, the arts, good bagels and a variety of city influences that would have found their way here eventually anyway but came to Vermont earlier and more emphatically because of Goddard.

Not that the change happened without distrust and conflict. Though established by a native Vermonter, Royce Pitkin of Marshfield, who designed the school to follow the educational principles of John Dewey, Goddard by the 1950s had established a reputation as a haven of leftist radicals, and that earned it jibes and some hostility from many conservative Vermonters. One new arrival at the school recalled that the taxi driver who drove her there pointed out the school as they approached. "There is it," he said. "Little Moscow on the hill."

But Vermont then, as Vermont today, was a tolerant place mostly and the fertile social mix Goddard attracted was more than simply accepted by Vermont. It also fascinated, and influenced the people already here, much as any college does.

And that influence continues today. Goddard alumni have built businesses, enriched the art scene, even influenced the diet of central Vermonters. From Jules Rabin's crusty sourdough bread to the revitalizing change brought to the staid Shelburne Museum by its Goddard-educated president, Hope Alswang, virtually no aspect of life in this area has been unaffected by Goddard, its teachers, and graduates.

Not all that Goddard brought was wonderful. Drugs were a major fact of life on campus from time to time, especially in the 1970s, and the internecine politics of the campus itself could be vicious and depressing. But Goddard brought new ideas to American higher education, and many of those ideas such as work as a form of learning, and more student choice in designing their own curricula have become incorporated into schools and colleges across the U.S.

Though small, Goddard was vigorous and vital. It gave Vermont where non-conformity has always flourished a vision of an intellectual road less traveled when Vermont needed it most. It created, in the heart of the Green Mountains, a place where ideas could flourish freely. And none of us have been quite the same, ever since.

Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and is the editor of Vermont Life Magazine.
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