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July 23, 2008 6:55 PM   Subscribe

What are some of the more radical, yet reputable, universities in the United States?

What are some universities in United States that encourage a culture of radical intellectualism? To be precise, I mean ones that promote or even encourage research and development of ideas that are unconventional, potential controversial, and likely to be found no where else.

I'm looking for those places of education that attract the most pure thinkers - educators and students that thrive by living on the edge of knowledge, uninterested in contemplating the usual paths. Although they may be fearless and provocative, they still employ rigorous and credible standards of research.

Of course this is an ideal portrait, and likely non-existent. But which universities even come close?
posted by brandnew to Education (48 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
That seems to be Wesleyan's goal. I don't know what their research reputation is, or if their professors are as radical as their students.
posted by null terminated at 7:02 PM on July 23, 2008

The University of Chicago.
Reed? St. John's?
posted by phunniemee at 7:02 PM on July 23, 2008

The New School?

From their history

The University in Exile was founded in 1933 as a graduate division of the New School for Social Research, to be a haven for scholars who had been dismissed from teaching positions by totalitarian regimes in Europe.

posted by jourman2 at 7:02 PM on July 23, 2008

Reed. Evergreen. Harvey Mudd.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:06 PM on July 23, 2008

Oberlin College, New School, Hampshire College, Earlham College.

Antioch College would be on the top of my list, but they (temporarily?) closed last year.
posted by jk252b at 7:07 PM on July 23, 2008

The New School, in my experience, is not extremely rigorous.
posted by softsantear at 7:10 PM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Antioch is is the first thing that pops into my head. Alas, they recently closed, and plan to reopen in four years.

Berkeley has a reputation as being rather unconventional.
posted by CrunchyFrog at 7:10 PM on July 23, 2008

Evergreen in Olympia?
posted by Beardman at 7:10 PM on July 23, 2008

Berea College in Kentucky.

Also, Grinnell College in Iowa - whose endowment/investment approach, ironically, is the polar opposite of Berea's.
posted by webhund at 7:14 PM on July 23, 2008

I would suggest looking at the list of "colleges that change lives," plus places like Deep Springs and Berea.
posted by Forktine at 7:16 PM on July 23, 2008

There might be some disagreement about whether places like Evergreen and Bard qualify as rigorous.

Similarly, there might be some disagreement about whether, say, MIT, Stanford, Harvard or Yale actually encourage radical intellectualism.
posted by box at 7:18 PM on July 23, 2008

Olin, if you're looking for an engineering school.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 7:18 PM on July 23, 2008

Hampshire College in western MA?
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 7:20 PM on July 23, 2008

Seconding (thirding?) Reed and Hampshire.
posted by gudrun at 7:21 PM on July 23, 2008

OP, you asked for universities, which, to me, implies graduate students and a lot of profs who are often oriented towards research first.

Many of the answers are for liberal arts colleges, which tend to be teaching oriented, have small or non-existant graduate programs, and have faculty that are teaching oriented. Do they fill the bill too?
posted by Good Brain at 7:22 PM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Deep Springs is what popped into my head first.
posted by sad_otter at 7:23 PM on July 23, 2008

BTW, is this question prompted by some recent links on Kottke?
posted by Good Brain at 7:24 PM on July 23, 2008

The New School for Social Research is not the same thing as The New School, which comprises eight different colleges, including the New School for Social Research, Parsons, two music schools, and a business school. I've only had experience in the philosophy department at the NSSR, but the professors I've had are amazingly sharp critical thinkers who are at the same time deeply excited by the pursuit of new ideas. It can be a bit crippling at times, because I want to write really exciting papers but feel that I have to do at least two years worth of research per semester in order to be up to snuff on all the background stuff. (As the student advisor said to the incoming class before mine, you start out behind, you stay behind, you leave behind, and you die behind.) So maybe other departments and schools are different, but mine I would characterize as extremely rigorous.

St. John's, on the other hand—my undergraduate institution—is certainly unconventional, but it would be a stretch to say that it's interested in research in anything like a rigorous or conventional sense. I didn't cite a single secondary source until I got to graduate school—which is not a slight to St. John's, at least not in my book, but may be one in yours if you're interested in usual research standards.
posted by felix grundy at 7:25 PM on July 23, 2008

Here's my ordering of universities above (went to U Chicago, looked at some of the others): Deep Springs, Hampshire, Harvey Mudd, U Chicago, Reed. Don't know much about Berea or Olin. Deep Springs is an insanely crazy (in a good way) place. I loved my experience at U Chicago. While there were people thinking conventional things (mostly these were econ undergrads who wanted to go on to consulting), the students there were very very interested in their particular thing. I hear that it's the school that has the largest percentage go on to PhDs, if that means anything to you.

The question about "unconventional thinking" makes me wonder what ends you would think would be east conventional? For example: the most graduates go on to become politicians (yale)? Probably not. The most graduates go on to start companies (?) Still no. At least the PhDs are thinking deep thoughts and maybe, if they're really lucky, starting their own fields. But that's not satisfying because PhDs are still "in the system," even if it's a different system.
posted by zpousman at 7:29 PM on July 23, 2008

posted by whimsicalnymph at 7:41 PM on July 23, 2008

Response by poster: Very interesting responses so far, thanks. And, wow, you guys are so superfast!

Surprisingly many of the web sites so far have been rather lackluster, though. I guess I was expecting more vibrant, or at least innovative, web presences from these edge cases.

[Good Brian] - not kottke, specifically, but I was just reading this, which had appeared on the popular feed.

I've always thought about going back to get a career-changing 2nd degree. If I ever get motivated, I want those few years to stretch my mind and hurt as much as possible.
posted by brandnew at 7:42 PM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: And, btw - I'm not sure what exactly distinguishes a college from a university, but imo any post-secondary learning institution would work
posted by brandnew at 7:43 PM on July 23, 2008

The University of California at Santa Cruz. More than any of the other UC's, even Berkeley. Their History of Consciousness program pretty much fills your bill. Angela Davis is there, as is Donna Haraway. As are a ton of other people whose names you might not know, but who are either seen as radical progressives or radical/dangerous, depending on your politics.
posted by Beckminster at 7:49 PM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've always thought about going back to get a career-changing 2nd degree. If I ever get motivated, ...

A lot of the places being suggested (Reed, Deep Springs, etc) are most emphatically not set up for the late-in-life mind expander student. You get maybe one or so a year second-time-around-people enrolling, but the student body at those places is overwhelmingly young, and the few people who aren't young are getting their first degree. (They often have a story like, started college in 1962 but had to drop out because of draft-dodging/childrearing/got lost and have always wanted to come back for the degree Far, far more homogeneous (in terms of age and previous educational experience) than the student body at your nearby state university.

I think that narrowing your question to places that are mind-opening but with an educational mission aimed at older and second-degree students would produce a rather different list, with a lot more graduate departments at elite universities and fewer liberal arts colleges.
posted by Forktine at 7:53 PM on July 23, 2008

There are an awful lot of MeFites who went to Hampshire, including me. Even though the place is different from when it started and different from when I went there even, I think that their approach to academics was really different from any other place where I knew people except maybe Evergreen.

Keep in mind that websites of pretty much any academic higher ed places have to fit into a pretty narrow vision -- must appeal to parents and donors as well as students, need to cover some pretty fixed material, etc -- so just because their educational approach is alternative, their web presence is more likely to fit their business model which is a different thing altogether. Hampshrie's intranet was interesting, if I recall correctly, but their website sucks just as much as all the others.

Regarding your future schooling. Evergreen is a state college. If you move to Washington state and become a resident [a one year endeavor] you can pay in-state tuition which is far and away cheaper than any other university place unless you get a free ride to Cooper Union. Unless you're independently wealthy, your earning potential coming out of a hippie school is unlikely to offset the extre cash it costs to go to one.

For the record, when I was looking at colleges, I also looked at Bennington, Middlebury, Oberlin, Wesleyan and the New School. Not all radical by far but definitely along a similar spectrum.
posted by jessamyn at 7:55 PM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I just got off the phone with a friend who is on the faculty of Colorado College. She describes it as a lot like Reed without the angst. So that's one more school to look into.

I know some absolutely brilliant, radical thinkers who are very proud to call SUNY Binghamton their alma mater. They're blue-collar, class-conscious kids who found their intellectual community in a public university. Unlike their peers at Reed, Yale and Sarah Lawrence, they didn't feel like oddities for not graduating from Exeter or having two college professor parents. They weren't the only poor kid. Same for UMass Amherst.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 8:03 PM on July 23, 2008

I'd suggest, in some ways, MIT and Caltech (alongside the more above-mentioned liberal arts schools like Oberlin, the University of Chicago, etc. Not so coincidentally, these were all schools I considered attending.) They are somewhat big names, yes, but the type of intellectualism - within and without the classroom and the lab - is very different from Harvard/Yale/Stanford/etc. I'd argue that you can see the sort of radical intellectualism in undergraduate life: the desire to build, learn, and create, often in idiosyncratic ways. There are still the "usual paths" (as there are at almost any university) but for the intellectual pursuit of science and engineering, there are few universities that provide the sort of freethinking mindset (and resources) that places like MIT and Caltech have.
posted by ubersturm at 8:04 PM on July 23, 2008

Of the places named above, St John's College (Annapolis/New Mexico) also has a Masters degree program in the Great Books that mirrors somewhat it's undergraduate curriculum but for second degree students.
posted by Jahaza at 8:06 PM on July 23, 2008

From the Deep Springs College Webpage:

Are there other colleges like Deep Springs?

Deep Springs is unique in the nature and extent of its commitment to the principle of student self-governance, the integrity of labor to the program, and the high quality of academics. However, there are a number of other schools that share the values of high student involvement, experiential learning, a relatively small size, and close student-faculty cooperation. You might want to look at Antioch College in Ohio, Berea College in Kentucky, the College of the Atlantic in Maine, the Evergreen State College in Washington, Prescott College in Arizona, Shimer College in Illinois, Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, and Western Washington University’s Fairhaven College.

posted by dkleinst at 8:14 PM on July 23, 2008

On the right side of the spectrum: Hampden-Sydney College and Patrick Henry College and Saint John's College in Maryland.

Naropa University should be well up there.

Of the places named above, St John's College (Annapolis/New Mexico) also has a Masters degree program in the Great Books that mirrors somewhat it's undergraduate curriculum but for second degree students.

Having gone to my cousin's graduation from SJC last year and meeting the only MA student on campus, I was pretty convinced that the masters program at the school is a complete and total joke. His description of work was 'holding the spigot at keggers'. It's not nearly as comprehensive an experience as the undergraduate program. Since SJC takes people who have already done a BA for their BA program, that's the one I would choose to do.

However, if I had the money and time, I would go to a BA at Bennington College.
posted by parmanparman at 8:19 PM on July 23, 2008

The difference between a college and a university is that colleges are strictly for the education of undergraduates, and universities offer postgraduate programs. (This is complicated somewhat by the schools - like Boston College - who call themselves colleges while they are, in fact, universities).
If you're looking for for a politically radical place that welcomes adult learners, you might want to check out UMass Amherst, where the economics department is run by Marxists. Marxists! They also offer a master's degree in Labor Studies, and an undergraduate major in Social Thought and Political Economy that's basically a BA in lefty thought and activism. UMass has a lot to recommend it, and if you're looking for radical - it's full of professors who are defiantly and unfashionably old school in their radical politics.
posted by moxiedoll at 8:32 PM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Bard College definitely fits your initial description, other than not being a university. and has some interesting Masters programs and some other branch schools--teaching in prisons, a nyc highschool, etc.
posted by beckish at 8:44 PM on July 23, 2008

warren wilson

they are known for their writing program.

this is a tough question, because while there is a lot of radicalism that goes on at liberal arts colleges, like bennington, for example, they are also usually private and therefore have a high price tag therefore can become a drop off place for the slacker/drug addled children of rich people. bennington has this reputation, although i think it is changing/they are trying to change it these days. that said, i would have LOVED to have gone there but the tuition was just too high. martha graham started the dance program there, nuff said.

while i respect a lot of professed radical thinkers and activists who i went to school with/had as professors, i am always suspect of any "radical" community which consists largely of a certain class/race (usually middle/upper class, usually white). a college is often still just a college, football team and alumni banquet dinners and all.

on that note, my alma mater, macalester college in st. paul, mn might be considered radical by some. they have no graduate programs, though.
posted by dahliachewswell at 8:49 PM on July 23, 2008

Sterling College in Vermont is pretty far off the beaten path.
posted by paperzach at 9:13 PM on July 23, 2008

George Mason University has a pretty radical libertarian bent, at least in its economics department.
posted by champthom at 9:47 PM on July 23, 2008

I have serious doubts about whether U Chicago would count as radical intellectualism.
posted by katemonster at 9:47 PM on July 23, 2008

Just a second vote for UC Santa Cruz, which is the kind of place where you can create your own independent/individual major if you can convince a team of faculty and your advisors to supervise and support you. The existence of the program alone seems to say to me that students have a far wider berth of independence than they would at a more conventional place; though few students graduate with such a major, it's a major mark of pride for the institution, I think. The above link has a focus on East Asian studies for some reason, but essentially, if you can envision a way to plan it out and complete it, you can do it. Here's a student who created an independent major profiled on the website.
posted by mdonley at 10:06 PM on July 23, 2008

Princeton. Any university that gives Peter Singer a job is radical.

Along the lines of what you're looking for, nthing Deep Springs and Reed. Also, possibly Berea and College of the Ozarks. St. John's (in NM and MD).
posted by Autarky at 10:11 PM on July 23, 2008

i am always suspect of any "radical" community which consists largely of a certain class/race (usually middle/upper class, usually white). a college is often still just a college, football team and alumni banquet dinners and all.

QFT. I can't tell by your question if this sort of thing matters to you, but be careful if it does. I have a few friends who were motivated to attend the colleges listed above for reasons similar to yours, and once there became a little disillusioned with the overwhelmingly homogeneous student body (privileged trustafarians).

Some it didn't bother at all. All of them are still having a good experience AFAIK.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:38 PM on July 23, 2008

UC Santa Cruz is a great suggestion. I'm a graduate and I actually got to take a 20 person class with Angela Davis. Angela fucking Davis! C'mon now. Also, good on Beckminster for dropping Donna Haraway. If you don't know about her, look her up she's quite the trip.

That said, they're HisCon and you can't major in HisCon as an undergrad. In fact, to get the sort of education you're looking for could take rather more work than it could at a smaller school like Reed.

Also, look at Reed. Reed is a damn good school and I was a crotch-hair away from going there and it sounds right up your alley. But still...Angela Davis...that's tough to beat.
posted by Doublewhiskeycokenoice at 11:36 PM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Goucher College in Maryland.
posted by arianell at 12:24 AM on July 24, 2008

I recently read that U Chicago has produced more Nobel laureates than any other institution if that means anything.
posted by PenDevil at 6:57 AM on July 24, 2008

regarding parmanparman's comment about St. John's as a postgraduate institution:

When I was an undergraduate, we all seemed to share the sense that the GIs (graduate institute students) were second class citizens at St. John's. Their program was shorter, it was arranged thematically rather than chronologically, and, perhaps most importantly, didn't seem to be as life-absorbing, since it met less frequently. (Quite a bit of the St. John's experience, for me, was the tiny claustrophobic fishbowl of campus life.) The GIs just seemed like dilettantes, floating on the surface next to our total immersion.

But then, at a conference at Villanova, I ran into some guys who had been GIs while I was in undergrad, and I ended up sitting with them at dinner. We discussed our relative perceptions of the others' experience, and they said that they had always felt that the full program was wasted on our callow youth, and that the GIs were the serious ones at St. John's.

So holding the tap at the kegger is not the only graduate experience. And the GI program does have great teachers. It certainly isn't a joke. But I stand by my undergraduate sentiment that they aren't absorbed into an entire lifestyle in the same way that we were (a sentiment that was corraborated by a different GI I spoke to briefly my junior year, who was jealous of our different experience). And I still think that the structure of the BA program is better than the MA one.

However! There were only a few older students in the BA program. Most had taken some time off or transferred from different colleges and had had to begin again as freshmen. And they seemed a bit isolated, and no doubt found their younger, more naive counterparts rather infuriating at times. If you get a BA, you're going to have to talk about justice and the good with people who make non-arguments based on personal sentiment, who haven't yet learned to argue in any other way (and may not learn in all four years, in my experience), who don't have the patience or the projective imagination to think about other points of view. Eighteen year olds may be unbearable, despite the attraction of the undergraduate program.

Also, St. John's is not a career-changing experience, probably, insofar as it hardly seems to prepare you for anything career oriented. Most of the people I graduated with (2003) are still kind of figuring out what to do with a BA in Philosophy and the History of Math and Science, and those of us who aren't flailing around have mostly gone back to school to do something more specific.
posted by felix grundy at 7:04 AM on July 24, 2008

Don't overlook Marlboro College.
posted by dpcoffin at 10:33 AM on July 24, 2008

Oberlin. Phenomenal undergraduate education; world class music conservator; history of civil disobedience, liberal politics, and social justice.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 2:39 PM on July 24, 2008

'i am always suspect of any "radical" community which consists largely of a certain class/race (usually middle/upper class, usually white). a college is often still just a college, football team and alumni banquet dinners and all.'

'QFT. I can't tell by your question if this sort of thing matters to you, but be careful if it does. I have a few friends who were motivated to attend the colleges listed above for reasons similar to yours, and once there became a little disillusioned with the overwhelmingly homogeneous student body (privileged trustafarians).'

This was definitely true of Reed when I was there ten years ago, aside from the sports. Lots of rich white fucks who thought they knew something about the world. Not that I did either ... but at least I wasn't only going to school because I needed to have a degree before I'd get my trust fund checks. On the bright side, those kids threw awesome parties.
posted by liet at 7:59 PM on July 24, 2008

I graduated from Reed in the early 90's, and I've kept up with the college as a volunteer.

When I was there, there were some pretty well off students. Knowing people who couldn't conceive of actually having to get a summer job, rather than travel in europe, for financial reasons was an small education in and of itself, but I would hardly consider it a defining characteristic of my education there, and, for the most part, I wouldn't consider the only notable "bright side" of their presence to be the parties they threw. There were wankers from across a range of social backgrounds, but there were few people I'd consider intellectually lazy. Since then I've met a lot of current students and recent grads, and it don't see reason to believe that things are significantly different now.

That isn't to say that I don't think it would be good for everyone involved if Reed were more diverse (and by most measures, it's more diverse than when I was there), but this isn't unique to Reed, or even all the small liberal arts colleges who have neither the national brand name, nor the huge endowment that allows the to compete aggressively for academically qualified students outside of the educated middle class. And frankly, I'm concerned that Reed's growing national reputation may be bringing an applicant pool that is crowding out the brilliant freaks that used to find fertile ground there.

Still, I don't think I'd recommend it for a second degree, though it does have a very small masters program.
posted by Good Brain at 12:41 PM on August 2, 2008

Go to your local state university. There are more radicals to be found in your state university's student body of immigrants, hicks, veterans, prodigies, and pensioners than you could ever find in a liberal arts schools' homogeneous mush of kids from middle and upper-middle class households with no life experience and nothing to talk about.

A uniquely radical college education is a worthy goal to strive for, but I don't believe it's attainable at any of the schools I know well.

(I'm somewhat bitter after my own experience as a child of an upper-middle class household with no life experience at a so-called "radical" liberal arts college that has been mentioned in this thread. I think a state university would have served me better.)
posted by miyabo at 10:20 PM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

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