Student Review of the Goddard Graduate Institute

by Eric Van Horn


I will begin with the punchline, and then you can read the details if you like.

I did one semester at the Goddard Graduate Institute in the fall of 2020. It was not only the worst educational experience of my life, it was one of the worst experiences of my life.

To give you a little background, I have my BA from Goddard. I graduated in 1973. I remember my time as an undergraduate at Goddard to have been generally positive, and I was always proud to have graduated from there. I went on to have a successful career as a software engineer. I retired in 2011.

Being a software engineer during that particular time, I had to be a lifelong learner. When I started my career in 1978, there were no software engineering programs. Everyone was pretty much self-taught. This famously includes people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Over the years, I attended dozens of workshops on technical subjects, business, and management. I taught myself many new technologies by reading lengthy books. (We used to joke at one job I had that every time a new technology came out, we had to read another thousand-page book.) I also wrote user guides, and I did a lot of teaching and training. I think I know something about how people learn and how to convey complex information.

My second love in life is Buddhism. I started meditating in 1991. When I retired, it was my plan to devote the rest of my life to my Buddhist practice. Happily, I have done this. Along the way I have become fluent in the Buddhist canonical literature, and I have written a number of books on Buddhist practice.

In 2020 I took a long, hard look at what I had done. While I felt that the books I had written were OK, I also felt that I could reformulate them in a radically different but more coherent way. The plan was to come up with a series of three books that covered beginning, intermediate, and advanced Buddhist practice. There would also be a fourth book that would be an expanded and re-edited biography of the Buddha I had written some years earlier.

Along the way I got the idea to use this project for a Master’s Degree. To that end I created an independent study proposal that I submitted to Goddard.

Almost from the beginning I felt like I was treated rudely and disrespectfully by the Goddard staff. There was one person in particular—who shall remain nameless—who led the way. And while I may be jumping to conclusions, I felt at times that—Goddard being Goddard—I was being badly treated because I am an old, white male. It was somewhat jarring. I belong to a Buddhist community where the motto is, “Make peace. Be kind. Be gentle.” And because Buddhism is rooted in Asian culture, older people are treated with great respect. Admittedly, I live a somewhat sheltered existence. But I was often shocked at how rudely I was treated. Buddhist or not, I always try and treat people with kindness and respect.

The Goddard technical systems were awful. Every time I had to enter something into their Student Information System (SIS), I cringed. In a day and age when teenagers in Korea are posting professional quality videos to TikTok, we were given videos that were unwatchable and where the audio was so bad you could not understand anything being said. Even scanned documents were sometimes blurred so badly you could not read them. After a career in the private sector, I was appalled at the poor quality standards. Training materials in the private sector are slick and professional.

Everything at Goddard was woefully inefficient. I presented my entire study plan six or seven times. The orientation was awful. It took us an entire week to get an answer to the question, “What do I need to do in order to get credit for the semester?” Students kept asking this question, over and over. I discovered—on my own—that there was a student handbook. This unannounced but crucial guide starts by saying that students were responsible for everything in it. It is 80 pages long. No one ever told me about it much less went over it with us. Really?

If I were running an orientation, I would start with basic information. First of all, I would want to know who everyone was at the college and what their role was. This never happened. I was always guessing at who people were.

Next I would want to know the structure of the semester. This happened… sort of… but only very late in the game, and even this was incomplete. Some of it we had to figure out on our own.

I would want to know the requirements for graduation. This never happened. I only found this out in the student handbook. This included a critical piece of information, and that was that a graduate was expected to go to Plainfield, Vermont on the semester after completing the requirements for graduation and give a presentation. I live in New Mexico. One of the students was from Japan. To be fair, apparently arrangements could be made to do this remotely, but no guidance was given on how to do this.

It was the worst orientation I have ever been a part of. The presentations were poor. They never covered what you really needed to know. And I was not even sure why any of the presentations were included or how they were relevant to me. (Hint: They weren’t.) They had a silly party at the end that seemed juvenile and sophomoric. I have a rule in my life. Don’t waste my time. The orientation was a complete waste of time.

And while I am jumping ahead a little, over the course of the semester the message I got was this: “We are the faculty, and you are a student. We are in charge. You have to do what we want, and you are on your own. Don’t expect much help or support from us. Figure it out.” One of the most basic principles of good management is that people know what is expected of them.

For the first semester, I had to complete two tasks. The first was to take a course called “How to be a graduate student.” It was a complete waste of time, and it took a lot of time. It is a six-week course. Each week you have to do some postings, and you have to respond to other people’s postings. On two of the six weeks, because of Goddard’s technical problems, my postings were never properly posted. They were posted in one place, but that wasn’t the place where the teacher was looking.

One week the topic was critical thinking. I spent my entire career solving problems, and I cannot remember a single useful thing about critical thinking that was presented during the entire week.

In brief, I could have taught this course, and it would have been infinitely better.

My second task was the first book in the three-book series. It is called “Foundations of the Buddha’s Path.” The way Goddard is structured, you break your work into five submissions spaced more or less equally throughout the semester. So that is what I did. I broke the book into five parts.

As I mentioned, I have published a number of books over the years. My reviews on Amazon are all—with one exception—four or five stars.

Yet when I got my first feedback from my advisor, his feedback was damning and negative. He didn’t have a single nice thing to say about anything I had written. To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement. It seemed clear to me that my advisor was clueless. He had no idea what I was doing or why I was doing it.

To (try to) be fair, I went back and looked in detail at what he had written. It was all vague generalities. There was not a single specific comment that I could use to improve what I was doing. What is worse is that it was seven pages of rambling nonsense. It went on and on and on, and it basically said nothing.

Now let me backtrack for a moment. Goddard—for reasons that escape me—prides itself on the quantity of comments that you get. The emphasis is on volume. This does not make any sense to me. I also have an artistic interest, and I have an artist friend from whom I ask for advice from time to time. What I appreciate about her advice is that—while I know she could go on for hours on any topic—she never does that. She tells me the one or two things I need to hear at that time to improve my work.

My advisor at Goddard did just the opposite. He gave me pages and pages of feedback, but none of it had any substance. None of it was of any value.

When I reflected back later, I came to the conclusion that because Goddard emphasizes quantity over quality, that is exactly what he did. In order to satisfy the requirements of his employer, over the years he had come up with a way of providing many pages of vague, general comments. I got the feeling that he was giving basically the same feedback to a lot of people.

My daughter, who has an MA in writing and is quite familiar with the competitive, academic environment, also thought that he may have felt threatened by me. I am quite accomplished in my topic. His specialty—altered states of consciousness—is somewhat related to mine. But I clearly knew many times more about it than he did. That would have been fine if he had acknowledged that and shown some respect for my work.

One of the worst wastes of time for me was the bibliography and references. My writing is extensively referenced. Goddard required one of the standard types of referencing, like APA, CMOS, etc. I use my own modified APA styles because I think they are clearer, more user friendly, and also because they are part of the narrative. I spent three entire weeks doing nothing but converting to pure APA styles, all of which I eventually threw away. (I even sent in two requests to their writing lab for help. I never heard back from them. As far as I could tell, their writing lab was a black hole. Requests went in, but they never came out.) OK. Maybe you can argue that point. Most graduate programs require a standard style. But it still was many dozens of hours of useless, wasted effort. It may have met the requirements of the school, but it did nothing to help me. And the way I looked at it, I was the paying customer.

(While this is a rich topic and not one for this context, my quibble with traditional style guides is that they are rooted in the print world. I work mainly in the world of the web and eBooks, and I think that traditional styles guides do a poor job in those contexts.)

By the time I got my second set of feedback from him, it was clear that I had made a huge mistake. It was just more of the same. Sadly, he took so long to respond to my submission that it was too late for me to get any of my tuition money back.

Now you may ask—rightfully so—how do I know that I was submitting high quality work? Well, when I realized I would get nothing from Goddard and my advisor, I hired professional editors. It is a company called “Elite Authors.” They were wonderful to work with. They gave me feedback that was almost the complete opposite of what I got from my advisor. They were positive and enthusiastic about my project. I was a little concerned about having editors who knew nothing about Buddhism. But it turned out that they understood what I had written and what I was doing better than my advisor did. Some of this material is quite complex, so this told me that I was doing a good job with my explanations. In fact, one editor was almost too enthusiastic about my work (!).

Further, their feedback was entirely specific. Every single comment was something that helped me improve what I was doing. They gave me both editorial comments—which are sort of overall impressions—as well as proofreading line by line. It was exquisite, and it gave me back confidence in what I was doing. In one case they pointed out a technique I was using that they found quite effective. I was only vaguely aware that I was doing this. And because they pointed it out, I consciously used it from then on. It greatly enhanced the quality of the final product, and it made a fundamental change in how I approach my writing.

I did finish the semester. When I wrote my review—one that was somewhat gentler than this one—I expected to hear back from someone, anyone, but I never did. I even sent a copy of my review to the college president. I never heard from him, either. This would never happen in the private sector. A good business makes sure that unhappy customers are always responded to. Even if you can’t give people what they want, everyone wants to feel heard. You treat people with respect.

So I gave Goddard a check for $10,000 and it was nothing but a monumental waste of time and money. The good news is that—being freed from the shackles of the Goddard Graduate Institute—I did finish all four books. I published them in May of 2021. The eBook versions are available for free from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the Apple Store, and others. Enjoy.

Goddard seems stuck in the time when I got my BA, circa 1973. First of all, to be an educational institution in this century, you have to be technically savvy. And everything you do has to be professional, of high quality, and slick. You don’t want to be a graduate school that can’t come up to the standards of a TikTok teenager.

You also have to realize that the days of the patronizing and dismissive treatment of students are over. This isn’t the Middle Ages. Colleges and universities are desperate for students. It is a competitive market. Educational institutions are closing in droves. A college is now a service organization. It is no longer some paternalistic organization where the college requires whatever it wants and the students are forced to meekly comply.

Goddard does none of this. Both technically and educationally they are mired in the past. Their standards are… well… it does not seem to me that they even have standards. No matter what you want to study, you can surely do better than this. The Goddard Graduate Institute requires everything of its students and nothing of itself.