Convocation address, The New School, September 2009.
I am on my fourth career. I think it’s going pretty well, but I’m not ruling out a fifth, or a sixth. I got started on careers early. As family lore has it, I told my parents at age three that I wanted to take ballet classes. A random class at the YMCA around the corner became five times per week with multiple performances by age ten. At fourteen, I was auditioning for the prestigious summer program of the New York City Ballet. This entailed hiding my mother who barely topped five feet to maintain the illusion that I might just reach the short end of the range of a City Ballet dancer at five feet four inches. (I continue to live in hope.) I graduated from high school at sixteen with the intention of never going to college. After a woeful year at Cleveland Ballet, I landed at a small liberal arts college, hours from a major city or any ballet company. I told my parents that I was just going to see how the year went, that I might return to the world of dance. Instead, I never brought up the prospect of leaving college again.
I know now what I was seeking then: reinvention. I had failed at what I most wanted to be. While there are lots of reasons for that failure – some of my own doing, some not, some unknown – it all added up to the same thing: a loss of a dream, a particular vision of myself and my future. College turned out to be just the place to land.
I teach in the original undergraduate program of The New School, opened in 1944, partly in response to the G.I. Bill of World War II in which the federal government helped veterans go to college after returning from the war. The degree program placed undergraduate students in a classroom alongside the original students of school, anyone who wanted to learn something new. This tradition continues today. In every class I teach, the students are people who want to reinvent themselves. Some have never gone to college, some may have gone to college and left before finishing to pursue a more immediate passion, and some have come here from another school because they believe this education is more aligned with their values and principles. They are parents who are determined to finish college now that their children have; entrepreneurs who made money and now want to think about ideas without that aim in mind; and waiters who want to be filmmakers and writers. Whether they are pursuing a degree or not, these are people looking to education to answer questions, acquire a skill, consider a new career — and to see themselves anew.
Ninety years ago, disaffected faculty members from Columbia University initiated another kind of reinvention, that of the university itself. In 1919, the New School for Social Research began with six lectures in the spring from esteemed intellectuals of the time, Charles Beard, James Robinson, and Thorstein Veblen among them, and expanded in the fall to a fuller offering of courses in the social sciences, social work, and public affairs. Some of the founding ideas for the school came from John Dewey, the prominent philosopher whose book Democracy and Education came out just three years prior. Dewey never had a formal appointment at The New School but leant his influence and ideas to the founding of the school, lectured here occasionally, and held public celebrations of his 70th, 80th, and 90th birthdays here. (Dewey’s 150th birthday celebration occurs this year alongside the university’s 90th.) Dewey argued for the moral necessity of education because “conscious life is a continual beginning afresh.” He maintained that education was life-long, not confined to a particular age or institutional setting, and critical to the workings of a sound democracy. These principles formed the New School’s commitment to educating citizens on the crucial issues of the day. In its initial inception, the New School combined a research institute with a direct telling of those ideas to the public through courses and lectures. The first formal document of the school proclaimed that people would come for “no other purpose than to learn.”
For me, learning at college led to another reinvention, as a ski bum. Excuse me. For the parents in the audience, my second career was in the ski industry. I worked at a resort in Colorado that had begun a student recruitment program for seasonal jobs that could not be filled from its small town population. This was an opportunity to “stuff butts.” Excuse me again – help skiers safely into chairlifts. I was one of the lucky few, though, chosen not to “stuff butts” but to be a “hostess” (which readily led to the name tags “Cupcake” and “Twinkie”). One of my duties was to man the information desk, answering challenging brain teasers such as “how much does the mountain weigh?”
Conversations with fellow workers included coming up with answers to questions like that as well as detailing the day’s adventures in fresh powder. For many, this was fulfilling, but I began to wonder if it was enough for me. A discussion with a fellow worker had me thinking about education again. He had left a prestigious college to “stuff butts” and was not planning on returning. He argued that he could learn himself, read all the books assigned in college classes himself. What was the point of going through the rote exercises of homework, papers, exams? Was that really education? I agreed with him, to a point. But I realized that what college offered me was a shared conversation about those books, something I could never replicate on my own. It was not only that a professor had read that book many times and could offer particular insights; it was that my fellow students also brought multiple perspectives to those books. In the formalized structure of a class, we shared ideas that amplified and altered my own, beyond what I could have imagined.
Students may already or soon join my fellow worker in the ski industry in his rail against the routine tasks of university coursework. Exams and papers may be rote exercises, but I believe they are not empty ones. We often expect education to be more magical than it is. It not only requires persistence but belief, belief that the theories a professor insists you must know, the facts that are tested on an exam, the paper written on a book by an author you will never read again – that these exercises will add up to learning. These pedantic routines impose the persistence necessary to knowledge but they also are place-holders for ideas, waiting for a moment five years hence, perhaps twenty, to trigger a return to a book read or a statement written in a paper that now has the meaning and force of belief. Ideas are rote until you need them.
A university provides a structure in which people generate and exchange ideas, not only in the classroom but in its governance. The impetus for The New School, in fact, resulted from faculty members who disputed the decision-making in the firing of faculty members at Columbia who expressed disapproval with the government for entering World War I. The New School’s reinvention of the university instituted faculty governance and closer relations between students and faculty alongside a robust embrace of academic freedom at its heart. When the school began, faculty made up four of the eleven board members and all decisions were approved by the faculty, from the content of courses to the amount of money spent on supplies. Three years later, Alvin Johnson began putting together an administrative structure to support the faculty. (Johnson’s administrative contributions are still with us today, as the referent for Alvin, the repository of personal data for everybody who is a part of The New School.) These first few years of the school reveal both the appeal of and need for faculty governance and the difficulty in building an enduring institution solely on that foundation. Faculty and administrators need one another. The Manichean divide that has developed in universities between faculty and administration – on loud display last year at The New School – is one that I grapple with personally as I take on more administrative roles. I understand the tasks as different – teaching and research occupies more of my time as a faculty member; policy-making and managing take up my day as a administrator — but the obligations are the same: to put student learning at the center of what we do; to think about and advance ideas that will better that learning, at the university and in the world. Perhaps the reinvention of our university most needed right now is to renew these obligations, both faculty and administrators. This demands extensive, serious, and well-intentioned debate about what it is that faculty best govern, what aims of education administrators hold, and what of our many – and contradictory – founding ideals we should preserve.
The question of looking back to “founding ideals” haunted my own reinventions. After leaving the mountains of Colorado, I landed in Chicago for no particular reason other than it was more affordable than New York, and it allowed me to consider a return to dance. I got a temp job for money, which turned into joining a company-in-the-making. While starting up a business, I looked to re-activate my first career. Both endeavors failed. As a start-up business, we made some classic mistakes that had us investing too much in inventory and begging off creditors with small but steady payments. As a would-be dancer, I could not re-gain the lost years of training – and, both more important and more painful, I began to realize that, perhaps, I did not want to. I looked to education for the time and inspiration to reinvent myself yet again, left my career as an entrepreneur, and headed to graduate school.
Reinvention entails missteps. Newcomers to the faculty and staff of The New School often note that we are very good here at spending an enormous amount of time creating and discussing policies that are commonplace elsewhere. Our name creates a mandate – to make it new – and yet often we end up with policies, curriculum, and structures that are either just as they were or exist plainly elsewhere that could have been more easily replicated. We reinvent the wheel, and call it a new kind of circle.
Taking a look at the history of the university, it is clear that this proclivity for reinvention has been the only constancy. Just three years after the school began, Alvin Johnson not only instituted an administrative structure in addition to faculty governance but reoriented the school to focus more particularly on students rather than a research institute; he also turned the curriculum away from a strict focus on politics, public affairs, and social work to the arts, literature, and psychology. Ten years later, the University-in-Exile put firmly in place the research institute first conceived. From that, Johnson built a degree-granting graduate program — in defiance of the original impulse to forego degrees in favor of a less instrumental view of education. The reinventions only accelerated in the coming decades: the school established a Dramatic Workshop in 1940 that closed down nine years later; considered a merger with NYU in the early ’60s and then opened a seminar college that we now call Lang; and acquired Parsons School of Design in 1970 and Mannes College of Music in 1989, creating an opportunity for integration between the arts, design, and the liberal arts that, almost forty years later, we are still attempting to build. These changes have not been merely opportunistic; they have embodied vastly different views about what kind of university this is.
Newcoming students, faculty, and administrators will likely quickly become enmeshed in the ongoing, nearly relentless discussions about the reinventions of our university. But those conversations are matched or exceeded by debates about the necessary reinventions of our society as well. The university began with a mission to impact the world, to understand societal problems and come up with solutions – and there is an impressive tradition of doing exactly that. The assessment of our impact, I think, should come less from what faculty members have achieved, notable as they are, than what our students have accomplished. The list is long and impressive, and let me name only a few I know from my program. One student was a music producer and manager of the reggae star Peter Tosh before coming back to school and taking courses in history, politics, and literature. Here, he discovered that what he was studying could coalesce with his previous experience into a mission. He has gone back to his homeland of Jamaica to construct a national museum of music to honor and extend the many contributions of Jamaicans to world music. The government recently passed the legislation and put him in charge. Another student has combined the education she received here with that of her experience as a photographer working for UNICEF to develop policy on how children’s rights can be preserved in the documentation of tragedy and poverty. Yet another moved persistently over eight years through an undergraduate degree to a master’s in International Affairs, where a summer field placement in South Africa has led to a job as a consultant on development issues there and soon in Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo as well. These are reinventions of the world that matter.
My fourth career, as a historian, pushed me to reckon with my own participation in reinventing the world. I went to graduate school with an interest in teaching and ended up with one in research and writing as well. That research started as a question about the politics of artists in the case of Irish nationalism at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century (a college professor inspired a love of James Joyce) and ended up by examining the politics and social dynamics involved in the formation of modern dance in the United States. Instead of becoming a dancer again, I became a historian of dance, looking at the impact of the arts in the world. This reinvention has entailed looking back at my personal past, not to re-live a hazy romantic, if quick, career in ballet but to critique it. Researching and writing about dance has illuminated a more nuanced and generous understanding of my own reinventions and has also opened up new avenues of inquiry into the arts and urbanization that I now pursue.
Enduring reinvention entails figuring out what needs to be new. The New School today is not the school of 1919 or 1933 or 1970, nor should it be. This new school is now old. (Or, in the long history of universities, perhaps it has reached puberty.) We face the task of remaining relevant while also honoring our self-made tradition. The university’s reinventions demand difficult confrontations, compromises of ideals, and losses. There are mischaracterizations of what the university was and is. Looking at our past should not be in an exercise in nostalgia or even a map to the future. Instead, it is a way to meet the present with informed critique. The full past of the university, not just its most well-known moments long ago, should inform a wide-ranging, inclusive discussion about what ideals and traditions we should hold on to – and what we should let go.
The New School – its halos and warts – holds out the promise for reinvention, of oneself, the university, and the world. We are people and an institution constantly in the midst of change, in search of, unsettled but on our way. We can be accused of looking dewy-eyed — in both senses of the word Dewey — at the possibilities of education, at the malleability of our institution, the opportunities it affords and impact it can have. We may begin anew too often, giving up significant legacies or promising half-starts. Missteps and failures are inevitable. But the mandate of our founding and all that has come since demands that we try again and “fail better,” as the writer Samuel Beckett asserted.
As students at The New School, I believe the point of your education here is not that you will be what you study – a jazz musician, a political scientist, or an interior designer. The point is you may not. The hours spent practicing arias, writing papers, and designing websites is not wasted, though. It is about the formation of a catalogue of ideas, some rote today but perhaps not tomorrow. And it is also about the creation and practice of habits of inquiry, persistence, and critique. “The mind is a muscle,” the dancer Yvonne Rainer proclaimed. It needs strengthening, stretching, and rest, all of which this university provides in shared communion. The ideas you learn and the habits you develop here will prod you to lead life as “a continual beginning afresh,” perhaps going from being an actor to an illustrator to a policy maker.
Education does not guarantee successful reinventions, whether of oneself, this institution, or the world. But I think it makes such quests deliberate and meaningful. Education grounds us in what has come before, lays out what lies ahead, and demands that we articulate what is at stake. It gives us the skills to adapt and the courage to change.
For now, I am sticking with my fourth career because I believe that education matters to the reinvention of the world. I believe in the reinvention of this university. And I believe in yours. Let us begin.