A New School Minute (or Two)

For Alumni Day on May 11, 2013, the Alumni Office asked twenty faculty and staff to give a 60-second lecture. Tasked with the topic of “New School History,” it was quite a challenge! The results are available here. I started off with a longer version that better encapsulates my theme — I hope we’re still a school rather than just a university. Here is that longer version.

An admissions officer once described to me the encounter he had at every college and graduate school fair he attended. Folks would wander by the table, note the school’s name, and ask what was new about the place. He would respond that the school had been around awhile, now 94 years, which would usually result in the person, walking off, mumbling about a stupid name. Our name may be more a burden than a distinction.

Maybe it would be easier to just say the school started in 2009 rather than 1919. Maybe we should just agree that the school is always just five years old and, gee, look at its remarkable growth and establishment in that short time! And, any way, what is the use of the past at a school named “the new”?

As a historian, I’m bound by professional associations and secret handshakes in the archives to claim that the past matters, even for a place called new. Looking backward reminds us that two of the school’s founders, Charles Beard and James Harvey Robinson, were in fact historians who, at that time, were the leading proponents of what was called at the time – wait for it – the New History. This movement claimed that the past should serve the present, not be a timeless narrative of events long ago. It could be used to provide perspective on current concerns. So Beard’s Economic Interpretation of the Constitution turned the progressive era’s keen eyes on business and corporate overreach to the founding fathers’ concern for personal wealth in their tying of voting rights to ownership of property in the constitution.

So, following in the tradition of Beard and Robinson and the New History, I see a (dare I say) new emergence of the past at the school the last few years. We have always been proud to mention famous associations, with Hannah Arendt (but usually not Leo Strauss), of what we think are the first university-level courses in women’s history and African American history (but not the tortured history of Gender Studies or the mobilization of the 1990s regarding diversity). But here’s a new first: a university archives and special collections formed just a year ago that encompasses all divisions and is actively preserving our past; a university lecture course about the history of the school that I teach with Mark Larrimore; a detailed timeline on the university’s refurbished website that incorporates university presidents alongside curriculum innovations.

So what use is the past serving us now?

I’d argue that at a time when we are becoming a more conventional university, with more degree than continuing education students, with a flock of tenured faculty, with buildings and dorms that further stake our claim in the Village — that with all the good reasons why we seek stability and longevity, we need more than ever to understand ourselves as unconventional. We need to know that it was here that John Cage not only taught a course on composition but one on mushrooms; we need to know that Alvin Johnson not only saved the small group of people who ended up at the Graduate Faculty but over 180 scholars fleeing fascism who came first to the New School before finding jobs at other institutions; we need to know that the New School made the decision to merge with Parsons in 1970 within a two-week time frame as Parsons faced bankruptcy and had to offer liberal arts courses to its design students under new accreditation rules. We need to know that we have continually reinvented ourselves, and made our school new again.

I have no qualms about using the past for these purposes. But if our investigation of the past only seeks to confirm what we want to know, then we are not good students of either the New History or The New School. So let me make a claim for the uncomfortable as well as unconventional in our past.

(I’ll stop at only two.)

Clara Mayer was Alvin Johnson’s right-hand woman; he called her his co-founder in his autobiography and then proceeded not to talk about her again in the entire book. After over forty years at the school, in almost every conceivable role, twenty years of which were as Dean of the Adult Division (which included letting John Cage teach a course on mushrooms), a new president summarily fired her because he thought she ran a “mom and pop” shop and, perhaps the real threat, was too close to members of the Board of Trustees. That president was fired soon thereafter, but no one could convince Clara to come back. In our effort to be new, we lost a co-founder, institutional memory, and betrayed one of our most loyal and important workers.

Finally, I’d like to insist on remaining true to another word in our name: not “new” but “school.” University is the way we conceive of ourselves now (although no one I know was fond of the New School University name). In addition to honoring our tradition of reinvention by being ever new, I’d like to make sure that we remain a school even as we grow as a university. That we remain committed to education as fundamental to life, not a career, and that our reinventions have less to do with conferring degrees than with making effective and thoughtful citizens of the world.