Back to School

The semester has started with histories of the New School: presentations at various orientations and the latest version of a university lecture course on the subject that I teach with Mark Larrimore. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education outlined reasons why universities should offer courses about their histories. But it neglected to include the reasons I think are the most important.

One primary reason the author offers: it’s a unifying experience across often very diverse, very large universities. This certainly matters at The New School as well, an institution still divided by programs and schools that make it feel more like a loose federation than a coherent university. In fact, the aggregation of parts is a unique part of The New School’s history and character, one of reinvention and experimentation, particularly earlier in its history. Many students don’t even realize that their particular program (say, Fashion at Parsons) is part of a larger university that has an entirely different concern and foundation (say, political and social theory). I think this is a key reason to teach the history of a university.

The second primary reason the author offers is to instill school pride, arguing that “proud students become proud alumni.” Here the root of the course the author teaches is more clear. It seems to be primarily a promotional effort, one that encourages “long-term engagement” with the university and, presumably, donations. I recognize that this is central to the long-term health of universities and engaged alumni can be beneficial in all sorts of ways, not just as financial donors but as a powerful network for current students to utilize in finding jobs and careers. But this matters less to me. I want to make sure that any course I teach is not hagiography nor its success determined by the students’ role as alumni.

Because what matters most to me is inspiring students to take charge of their own education. This may be because that is one of the principles undergirding the founding of The New School, but I also think that it is fundamental to gaining the education you want.

The New School has a distinct path through the history of higher education, starting as a school that was specifically not a university because the founders believed that degrees corrupted the true intention of education, learning for the sake of learning. It then went on to offer graduate degrees first, in an instrumental decision to help refugee scholars fleeing from fascism in Europe who needed a job to be able to stay in the U.S. An undergraduate degree program followed years later aimed at those returning from World War II. It considered itself an institution for adult education, with a degree or two here or there but primarily as a place where people came to continue learning. They could come for a semester, a year, every year, and take whatever course caught their interest.

That is not exactly The New School now. Degrees and programs proliferate, as do requirements, rules, and emerging adults. But I hope to instigate as much self-direction as possible within these limits. So students should know the values embedded in our distinct institution. They should know its odd path to becoming a more conventional university. And they should know the wider context of higher education in the U.S., an increasingly corporate sphere driven by profit margins, determinative ends, and self-promotion. (Cue the course on the history of the institution.)

I hope our course emphasizes the school in our beginning and embedded still in our name. A place where learning is still the foundational principle, for the student to determine and the teacher to guide.