julia foulkes

A School

My remarks at the opening the New School Collaboratory Symposium (16 November 2019).

As a historian at a place called the new, I often feel as though I face an existential crisis every day I come to work. What use is the past at a place intentionally focused on the future? Discarding the past here is often taken as the first step to inventing the new. But I like to argue otherwise.

So here’s where I begin the history of The New School: it was founded by two historians. (It was. They were at the forefront of a historiographical movement called the New History.) A third key person was an editor of a new magazine in politics, The New Republic. (A lot was new 100 years ago.) This New School was decidedly and very deliberately not a university; it was an alternative to them, forged in critique. The founders of The New School thought that traditional universities betrayed learning by the bureaucratic apparatuses that had turned colleges and universities into degree mills preserving legacies rather questioning them and producing knowledge relevant to the current world.

This New School for Social Research, as it was called, would do the opposite: construct its educational agenda around what knowledge was needed now; do so in courses that went outside the classroom, to factory floors to understand labor relations, for example; and all without the encumbrances of certification. There would be no degrees and no leader. The intention was to create the educated citizenry necessary for a functioning democracy, following the philosophy of John Dewey. There would no reason to come here other than to learn.

So we can understand the school as beginning with a public orientation, turning its back toward universities and facing and attempting to intervene in contemporary societal problems. But there is another moment in the school’s early history that cements this reputation. On April 1, 1933, Adolf Hitler declared his “restoration” of professional civic service, which resulted in the dismissal of 25% of university professors in Germany, either Jewish, political protestors, or otherwise targeted by the Nazi regime. Within a week, the Director of the New School Alvin Johnson had begun to contact people with the idea to rescue the banished scholars. He secured the support for his initial ask by the end of the month from the philanthropist Hiram Halle. He kept seeking funds and ended up working with the Rockefeller Foundation to broaden the scope of the rescue, even imagining that different institutions could create different institutes, perhaps one in social sciences at the New School, the physical sciences at University of Chicago, the arts somewhere else.

The only one that comes into existence is the University-in-Exile at The New School. In the end, over 12 years, the Rockefeller Foundation secured the passage of over 300 scholars from fascist regimes, predominantly to England and the U.S. The New School was the first home of 181 of them. (Very few stayed here; most went on to permanent jobs elsewhere, including many to HBCUs.)

This is a notable achievement, one we rightly celebrate–and never critique. Yet I think there are questions to raise, particularly if we want to continue making actions of significance. First of all, I think this would never have happened if the school employed full-time faculty at the time. The school operated with a very small administrative staff and at-will instructors; it was “responsive” to the ideas and determinations of a few, even as some of those they listened to were students who turned around a curriculum in politics and policy to one that included the arts, psychology, and humanities. Secondly, decisions about who to save revolved around whose scholarship was most important, a deliberation that was made by a few men. The time pressure was intense as was the difficulty of finding and communicating with people who were targets. These discussions played out in letters that survive in the archives that are harrowing to read, as quickly relayed judgments about worth and feasibility of contact and travel were life-and-death decisions. Finally, the University-in-Exile at The New School reoriented the school toward degrees, as permanent visas required full-time jobs. We became a university in reverse order: offering masters degrees in 1935, then doctoral, and, eventually, undergraduate. We were no longer an alternative to universities; we became one.

The New School has rejuvenated the University-in-Exile this year with the New University in Exile Consortium, a collection of universities, each of which hosts one at-risk scholar, defined as anyone with a Ph.D. or equivalent degree who has held a teaching or researcher position in an institution of higher education who faces severe and targeted threats to their lives or careers. It creates community among the scholars via online seminars and in-person programs twice/year. This, again, is a notable necessary achievement. But there has been little discussion about how we might extend questions of who is at risk beyond the professoriate. And little discussion of how this should impact the entire university now.

In the roundtable I am facilitating this afternoon, I want help in thinking about how we decolonize The New School. How we might use its storied historical moments to re-think how we approach settler-colonialism, 400 years of inequality, and the constraints of institutionalization. How we move from rhetoric to action. How we harness the past to end enduring and systemic challenges–not to be what we were but to combat nostalgia, self-congratulation, and hubris. We have 100 years of experience in confronting the current moment, armed with critique and reflection about where we’ve come and have yet to do.

And I don’t think we need to believe that this quest is new. It may be re-defined or renewed, a focused attack or a wayward slide. Instead, I’d like to suggest that we raise up the other part of our name—no longer new, as we now no longer are—but in the hope that we might still be a school, a place to come for no other reason than to learn. Let us begin.