julia foulkes

The New School recently launched a re-organization and re-branding of its continuing education efforts under the title Open Campus. It’s an administrative move that makes sense, given that different colleges had various offerings and now the efforts are brought together with some strategic thinking. I was part of a panel on Saturday’s launch that asked what education beyond the ivory tower means in the 21st century. As usual, I start from the past.

I am always grateful to reiterate what I think are the values and stories that are key to the founding of The New School. So, instead of academic freedom that is usually touted as the primary factor in the school’s founding—as important as that is—I like to stress the importance of education outside of degrees. The New School started as a rebuke to universities; the founders believed that degrees corrupted learning and built obstructive bureaucracy. In this, they put into action the ideas of John Dewey, particularly his influential book at the time, Democracy and Education (1916), and created a school that offered learning across a lifespan, bound to current issues, and as a platform for active citizenry. The New School defiantly began outside the ivory tower.

It did not remain outside of it, however. Graduate degrees came first, in 1933, so as to anchor scholars fleeing fascism in Europe with a permanent job and visa. But even that entrée into degree-granting was odd: graduate degrees first and then, over ten years later, its first undergraduate degree, specifically for adults. By 1950, The New School defined itself as the only institution in the country that was for adults, and the vast majority of students—about 10,000—were there taking a course, attending a program, and not progressing toward a degree. More graduate programs in media studies and urban policy and an influx of undergraduate programs changed the school dramatically. There were mergers with Parsons School of Design (1970), Mannes College of Music (1989), and a drama school (1994). By the end of the 20th century, the New School still had a large number of continuing education students but the percentage was beginning to tilt toward degree-seeking students, primarily undergraduates.

That trend has only accelerated in the 21st century alongside a deep decline in continuing education students. There are far more institutions of all kinds offering courses, programs, and events, from local libraries and YMCAs to up-and-coming initiatives such as the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research (so reminiscent of The New School at its origin). There are also financial reasons for The New School’s turn to undergraduate degree students: they are the financial underpinning of any university. But I also think we lost sight of our past and the commitment to think beyond degrees. I remain skeptical about whether Open Campus is a renewal of our founding values in this regard or primarily another “revenue stream.” Once, it was both. Perhaps there is a way it can be so again.