I’m settling into a new daily routine. Each morning I brace myself to absorb horrible news coming from Washington, and each evening I try to forget what I’ve learned during the day about the latest assaults on democracy so that I can decompress. In between morning and evening, I try to understand, teach and engage (primarily in and through my work on Public Seminar), and between the evening and the morning, I try to sleep, with more or less success. Being awake is the nightmare.
The executive order on immigration and refugees is abomination on many counts. The way it is affecting my students keeps me awake. Their studies could be disrupted. Students may not be able to return to the university. Others are locked in, not able to leave the country for fear that they won’t be permitted to return. Still others are facing an impossible financial bind, not able to stay in New York without support from home. Banks are threatening to freeze the accounts of Iranians. A recent Visiting University in Exile Professor at The New School was from Syria. Now we would have to turn away such colleagues from our faculty, which was founded as the University in Exile in the fateful year of 1933, and some of our students are now inevitably considering exile from us.
I do have good days and bad days. Today, thankfully, is a relatively good one. The executive order has been overturned by a Federal judge, and the judge has been directly attacked by the President, promising the judgment will not stand. The separation of powers is being tested, as a federal appeals court early this morning has rejected a request from the Justice Department to immediately restore the travel ban. As chaos rules the day, a hopeful moment.
But there are mostly bad days. This past week the Tweeter in Chief seemed to be at war with the Australian prime minister, while his National (In)Security Adviser seemed to be itching to go to war with Iran. When my friends at the Theodore Young Community Center, where I go to swim in the morning to push out the nightmares, greet me, we exchange glances and then groan. Our normal cheerful “how are you, fine and you,” is now regularly qualified, followed by a discussion. But I must swim and they must work, and we push on with our days.
I have been pushing on, teaching my course, Media and Publics. And while I am profoundly concerned by the first weeks of the Trump-Bannon regime, I am torn between two imperatives. I know that I must respond clearly and forcefully to the actions of the regime, particularly as it directly represses people in and the principles of my intellectual home, The New School for Social Research. I also know that I must be true to my conviction that education and politics must be separated, that education should not be confused with indoctrination.
In my forty years of teaching, I have had little problem honoring the imperatives of political and educational responsibility, to my vocation as a citizen and as an educator. In the classroom, I don’t hide my political convictions and judgments (that would be impossible, even though I take pride in being difficult to categorize ideologically), but I make it very clear that I am open to other views, and work to demonstrate how such openness helps us to better understand our social, political and cultural subject matter, as it helps students and faculty alike to better understand themselves and each other.
Acting in this accustomed way is harder now. There is much that is radically problematic with the emerging Trump-Bannon order, including its attack on education, on the pursuit of truth, and figuring out where politics end and education begins is a challenge.
How should we proceed now that the President of the United States threatens to cut off federal funds from a university, because of an, in my judgment, unfortunate protest? When Trump has a longstanding problematic relationship with truth, and when Islamophobia, racism and anti-Semitism are so clearly evident?
There is a specific New School dimension to the challenge. Our university was founded by a group of distinguished critical scholars, including John Dewey, Thorsten Veblen and Charles Beard, in defense of free inquiry, against the intrusions of excessive patriotism at Columbia University during and after WWI. And my division, now honored with the founding name of The New School for Social Research, was established as “The University in Exile” in 1933 as a refuge, first for German — and then more generally — European scholars, fleeing from the repressions of the Nazi Regime. We have a responsibility to honor this legacy. But how is it remembered? And what are its implications for action now?
I recognize that many loosely refer to The New School as a progressive institution; the present administration does so in its official statements. They note that among its founders, both in 1919 and 1933, and through much of its history, the faculty and students, along with many of its staff, administration and Board of Trustees, have been on the left side of the political spectrum, committed to social justice in the progressive tradition.
This is no doubt true, but there have been important exceptions. Hannah Arendt is hard to categorize politically, and Leo Strauss, prior to moving to the University of Chicago, was the notable conservative member of the University in Exile in the late thirties and forties. With these important exceptions to the progressive past in mind, and bearing in mind a defining commitment to the openness of the university, to the exiles, and to the WWI dissidents, I believe that the best way to honor The New School’s legacy is to note that it has been empirically progressive, but, as a matter of principle, more significantly, committed to openness to diverse intellectual currents.
Such an understanding has, up to this point, helped me resolve the tension between my pedagogic and political responsibilities. But not now. When the ideals of the university are under attack, political neutrality is not possible. Just as the original exiled professors and students couldn’t be neutral about fascism, I don’t think we can be neutral about Trumpism. Yet even as I assert this, I think that we must take care, so that learning is not confused with political commitment.
I turn to Arendt for guidance in this matter, and have been discussing it with the students in the Media and Publics seminar. Her classic essay, “Truth and Politics” and her “The Crisis in Education” provide rich material for thinking about fundamental problems in public life, and the challenges these pose for education.
Arendt’s essays suggest two key propositions. First, there is a fundamental tension between truth and politics: on the one hand, factual truth provides the grounds upon which a sound politics can be based, on the other hand, philosophical, interpretive truth presents a threat to politics, as matters of competing opinions are treated as matters of truth or falsity. And second, there is also a fundamental tension between education and politics: politics compromises education, and education as a part of political life is a instrument of tyranny.
In our seminar, I know I must make clear my commitment to intellectual openness: my political judgment is not the official, required truth of our discussions, as we investigate how the present political crisis has impacts on our inquiry. With this in mind, I asked the students to share with the seminar their readings of the news of the day, as it informs their understanding of our deliberations. In my next post, I will describe how this worked this past week, and set up the discussion for this week.
I am trying, but struggling through the first days and the weeks of the Trump era. Every encounter is shaded by the looming darkness: a birthday celebration, a visit to my mother, a Skype call with my daughter and her family in Paris, chance meetings on my commute, not to mention in discussions in the halls of The New School and around my kitchen table. It hurts to think, but clear thinking and acting is of critical importance. I am impressed by the flood of great contributions submitted and published here at Public Seminar, the platform dedicated to the ideals of the University in Exile and its General Seminar. I am inspired by the demonstrations around the world, resisting the new attacks on democratic life, and to free public speech and action. It is gratifying to see my colleagues at The New School critically engaging in this major crisis in our times, while maintaining their commitments to intellectual integrity. I look forward to the third teach-in Public Seminar is organizing, building on the two we organized last year.
And I hope that The New School administration does all it can to defend our students and our special mission of academic freedom and openness. I am concerned. We have a special role to play at this time, given our distinctive history, which includes a very successful defense of truth and resistance to tyranny and repression. I fear caution and believe boldness is required if The New School is to be The New School.