Editors: Mark Larrimore and Julia Foulkes

A school for the present.

In 1918, the New Republic-based creators of what would become the New School for Social Research* called for a re-thinking of what higher education could be. Universities were hamstrung by backward-looking legacies and structures, both institutional and intellectual. Education needed to be put in service of solving current-day problems. The new world opened up by World War I, urbanization, the labor movement, and women’s suffrage demanded an education attuned to an ever unfolding human story—trends and challenges that could be better understood by new methods of research in the social sciences. “[T]his is the hour for the experiment,” they wrote, “and New York is the place, because it is the greatest social science laboratory in the world.”

A century later, the New School has changed in almost every way. Psychology and the arts quickly redefined “social research.” The Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences and the rise of fascism inspired a president to establish a European-style graduate school staffed by refugee scholars; recalling the fall of Constantinople, he hoped for something like a new Renaissance on American soil. Belatedly and backwards, the school undertook to offer degree programs but its main focus was the lifelong growth of an educated democratic citizenry. Further alliances and innovations made performing arts and design central; the Parsons School of Design, a 74-year old dowager when it merged with the New School in 1970, is now the school’s most prominent part. As facilities coalesced around a Greenwich Village campus in recent decades, degrees and departments have come to structure an institution increasingly like a conventional university. Periodically the school erupts in protest, as the promise of a progressive and social justice-oriented institution seem betrayed by corporatizing trends, the inspiring ideals of the past ringing hollow in a current “climate of exile” for marginalized students.

The dialectic of new approaches and abiding exclusions, too easily covered by bromides about academic freedom, is poorly understood. The New School markets itself as a century-old incubator with a long line of firsts, but doesn’t remember what made each of them possible, or what became of them. This Public Seminar column mines the histories of the New School—in all its many parts—to tell a story more involved, more intriguing, and more empowering. This is a story of a school which reflected and contributed to debate about the aims of education as it tried its darndest not to be a university. Its adventures in providing a consistently present- and future-oriented curriculum raise questions about the nature and production of knowledge more relevant than ever. Perhaps its kaleidoscope of conflicting legacies, including moments of greatness and of blindness, has helped it remain on the critical edge.

We explore these questions with an eye to the future not just of the New School but of higher education more generally. What lessons might New School histories teach as higher education redefines itself in a politically polarized and rapidly globalizing world, facing entrenched and new inequalities, and worldwide challenges to truth, democracy, and expertise? We expect to feature a resolutely non-chronological, non-comprehensive array of articles interrogating better and less well known structures, communities, and debates. They will include a series of articles dedicated to the experience of learning inside and outside New School classrooms (In the Classroom), and a series of studies of ways the New School understood itself at different points in its history (In the Telling).

Public Seminar is built upon the tradition of interdisciplinary public debate begun by the General Seminar of the Graduate Faculty over eighty years ago, “Confronting Fundamental Problem of the Human Condition and Pressing Problems of the Day” in a vital new format. We invite submissions to this column that extend these concerns to the New School itself. How can the past guide an institution dedicated to the new? What does it now mean for a university to be a school? And what might New School histories contribute to other efforts to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world?

* New School for Social Research was the name of the whole school until a reorganization in 2001. The division which currently bears that name is not the original school, but the 1934 addition, begun as the University-in-Exile, that was for most of its history known as the Graduate Faculty of Social and Political Science.