Early in my teaching career at Kenyon College a colleague and I were brainstorming possible subjects for one of our history honors students. At that point I was a new Ph.D. in French history and my friend, Will Scott, worked in American intellectual history. My mother had taught at the Dramatic Workshop and as is true for any New Yorker of my generation the New School was legendary, so I suggested, “What about the New School, with all the European refugees?”
My friend replied, “The New School I know was the creation of American progressive reformers.”
We quickly realized that we each knew only parts of two different versions of the New School’s history and that this subject was perfect for collaboration based on our very different perspectives.
What kind of school is the New School? It took us a decade to bring the New School: A History of the New School for Social Research to life, and in doing so we were forced to think about the intellectual common ground shared by American progressives and pragmatists and European Neo-Kantians, by French Structuralists and German Expressionists, and even by Harlem artists and pioneering modern dancers.
During that time, we were young enough and the first generations of founders not so old that we could actually meet, interview, and even come to know many of the remarkable men and women who made the New School what it was. Composer John Cage, sociologist Felicia Deyrup, psychologist Mary Henle, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, and sociologist Hans Staudinger both charmed and intimidated. From them we learned how this combination of the theoretical heritage of the Weberian social sciences and modernism of French Structuralism coexisted with the avant-garde spirit of the modern arts from Martha Graham to expressionist director Erwin Piscator. With a few of the original members of the University-in-Exile, including Adolphe Lowe and Hans Speier, it felt like walking back in time. Hans Staudinger, the charming silver-haired dean of the Graduate Faculty had: earned a Ph.D. with Alfred Weber, been a Prussian minister just before Hitler took power, and in his early 90s received us with grace to share his 5pm tumbler of scotch as he waited for his weekly phone call with German Chancellor Willy Brandt. One such evening, he beckoned us into his library-study and handed us a brown and fragile typescript: “Here, I want you to have this.” It was a political testament of his analysis of Hitler and National Socialism that we published in Staudinger’s honor as The Inner Nazi.
When we first began our work in the late 1970s, the Dean of the Adult Division, Alan Austill, greeted us with open arms — and informed us that virtually no archival records existed. But he introduced us to a remarkable maintenance worker, Sal Baldi, who ushered us into the basement of the old Lane’s Department store, which had since 1969 been the home of the University-in-Exile/Graduate Faculty. There we found a completely disorganized warehouse of file cabinets that would have fit perfectly into the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. And, miraculously, we discovered the papers of the Emergency Rescue Committee and the complete correspondence with the then-famed though now-little known French historian Marc Bloch, who was to have been a part of the New School but chose instead to remain in France. The Nazis executed him for his work in the French Resistance. We published that correspondence too in a long journal article.
Then in the early 1980s (thanks to a year-long grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities) I moved to New York. At the invitation of Jerome Kohn, director of the Master in Liberal Studies program (MALS) and Hannah Arendt’s literary executor, I taught courses at the Graduate Faculty and Adult Division that deepened our understanding of the people and traditions of both New Schools. I was especially taken by a coterie of politically active and insightful Jamaican graduate students enrolled in the MALS program whose neo-Marxist analysis felt refreshingly profound in the early days of the Reagan era.
It took a decade of research and writing to complete our book and to find the grounding for understanding the correspondence between American Pragmatism and European Neo-Kantianism. Ultimately for us, young veterans of the intellectual and political excitement and turmoil of the 1960s, the New School embodied the best of the traditions whose heirs we considered ourselves. We wrote our history of the New School as intellectual rather than institutional history, and while our initial informants seemed proud and appreciative, we suspected that over time as the New School evolved our work must have seemed dated. But on its 90th birthday, now a decade ago, that the New School reached back to contact us and we learned that the book had lived on at the school, often used as a gift to incoming faculty and new donors.
New School was a product of collaboration and research that continued for years after its publication. That research sent us in search of the modernist impulse in New York visual and performing arts which became our second book, New York Modern: The Arts and the City. A key chapter in that book, which we called a “second” Harlem Renaissance, took us toward our third project on the culture of the Great Migration, Fly Away: The Great African American Cultural Migrations. None of that would have been possible without our early career focus on the New School that not only set up a productive working process but also many intellectual threads to follow.
Given the perspective of 40 years it seems clear to us that the original goals of the New School remain as original and innovative as they had been in 1917. In fact, as American education has become ever more specialized and compartmentalized those first dreams feel even more important. We still have much to learn from and at the New School.
Peter Rutkoff is a professor of American studies at Kenyon College as well as a novelist.