After serving as president for twenty-three years, Alvin Johnson retired from The New School in 1945. But he did so reluctantly, bitterly giving in to pressure from the board of trustees. Although Johnson agreed that the time had come for him to step down as president, he objected to the idea that he, or any other academic for that matter, should leave the university just because he had reached a certain age. Anticipating the end of mandatory retirement for professors by nearly fifty years, Johnson mounted a vigorous campaign in defense of scholars over seventy: “Make the younger man department head; utilize the older man for survey courses in his field, for which his long experience should qualify him well.” With that goal in mind, he persuaded the New School to create the College of Retired Professors.

Johnson predicted that other academic institutions would follow his lead. The demand was clearly there, he proclaimed. In the years following the Second World War, over 30,000 Americans had enrolled in continuing education programs. But these programs, for the most part, were “badly taught, unauthoritative, uninteresting and not very successful.” To combat the problem, Johnson would bring out of retirement outstanding scholars and gifted lecturers who had not lost any of their intellectual vitality.

On August 13, 1950, Judith Crist reported in The New York Herald Tribune that ten professors who had recently retired from leading universities in the country would participate in a “new venture in adult education.” Her article quoted Johnson at length:

Mature men and women, most with college experience, care more for content than for method… They want to work with teachers more distinguished by knowledge than by the current ‘know-how’ in specific fields. What they ask for is the intellectual guidance of men sufficiently mature to have overcome the Utopias and despairs that too generally afflict the young scholar of merit. They need the intellectual association of men wise enough to substitute plain English for the jargon of the schools, men human enough to have attained true humility which recognizes that intelligence is not confined within a fence of degrees and academic honors but is the prerogative of all free-born men and women who desire to equip themselves better to meet the problems of life — personal, social, and political.

Despite his best efforts, the College of Retired Professors folded almost immediately. Johnson, however, refused to give up, conceding only that he had failed in his first attempt to recruit scholars famous enough to attract students in sufficient numbers. As he explained in April 1952 to the vice dean of the Hastings College of Law (University of California), who had written to learn more about the New School’s experiment:

My first attempt at bringing back retired professors to the real job of teaching was only modestly successful… The panel I was able to make up consisted of good scholars, interesting personalities, but little known in New York. They attracted students but not enough to assure the continuation of the project, except sporadically.

A bigger problem, no doubt, came from the competition he faced from within The New School itself — his original venture in continuing education. Unlike other universities across the country, the New School’s program in adult education had an excellent faculty. It had no need for a College of Retired Professors to replace what it had successfully built over the last thirty years, largely thanks to Johnson himself. Nor did it need a second program to serve essentially the same population.

In 1962, The New School revisited the idea of providing academic opportunities for active and accomplished retirees, this time by embracing an entirely different model that did not compete with its continuing education program. Johnson gave the new Institute of Retired Professionals (IRP) his blessings. It was not what he had in mind a decade earlier, but at least it recognized that senior citizens had a great deal to offer.

In the spring of 1963, Johnson spoke at the Institute’s first anniversary dinner. Reporting on the event in The New York Post, a journalist described Johnson as “a jaunty octogenarian [who] identified warmly with the retirees.” Johnson would turn eighty-eight later that year. In his brief remarks, he congratulated the gala’s 180 guests for refusing to accept conventional wisdom about the elderly: “We’ve gotten to the point where we’re not willing to admit disability due to age.”

Johnson praised the IRP publicly without realizing, apparently, that the institute championed an educational model he vehemently opposed. Whereas he had tried to build a distinguished faculty of retired professors to teach mature students of all ages, the IRP rejected the idea of having a faculty at all, retired or otherwise. It consisted only of students, or peer learners, all of whom were retired professionals, who wanted to study together as equals. Everyone had the right to mount courses on any topic s/he wanted, provided that the subject appealed to enough other institute members to fill the class.

Beneath Johnson’s “folksy” demeanor was an educator with firm ideas about pedagogy and educational policy — some might call them conservative. Although he welcomed adult students from all walks of life to study in his continuing education programs, he rejected the idea of democratizing the learning environment. When new initiatives of the kind became popular at The New School after he retired, he vehemently objected. For example: in 1953 Johnson accused Hans Simons, his good friend and newly appointed president of the university, of having compromised academic standards when he endorsed a new policy that allowed students, with little or no preparation in a particular area of study, to register for a seminar class in that subject: “The discussion method,” he protested, “presupposes a serious familiarity of the subject matter before the meeting.” Those who did not have the background should take “a series of lectures by one who really knows the subject.” 

Johnson maintained rigorous academic standards in his continuing education program from the very beginning. He looked forward to introducing mature students to new ideas and innovative approaches to the arts and social sciences in courses taught by leading figures in their fields. And while he welcomed adults from all walks of life, with or without a college degree, he expected the uninitiated to learn by taking lecture courses taught by well-known specialists of the day. Students could ask a few questions at the end of the hour, but that was about it. Johnson reserved seminar-style classes, where students and professors exchanged ideas as equals, for those who could demonstrate prior knowledge of the subject when they applied for admission to the course.

Johnson’s interest in adult education was deeply political. He believed that the future of America’s democracy depended on having an informed and thinking electorate. Elaborating on this point, he told The New York Times in 1930 that people needed to continue exercising their minds as well as their bodies throughout their lives, in programs like the one The New School was offering in adult education. Without rigorous exercise, under the direction of skilled experts in their fields, they would lose their balance against “waves of dominant opinion.” 

In 2019, these waves are coming ashore with the force of a tsunami — pounding us with “fake news” from the White House, cable TV and social media. Given the current political climate, we might do our fragile democracy a favor by reconsidering Johnson’s ideas about continuing education for mature (voting) adults, on either side of retirement.

Judith Friedlander is a former dean of NSSR and Walter A. Eberstadt Chair of Anthropology. She is the author of A Light in Dark Times: The New School for Social Research and Its University in Exile(Columbia University Press 2019),in the last chapter of which Agnes Heller figures prominently.