Excerpted from the author’s newly published book Coming of Age in the Baby Boom: A Memoir of Personal Development, Social Action, Education Reform and Adirondack Preservation
After such a vital summer of civil rights work in Mississippi in 1964, I could not see returning to the ivory tower of Johns Hopkins, where most academic courses seemed to have no relevance to the real world issues that concerned me. Shortly after returning from the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, I was sitting in the Ehrenreich’s kitchen, telling Rob and his mother of my plan to drop out of college. I would camp out in the attic over the fraternity house to save money, audit those classes at Johns Hopkins which seemed “relevant,” and be involved in the civil rights movement in Baltimore. My parents were not thrilled with this decision, but had been unable to dissuade me from it. Mrs. Ehrenreich suggested that, if a relevant education was what I wanted, I ought to look into the New School for Social Research in New York City. She showed me their fall catalog.
The New School, as it is commonly known, was founded in 1919 as a novel experiment in adult education, with classes on contemporary issues for “mature men and women.” It offered the first college level courses on Black culture, taught by W.E.B. DuBois, and on psychoanalysis by S. Ferenczi. Martha Graham taught courses on modern dance. The school achieved even wider prominence in the 1930s with its University in Exile, which provided a teaching forum for many professors and intellectuals who were recent refugees from Hitler’s Germany. Over the years, The New School had grown into the largest adult education program in the country, with over 1,000 courses offered annually by distinguished scholars and writers in many disciplines. I was astounded by the courses in their current bulletin: The History of the Negro in America; Alienation: The Legacy of Progress; Existential Analysis: A Philosophical Psychology; Dostoyevsky; Non-Fiction Writing; Political and Social Thought in the Twentieth Century. The listing went on and on.
Not only did the courses appear exciting, it seemed The New School had a bachelor’s degree program for students who had completed their freshman and sophomore years at other colleges. This little-known program was designed for students who had already demonstrated the ability to succeed in college, but wished for a more independent, intellectually stimulating education. I was matriculated within days. Much to my parents’ relief, I would not be a college drop-out after all.
I found a room on West 73rd Street between Broadway and West End Avenue, a fourth floor walk-up in a rooming house next to the old Ansonia Hotel. My cubicle was about seven by 14 feet in size, plus a small room with my own bathtub and sink, and a shared toilet down the hall. There were no cooking facilities, so I made do with a hot plate and toaster and a wet towel wrapped around the perishables on the window sill for refrigeration. “Con los pobres de la tierra quiero yo mi suerte echar,” as Jose Marti wrote and Pete Seeger sang in “Guantanamera.” “With the poor people of the earth I want to share my fate.” My quarters perfectly matched my self-concept as an impoverished student radical. As did my menu. Suppers consisted of frozen pancakes, frozen waffles, and frozen French toast, heated in the toaster three nights of the week, canned franks and beans and canned beef stew heated on the hot plate two nights, and hamburgers cooked on the hot plate the sixth night, my gourmet evening. When my mother learned of my menu, she insisted she pay for me to eat at the Automat on 72nd Street near Broadway one night a week, provided I promised to have a green vegetable with my meal. As I had always loved Automats, with their array of foods displayed behind revolving glass doors, readily available if one deposited the requisite number of nickels, I gladly consented to this minor infringement on my independence.
Russian-born Elias Tartak was my instructor for the course on Dostoyevsky and a second one on Tolstoy. A short, husky, old man with white hair, he shuffled into the classroom once a week, weighed down by a huge leather briefcase bursting with books and newspapers in several languages. His shirt collars and sleeves were badly frayed, and evidence of recent meals was sadly evident on his bushy white mustache and tie. He was so old he spoke of the abortive 1905 Russian revolution from personal experience. Although he had been an exile in the West for most of his life, he never lost his Russian accent or deep love for his homeland and the Russian people. He had read The Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace over 50 times each, and when he read his favorite passages aloud, we could close our eyes and imagine ourselves in the wheat fields of the Volga basin, smelling the harvest, hearing the peasants’ scythes rhythmically mowing the grain, feeling the gentle summer winds sweep down from the steppes beyond, or be in Moscow, and see the elegant palaces of the nobility, hear the hooves of the Cossacks’ horses on the cobblestone streets, or smell the rotting garbage of the tenements and the musty dankness and cooking odors of Roskolnikoff’s dingy garret. Through his eyes and words, we experienced nineteenth-century Russia and the great writers who stirred the world’s very soul. Then, just when the impression was complete that Tartak lived not in this world but that of Russian history and literature, he would dazzle us with comparisons to the works of George Orwell, Jack London, American muckraking novels of the early twentieth-century, and contemporary events. Although nary a personal word passed between us, I loved the old man—for his compassion for each character, for his love of his subject, and for introducing me to two of the world’s greatest authors.
Tartak was but one of my teachers. Herbert Hill, the national labor relations director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, taught The History of the Negro in America. Hill was a white civil rights activist long before most of America had heard of civil rights. He edited two important collections of writings by Black Americans and was also an expert on the abolitionist period. When he read us sections from a book he was writing, describing how thousands of white citizens of Boston arrayed themselves around the courthouse and forcibly prevented federal marshals from returning an escaped slave to the South, following the recently enacted Dred Scott decision, I actually felt goosebumps as he related each episode of the exciting confrontation as it played out over days through the streets of Boston. I read numerous books on black history for the class, and for my term paper, got carried away and wrote a 145-page paper on “The Meaning of Mississippi,” which won the New School’s Phyllis and Lee Coffey Award that year for the best paper on current affairs written by an undergraduate.
Hayes B. Jacobs was a widely published author whose stories, articles, and book reviews had appeared in all of the best literary magazines. I attended his course on Fiction Writing, then another on Non-Fiction Writing. It was clear I had an inclination in this direction. Whether in long love letters, usually unrequited, or long college papers, I seemed to need to communicate my innermost feelings and burgeoning political and philosophical theories. I was also convinced the world cared to or needed to hear them. My mother thought everything I did was grand, so why shouldn’t everyone else? Jacobs encouraged me in this hubris, as he probably did most of his students. His major teaching approach was to read the best of our stories or articles to the class, have us critique them, and then do so himself. His love of good writing was palpable. Reading one student’s story set in a Catholic school, he read, “Sister took the note from my desk and put it in her pocket, or wherever it is that nuns put such things,” then paused and said, “Isn’t that a wonderful sentence?” and read it again so we might fully appreciate it. I enrolled in the class to enhance my writing skills, but Jacobs stretched my aspirations. As a regular columnist for the magazine The Writer, he had lots of practical advice about getting published. For the first time, I conceived the idea that my work might be publishable and, with his encouragement in mind, was relatively undaunted with the first dozen rejection slips received from magazines who apparently found my views on civil rights less than original.
Alvin Toffler had just written a popular article about “future shock” and was working on a book of the same name. He wanted to try out some of his ideas about the promise and pitfalls of rapid social and technological change and offered a one-time seminar on Sociology of the Future at The New School, which I was able to take. After class, a few of the dozen students would accompany Toffler to a nearby coffee shop where we continued a freewheeling conversation on the course themes. Toffler’s eventual book, Future Shock, sold six million copies and introduced the field of futurism and the role of futurist in the culture. (Years later I wrote a chapter for his edited volume Education for Tomorrow.)
Gerald Sykes had written several widely reviewed books on scholarly subjects and lectured all over the world. Although his course on Alienation: The Legacy of Progress had a completely misleading title, it was intellectually stimulating. He focused on various “paradigms,” my first encounter with that word. We learned how different thinkers divided humanity into classes: introverts and extroverts; endomorphs, mesomorphs, and ectomorphs; anal and oral; Aztecs and Toltecs, etc. On our final exam, one of the essay questions required us to describe five of these paradigms. After dutifully covering four of those we had studied, I wrote, “My father taught me a fifth paradigm. Some people like their matzoh balls hard, and others like their matzoh balls soft.” After exploring this “dichotomy” (another of Sykes’ favorite terms), I went on to describe a sixth paradigm, just in case the matzoh ball example didn’t do it. He loved it.
The aged Eugene Kullman still retained his strong German accent. A biblical scholar, his course on The Philosophy of the Bible included Job, Ecclesiastes, Amos, Jeremiah, and other prophets. He knew the Bible so well that he often quoted long passages from memory. Once he read us a section for several minutes, and passing his desk after class, I happened to notice that the Bible he had been reading from was in Greek. He sometimes reminded me of a rabbi praying or davening in temple, with his hands stretched out holding either side of his desk, his eyes closed, his body rocking back and forth as he recited verse after verse from the works we were studying. As a self-styled, radical activist, I was always interested in the politics of each of my professors, but Kullman was something of an enigma. It appeared that the Bible, according to Kullman, sometimes suggested quite liberal and enlightened views, and other times was conservative in its laws and morality. I was shocked that he so strongly advocated capital punishment, declaring categorically, “Ven a human beink commits murder, he puts himzelf beyond ze pale!” I had fairly well concluded the man had strong reactionary tendencies, when my classmate Carl and I encountered him on a peace march protesting the war in Vietnam. The march was proceeding down Fifth Avenue, with various constituencies—labor, students, physicians, teachers, etc.—lined up on the side streets ready to join in, swelling the ranks, as the march passed. Carl saw Kullman standing there, waiting to march, and said, “Professor Kullman, I didn’t expect to see you here.” “Ya,” answered Kullman, “vere else vould I be?” Then, referring to the particular group among which the old man was standing, Carl added, “And I’m surprised to see you standing among the students.” “Ya,” Kullman replied in all humility, “I am a student.”
Rollo May was arguably the world’s leading existential psychotherapist. He offered a large, weekly, public lecture course in the New School’s auditorium attended by about 300 people. Periodically Dr. May would meet with a dozen or so of us New School undergraduates taking the course for credit. For my final course paper, based on my vast experience, I argued that people would experience a lot less existential anguish if they were having good sex. Dr. May wrote “Oversimplified” on the cover and gave me a “B.”
Ironically, many years later, as the biographer of Carl Rogers, one of the world’s leading humanistic psychologists, I asked Dr. May’s permission to include an exchange of letters between May and Rogers for a book I co-edited titled Carl Rogers: Dialogues, containing Rogers’ recorded and written exchanges with some of the twentieth-century’s leading intellectuals like Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, Gregory Bateson, B.F. Skinner, May and others. In that exchange, Rogers suggested that people would feel a lot less existential anguish and despair if they could experience deeply empathic person-centered relationships. Again, May’s response to Rogers was, “Oversimplified.”
Howard Kirschenbaum (B.A., New School class of 1966) is Professor Emeritus and former chair of the Department of Counseling and Human Development, Warner Graduate School of Education, University of Rochester, and author of 25 books on education, psychology, and history.
One thought on “A Relevant Education”