A year ago, we initiated this seminar to explore the histories of The New School as a way to think through the challenges confronting higher education more generally. The New School is full of experimentation, failures, and surprising mergers. It was set up as an alternative to universities in 1919, experimented with non-degree and degree programs of all shapes and sizes, but in recent decades has edged ever more swiftly towards being a university in the conventional mold. Essays we have published in the vertical look at the reasons for and impact of marking institutional anniversaries; different models of adult education; the role of archives in a school looking forward. Faculty here and elsewhere, staff, and graduate students have contributed posts. Our work will continue throughout this academic year, as centenary activities peak in the fall, as the New School-Parsons merger reaches its fiftieth anniversary in early 2020, and as the university community moves forward as a newly venerable institution.
At the time we began this project, we also began work on a series of podcasts (available here). Our engagement with New School history already spans multiple genres — a website, an exhibition, all manner of talks and the current seminar here — in its effort to invite more and more kinds of people to share in the discovery and work of making sense of our complex congeries of legacies. Why not also podcasts?
We began as we had in preparing presentations for various audiences and settings, expecting to turn notes into a scripted dialogue and then to press record. But podcasts asked something different of us: to let The New School speak and listen to it.
The work we have done over the last ten years compiling New School histories has been inherently and deliberately collaborative. We have conducted oral histories with staff, built projects with archivists, led students to create a ten-year plan of the university, and assisted faculty colleagues as they dug into their own interests about the institution’s past. We thought we had been listening. But creating podcasts forced us to listen in new ways: for example, to recorded lectures for the sound of refugee scholar faculty lecturing in English; the voices of archivists as they discussed how they collect, care for, and provide access to materials of the past; and the recollections and repartee of those who have known the school for far longer than we have, members of the Institute for Retired Professionals (IRP) who took courses here in the 1950s and ‘60s.
The New School’s centennial has spurred a flurry of activity, shining new light on long celebrated legacies and imagining ways of keeping these traditions vital. But some aspects of the New School’s history which were once central have slipped from view. Podcasts, we realized, could allow those stories to be heard again. We chose three topics which don’t just round out the picture emerging from centennial efforts but allow a new generation to listen to the New School as it was and may again be.
Perhaps the most significant change in the one-hundred years of The New School is the turn away from adults and toward conventional-age college students as the primary learners of the school. In A Place to Go for Adult Values, we listened to people who came to take a class in the 1950s and 1960s as they shared the joy and vibrancy of intellectual debate and community that they encountered. A class at the New School opened up a new life that contrasted with the boredom of the suburbs, taking care of children, or an uninteresting job. The current absence of older folks in our once intergenerational classrooms — they are increasingly segregated into Open Campus or the IRP–also raises questions about inclusion and diversity. What does age add to learning?
Allergies to Gender investigates the troubled path of Gender Studies at the school, centered on the initiative and persistence of the late Ann Snitow. The New School sometimes seems like a place not just of innovation, but also of endless starts-and-stops, failed initiatives, and cut-off successes — promising projects that have sometimes been foreclosed as a result of the relentless fetishizing of the new. Following the start and stop and second start of Gender Studies reveals the costs in sputtering — as well as how the institution’s storied role in rescuing refugee scholars distorted attitudes toward theories of identities decades later. We wrestle with the paradox of a school dominated by women throughout its history yet so slow to instantiate that reality in curriculum.
We came to our final podcast only after looking around at the flurry of centennial books, exhibitions, marketing campaigns, and festivals that were being planned for this fall. Beyond these official productions, we turned our mics to the many and odd spots where our New School histories are told every day. Not just conceived in the thrill of a big anniversary, diverse stories of our institution are relayed in less official but perhaps more far-reaching ways. Tours for prospective students tell a history of the school through its buildings and spaces; an archives formed remarkably recently collates and complicates old histories as it seeds new ones; students utilize — and activate — the school’s past to ground and motivate their protests. Building Pirate Ships and Castles follows these history-making moments, looking at how the story of the school lives in its every interaction and encounter.
In 1919, The New School was part of a wave of the new: The New Woman, The New Negro, Teddy Roosevelt’s New Nationalism, Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom, and the political periodical The New Republic, which was the home for the first discussions for an independent school of social science for men and women. There was also a movement in teaching and writing history called The New History. Led by James Harvey Robinson and Charles Beard, who became New School founders, the movement sought to free the past from its sacred isolation and instead insisted on making the past usable so that it might spark change, to push reform rather than preservation. It was an intellectual vision consistent with the now hundred-year-old educational venture they helped establish. Our New Histories podcasts continue that push into new genres, hopefully to new ears, in a new New School century.
Julia Foulkes is Professor of History at The New School of Public Engagement.
Mark Larrimore is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts.