In 1918, the New Republic-based creators of what would become The New School for Social Research called for a rethinking 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 the service of solving ccontemporary 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 only be understood by new methods of research in the social sciences. “[T]his is the hour for the experiment,” their proposal proclaimed.

A century later, the experiment has become an institution, one different in almost every way from the one originally proposed. Psychology and the arts quickly redefined what “social research” could be. The Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences and the rise of fascism inspired The New School’s president to establish a European-style graduate school staffed by refugee scholars. Belatedly and backwards, the school undertook to offer degree programs, but its defining focus was for a long time the lifelong growth of an educated democratic citizenry. 

Further alliances and innovations have made performing arts and design central to the enterprise. The Parsons School of Design, a 74-year-old dowager when it merged with The New School in 1970, is now the university’s most prominent school. As facilities coalesced around the  Greenwich Village campus in recent decades, degrees and departments have come to structure an institution that looks increasingly like a conventional university. Periodically, The New School erupts in protest, as the promise of a progressive and social justice–oriented school seems betrayed by corporatizing trends, the inspiring ideals of the past ringing hollow in what marginalized students, staff, and faculty experience as a “climate of exile.”

The narrative of the new, however, marches on. It is The New School’s constant claim, branded in name and now enshrined in bromides about persistent and ongoing innovation. But can—or should—a 100-year-old experiment be endlessly new? 

The challenges The New School and all of higher education face because of the current pandemics of public health, economic inequality, and systemic racism are severe. But a hundred years of experience show that financial shortfalls, sudden restructuring, and opening and shutting programs are The New School’s normal state. Anchoring hopes for the future in an amorphous culture of timeless “innovation” somehow “in our DNA” from the get-go seems like gloss rather than substance. Change, not innovation, has been the constant. Many of The New School’s choices have been forced. There have been missteps. The lessons lie in how stakeholders, from students to presidents, pulled specific victories from the jaws of specific defeats, or vice versa.

Designing and redesigning the ledger of the new also continues another New School tradition: forgetting. 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 in its time and place—or what became of them. Its adventures in providing a consistently present- and future-oriented curriculum raise questions about the nature and production of knowledge that are more relevant than ever as we struggle to rebuild in a post-pandemic city. Can we really solve contemporary problems by simply leaving the past behind? Doesn’t effective change—not to mention the juggernaut of “innovation”—require critique and deliberation rather than disavowal? If we recognize that history is fundamental to understanding the nature and structure of societal ills, this institution’s past can offer an unparalleled guide to its future.

We have spent a decade mining the histories of The New School—in all its many parts—to tell a story more involved, more intriguing, and more empowering than the burnished lore of experiment and refuge, the storied 1919 beginning, the 1933 University in Exile, and an unexplained venture into the world of design. Instead, we have been piecing together the story of a school that reflected and contributed to debate about the aims of education as it tried its darndest not to be a university. We have explored 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? 

Realizing The New School: Lessons From the Past (you can download it for free here) features essays we wrote for Public Seminar. We hope it inspires you to read the others in our ongoing seminar “New School Histories.” These essays build on and build out our ongoing research and conversations and provide a particularly incisive look at the first 60 years of the school, attending to questions that still rankle. 

The New School can no longer claim to be an experiment. It is a century-old institution with a rich legacy of successes and failures, aspirations and shortcomings. Any vision of its future requires clear-eyed exploration of its past. Its kaleidoscope of discordant legacies, including moments of greatness as well as of blindness, tells a story not of an unchanging DNA but of choice, chance, and constraint. In fact, it may be this embrace of contingency that has helped it remain on the critical edge. 

The New School was founded as a counter to higher education. Our future may depend on maintaining the vitality of that critique–starting with our own institution.

Julia Foulkes is Professor of History at The New School and a senior editor atPublic Seminar.

Mark Larrimore is the Program Director of Religious Studies in Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School.