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I’m out of there! I’ve stepped down as a tenured professor at The New School for Social Research. I came up through the ranks, advancing from Assistant Professor to Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology. Along the way, there were stints as Chair of the Department of Sociology and Liberal studies, and as Acting Associate Provost for the Liberal Arts and Special Advisor to the Provost on Publishing. My years of fighting for The New School to attend to its founders’ ideals, while keeping up with the times, are over.
I will, though, continue to contribute to my New School projects. I will remain a Senior Fellow at the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies. I will also remain chair of the Democracy Seminar: Our new platform is just up, and is the third online publishing venture I’ve created over the years, after Public Seminar and Deliberately Considered.
In other words, I am retiring but I’m not throwing in the towel. I will focus on the activities that I most enjoy doing at and beyond The New School. I hope to give presentations at home and abroad, especially about the work of the Democracy Seminar and my scholarship on “the social condition” and the political aesthetic of “gray is beautiful.” I think I have at least one more good book in me. In fact, as has been the case with all my writing, I feel an urgency and an obligation to write it.
So why retire? Well, I look forward to a more leisurely life, fewer official meetings, and more conversations over good food, drinks, and coffee. I’m giving up my office with the beautiful view of the Empire State Building, and I look forward to meeting with friends and colleagues in restaurants and cafes in New York, Paris (where there is a branch of the Goldfarb clan), and in the many cities where the Democracy Seminar is developing.
Although I am one of the millions of older workers who opted for early retirement during the pandemic, I realize that I did so from a position of privilege, unlike the vast majority, for whom retirement is genteel name for unemployment, and potential long term impoverishment. I was not forced to retire but chose to do so as a matter of longstanding principle, not necessity.
I humbly suggest that more of my peers follow this path.
As I indicated in my first essay on this topic, Two Cheers for Ageism, I think tenured professors of a certain age have a responsibility to make room for the new. We should step aside and help make space for the creativity of the younger generations, even as we still work to pass on what we have learned and continue to respond to present circumstances.
Hans Jonas, the great New School philosopher of biology, has inspired my thinking about this. In his brilliant lecture, “The Burden and Blessings of Mortality,” he recognizes an obvious universal—that we don’t want to die. But he also highlights a need: our death makes possible the survival of the species. It makes possible the necessary innovation for human continuity and change. This judgment he shared with his dear friend, colleague, and yes, also lover, Hannah Arendt. They helped me to know when to step down, to know when to change the terms of my active participation in education and public life.
Jonas’s talk was anti-sentimental, delivered shortly before his death. But he only once referred to his own experience, in a reflection on his appreciation of music. This experience is not only his. We respond to the music of our youth. It provides the soundtrack of our lives, whether it is popular or refined, or an intriguing combination of both. That which moved us most profoundly when we were coming of age, gains strength as we age.
We may listen to and appreciate new works of music, but not in the same way. The music of our youth defines us, and if we abandon it, we abandon ourselves. Attach too intimately to the new and you distance yourself from your past. You lose your identity, and you likely cannot respond to and create the new as freshly as those who are informed by it.
At the same time, when you insist that your music is the real music, it ossifies and loses its power. Jonas believed that what is necessary is an honesty about your own experience combined with an openness to the new, and an appreciation of new experiences as they unfold.
And I believe that what is true for music, is true for all the arts. And what is true for the arts, is true for the sciences, both narrowly and broadly understood. How we dance, how we write, how we discover and describe, how we theorize are based on the paths we have taken, and there must be room for those who are freshly embarking on their journeys. Universities need more desperately twenty and thirty-somethings than seventy and eighty-somethings.
I believe I have learned things along my way and haven’t given up on believing that those who follow me should be informed by what I have learned. But they need to find their own path, even as they consider what I have to tell them, if they are so inclined. One of the great joys of being a professor is that you get to hear from the young with regularity. I commit myself to continue to listen in the webinars I am organizing and in the transregional courses I intend to teach. And I similarly commit myself to reading and to an engagement with the work of others.
I am quite comfortable with this position. I have never felt I was, or wanted to be, at the center of things. I always chose to be out of the mainstream, and have been fascinated by the rays of hope one can find on the margins, from my explorations of Polish student theater to my summarizing what I have learned on the margins in The Politics of Small Things. The New School has been a perfect home to do this.
But now I move on, all the while treasuring where I have been. My home has become the social and intellectual connections I have forged over the years–supported by my publishing innovations, the Democracy Seminar, and Public Seminar–with close colleagues in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
I’m no longer a tenured professor: that’s a big change. But my life as a writer, teacher, and citizen moves forward. Professor Jonas wrote much of his most important work including his brilliant essay on blessings and burdens, after he retired. His example continues to inspire me, as the challenges of living in our world continue to motivate me.
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is the Founding Editor of Public Seminar, Senior Fellow at the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies, and chair of the Democracy Seminar