Library of the 66 West 12th Street Building of The New School, ca. 1940–1960. Photo credit: David Rosenfel / New School Archives.

The New School for Social Research holds a story of rescue dear. This is the tale of how its co-founder and first president, the economist Alvin Johnson, climbed a mountain of correspondence and paperwork to save scores of German scholars after Nazism’s rise to power in the early 1930s. Johnson saved lives and scholarly lineages. He also burnished the reputation of the institution he helped build, establishing a University in Exile (renamed the Graduate Faculty) within The New School itself.

An academic institution in downtown Manhattan, equally committed to adult education and to using the social sciences to analyze all that is oppressive in social, cultural, and political life, The New School has — at certain moments in its history — embodied a set of egalitarian and progressive values. In 1918, the sociologist Thorstein Veblen published his The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men, in which he criticized academic institutions for defending the interests of the ruling class. He practically anticipated the 1919 founding of The New School in response to the actions of Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University, who had fired two faculty members for protesting the United States’s entrance into the war in Europe.

Many elite academic institutions have flattering stories they tell about themselves. Some value their historical connections to wealth and power. Some value their political histories (“the Free Speech Movement happened here”), or their famous former professors (“That was Foucault’s favorite sandwich shop”). The New School celebrates its two foundations: on the basis of protest, in 1919, and on the basis of rescue, in 1933.

In his memoir Kafka Was the Rage, the writer and critic Anatole Broyard captured the way American students at The New School, after WWII, could turn the narrative of rescue into one of personal triumph: “We admired the German professors. We had won the fight against fascism and now, with their help, we would defeat all the dark forces in the culture and the psyche.”

But there was an ironic twist in this story, as Judith Friedlander demonstrates in her excellent institutional history A Light in Dark Times: The New School for Social Research and Its University in Exile. From time to time, The New School itself has needed rescuing itself.

Friedlander’s book is the work of a community member — for many years, the author, an anthropologist by training, was dean of the Graduate Faculty. She is clear-eyed regarding the institution’s past shortcomings, not to mention those of its major players. We get Alvin Johnson saving European scholars, but also Johnson cheating on his wife. We get the successful founding of an academic institution, fueled by Johnson’s prodigious fundraising efforts (he joked about assembling his letters into a book called The Compleat Beggar), but also the founders’ decision not to establish an endowment (which Johnson deemed a quixotic mistake).

That original institutional sin has led to many decades of budgetary heartache, and made The New School dependent on the occasional largesse of New York’s wealthy, their family fortunes build on the kind of business interests Veblen had decried in 1918.

Nor were financial woes the only ones. The institution can boast an enviable roster of past professors, but personality conflicts or uneven staffing sometimes made departments unstable. Hannah Arendt was on the philosophy faculty for several years before her death in 1975, but her lingering aura couldn’t keep that department from struggling. After her friend and colleague Hans Jonas retired a few years later, the department was blocked, following an inquiry by the New York Department of Education, from taking in new graduate students; it was one of several that had been taking in too many students without sufficient oversight. (All of the affected departments were rebuilt in the 1980s.)

The book’s finest chapters concern the University in Exile and its legacy. Friedlander reconstructs Johnson’s correspondence with the émigrés, making the book a valuable resource for anyone interested in their stories. Her reconstruction of the exiles’ intellectual and social lives makes for pleasurable reading. Friedlander even describes the fascinating and curious case of the Graduate Faculty producing and publishing a translation of Mein Kampf, a project driven by the desire to make Hitler’s evil — and his arguments, such as they were — transparent to an American readership.

She also briefly addresses scholarly disagreements over the character of the relationship between the Graduate Faculty and the Institute for Social Research (commonly called the Frankfurt School), which had been rescued by Columbia University. In Martin Jay’s landmark history of the Frankfurt School, The Dialectical Imagination (1973), the Graduate Faculty appears as a group containing anti-Marxists and anti-Freudians, something that the graduate faculty member Hans Speier contested in a review of Jay’s book (even though it had been Speier who reviewed the Frankfurt School’s Studien über Autorität und Familie Studies on Authority and Family — in a quite hostile fashion).

But Jay also suggested that non-ideological tensions may have played a role: those who found a home at Columbia were much better off financially than those at the poorer New School. Bitter resentments blossomed under the circumstances, and help to remind us that common exile did not necessarily produce bonds of camaraderie, nor help scholars to transcend their differences.

You could create a twentieth century who’s who of European and American intellectuals, artists, and writers, just by listing people who taught at The New School. Among its earliest courses, offered to its first students (the majority of whom were women) were Horace Kallen’s Typical Theories of Life, James Robinson’s History of the Human Mind, and Thorstein Veblen’s Economic Factors in Civilization. The architectural critic Lewis Mumford taught there. John Dewey taught The Significance of Modern Philosophy, and Bertrand Russell visited there too. From Freud’s Vienna circle came Alfred Adler, Sándor Ferenczi, and Fritz Wittels, and Karen Horney and Erich Fromm taught courses in psychoanalysis as well. W. H. Auden taught poetry, Meyer Schapiro taught art history, and Alexandre Koyré and Jacques Maritain taught philosophy, as did Leo Strauss, Arendt, and Hans Jonas. The latter three had all been students of Heidegger, and were all hostile to the Frankfurt School — one reason why when Jürgen Habermas first visited, he did so on the invitation of the sociology department.

The comings-and-going of so many influential figures raises counterfactual questions: Would French structuralism ever had appeared, had Claude Levi-Strauss not encountered Roman Jakobson in The New School’s cafeteria during World War II? John Cage came to The New School in 1933, to work with Henry Cowell, and out of the courses on experimental composition Cage taught in the late 1950s arose an entire art movement, Fluxus. Without The New School, Cage’s trajectory — and, presumably, American avant-garde composition — would have taken another shape.

You can learn something from what institutions celebrate about themselves. You can also learn from what they leave out. It was at The New School that the historian of political philosophy Leo Strauss crystallized his famous argument about “esoteric writing,” claiming that philosophers had long had to hide their most subversive insights in texts that presented a less challenging public face. He went on to argue that esoteric writing might be necessary not only under conditions of explicit tyranny, but under the softer tyranny of apparently tolerant liberal regimes.

It makes sense that Strauss’s ideas, often taken to be implicitly anti-democratic, get left out of many discussions of The New School’s intellectual legacy, whereas the name of Hannah Arendt (often seen as a champion of public life) features prominently. But Strauss had insight into the difficulties of doing philosophy in public, and his decade within The New School’s ambit may have contributed something to that understanding.

As Friedlander points out, The New School itself was founded in response to a kind of intolerance, and state agents sat in on its earliest classes, as if suspecting the faculty of “shadow Hun, shadow Bolshevist, or other Un-American Propaganda.” Later, the State Department investigated the political backgrounds of the scholars Johnson sought to save from the Nazis, hoping to avoid any communist imports. The irony of Strauss’s occlusion in many accounts of The New School (Friedlander mentions him, but only in passing) is that, as the esoteric character of his thought may suggest, he was preoccupied with the problem of intolerance too, and could see its persistence in comparatively tolerant societies more clearly than many.

One common narrative about The New School is that it has stood on the heroic side of a perpetual conflict between freedom and intolerant oppression. This is flattering enough, especially if you like the notion that the school was founded “by men who belong to the ranks of the near Bolshevik intelligentsia, some of them being too radical in their views to remain on the faculty of Columbia University.” (The words come from the New York State’s Joint Legislative Committee Investigating Seditious Activities, called the Lusk Committee, which branded The New School a radical institution in 1920.)

But there are also many forms of soft repression in academic life, including the simplest device of all: money. When scholarly careers cannot be funded, they tend not to happen, and as Friedlander presents it, the story of The New School for Social Research is not only a tale of rescuing scholarship from fascism, but of the apparently Sisyphean task of rescuing scholarly life, day after day, from market forces.

This makes Friedlander’s book an especially good one to read in 2020. Higher education, many parts of which never recovered from the 2008 economic crash, now faces a new economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. As I write this review, hiring freezes and the laying off of the most vulnerable adjunct instructors, are widespread, even at the richest American schools. Some poorer institutions face the possibility of shuttering altogether — indeed, The New School is one of them.

But scratching our chins, wondering if rescue will come, gets old fast. We can also ask ourselves if we can imagine a world in which heroic rescue is unnecessary, because the conditions of our lives and our work are less precarious to begin with.

James Robinson, one of The New School’s founders, hoped for a school in which the social sciences would be emancipated from “academic traditions and popular prejudices which suspect and resent any fair statement of the actual terms and conditions of human life.” That emancipation is a big boulder to keep pushing up the mountain of the world.

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is a writer and historian.