This new foreword to Alvin Johnson’s Pioneer’s Progress (originally published in 1952 by Viking Press, and reissued in 1960 by the University of Nebraska Press with a foreword by Max Lerner) by New School professors Julia Foulkes and Mark Larrimore celebrates its eBook publication by Plunkett Lake Press in May 2020. It offers an updated perspective on the pioneering life of a progressive educator through a fresh lens on the era in which he lived.

Alvin Johnson is the leading man in the history of The New School. He saved it from financial failure again and again and again; he attracted intellectuals to its faculty, most auspiciously those fleeing fascist Europe in the 1930 and 40s and he persuaded artists such as Thomas Hart Benton and José Clemente Orozco to create murals for its walls. For a quarter of a century after his official retirement as president in 1946, he was the elder statesman who continued to confer legitimacy on the school.

A whiff of destiny suffuses this autobiography. While The New School does not appear until the last third, Johnson’s involvement with it can be seen as the apex of a linear upward trajectory. Pioneer’s Progress claims an identity for The New School many have forgotten—not only liberal in its specific early 20th century meaning, but shaped by the democratic impulses of the Midwest, the insights into human nature of the Latin classics, and the virtues of Danish farmers. As Max Lerner writes in the book’s original foreword, Pioneer’s Progress reads less like a typical story of a person’s life and more like “an education” in the style of The Education of Henry Adams (1918). It is an autobiography that reveals more about its era than its author, particularly seventy years after it was written. Johnson’s charm, roving curiosity, and loquaciousness create a narrative that bounces from farm life through educational institutions from Nebraska to Texas, California, and Illinois, and finally comes to rest in New York at the beginning of its rise as a cosmopolitan global city. 

Most of all, Pioneer’s Progress is “an education” about distinguishing formal rituals of certifying learning  from the knowledge that sustains democracy. As a boy, “early schooling interfered very little with my education,” Johnson claims—and proves—as he grows from the boy put in charge of the family farm to an economics professor in universities and an editor of magazines and encyclopedias. His wide-ranging interests in economics, land reform, politics, and the arts kept him moving from one university to another and, finally, to seek a wider public for his research and opinions. The New School, born in the offices of The New Republic, allowed Johnson to institutionalize what he had learned about the insufficiency of existing forms of education in making informed citizens so necessary to democracy. 

If the book documents the widening of educational theory and opportunity in the first half of the 20th century, it obscures as much as it illuminates about Johnson’s own learning. Encountering Pioneer’s Progress in the twenty-first century, the attentive reader may find much of the book self-serving, and the Alvin Johnson portrayed in its narrative a person incapable of error. On questions from race relations to war reparations, Johnson is always on the right side of history, often the only one in the room to be right, while supposed experts stumble. (The most noble eventually and graciously concede.) Johnson sometimes claims a deeper understanding of the realities of racism than African Americans or his Jewish friends. He professes a truer grasp of the demands of democracy than Eastern liberals or American presidents, and of higher education than professors of universities old or new. The triumphalist narrative makes it harder to appreciate just how he managed to be right about so many things. 

Johnson’s stance as a feminist is a case in point. Johnson strives to portray his mother as an early feminist in the 1880s, emphasizing her strengths as a strong independent woman and the societal opposition to those characteristics. His wife Edith Henry, whom he married in 1904, is smarter than he is, he says, a woman with a doctorate in philosophy from Columbia who chooses to raise and homeschool their seven children. And he credits the long-time New School educator Clara Mayer with much of the success of the institution and claims that he “could write a whole chapter” on her—and then never mentions her again. While his account of his peregrination through universities talks of his mostly male professorial colleagues, more recent research has uncovered he was not unfamiliar with the sort of romantic liaison he described with such “negligent exuberance” in his first novel in 1914. He had affairs with multiple women working for him at The New School, including one who bore his child. (See Judith Friedlander’s A Light in Dark Times for a more detailed if still hagiographic view of Johnson.) Johnson may have been broadminded about sexuality and women’s achievements but seems unconcerned with issues of power. 

Reading Pioneer’s Progress today can be bracing. Invidious stereotypes abound even as Johnson claims to transcend them; he relishes recreating offensive views in conversations he claims to remember verbatim. Even the confident bluster of the book’s title can raise hackles. The allusion to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, deftly challenging both religious and New England-framed narratives of American identity, will go over the heads of most readers today. “Pioneer” is now understood as a mark of the worldview of white settlers who colonized the United States rather than individual discovery and fortitude. “Progress” has been tied to teleology, an overdetermined belief in fortunes forever rising, wedded to unsustainable ideals of endless growth and oblivious to the stolen land and forced labor at the root of its momentum. Johnson is bound to a time when confidence in the future was heartfelt and it propelled his belief in the impact of education to better the world. Our appeals to such ideals today, in comparison, are chastened, qualified, hesitant. 

Nowhere are these changes more apparent than in Johnson’s greatest legacy, The New School, now a traditional degree-granting university with little remnants of its beginning as a center of adult education that regarded degrees as a corruption of learning. Policy, politics, and social sciences now live alongside leading programs in design and the performing arts. The greatest tie to Johnson’s legacy may be its self-understanding as a “progressive” university, steeped in a vague liberalism even as it reaches toward a vision of social justice more inclusive and equitable. Pioneer’s Progress’ picture of the remarkable range of progressive, democratic, and liberal voices in debate around its founding could help The New School of today be more aware about its place in history and more vigilant about the precariousness of its achievement.

The New School celebrated its 100th birthday in 2019 determined to meet the needs of a new moment, focused on the future rather than the past. Johnson embodied that hopeful, slightly naïve but activist stance, a pugilist bouncing on his feet ready for battle. But he would look askance at our presentism, and would be dismayed that few of our students read Vergil, Tacitus, or his beloved Pliny the Younger. If we are to figure out the obstacles to education today—to learning both inside and beyond educational institutions—then a more vigorous and honest assessment of our past is due. Our leading man had faults and blind spots—and he certainly did not build The New School by himself. Let’s understand him in fullness: not a “common man,” as he calls himself in the final sentence of this book, but one keyed to his moment and in sustaining dialogue with many others, as was the school of which he was a part.

In the following excerpt Johnson mentions the New School for the first time. It is 1906 and Johnson is in his fourth year teaching economics at Columbia.

An offer of a professorship came from my Alma Mater, the University of Nebraska. The department was underdeveloped; my old friend W. G. Langworthy Taylor, with an assistant, held the entire field. I should have practically free range among the subjects that interested me.

Everyone experiences occasionally homesickness for his Alma Mater. With the years, the memory of the campus, the professors, the students grows cloudy but warm. So too the memory of the land of one’s birth. Vivid pictures of the sunlit prairies, the friendly little whirlwinds marching in single file, teasing the straw and cornhusks up from the dry earth, the vast white sheets of snow covering level fields and the long hill slopes; the exuberant fertility of the brown wheat and the fields of corn, with the yellow ears flying rhythmically into the wagon box in the time of husking; the sudden burst of spring, with flowers and meadowlarks where last week the snow lay deep — that is Nebraska, the Nebraska of one’s homesick dreams.

I tendered my resignation at Columbia in the spring of 1906.

President Butler sent word to me to call at his office.

“You are making a great mistake, Johnson,” he declared magisterially. “You think you can go to a Western university, establish yourself in your science, and be called back to Columbia. You won’t be called back.”

“I’m not counting on that,” I said.

“But you will want to come back. You will miss the association with America’s foremost scholars. You will miss the libraries of New York. You will miss New York painfully. You will never have a chance to come back to Columbia. You have the reputation of a radical. No one would hold that against you if you stayed with us. You would be as secure, you’d be promoted as fast, if not faster. But this is a conservative institution. It’s not going to Nebraska to get a radical to join the faculty.”

“I understand,” I said, “but I doubt that I am more radical than you, President Butler.”

“Well, do you think if I quit Columbia now they’d ever call me back?”

His eyes twinkled. I strove to suppress a smile. At the time Butler was deep in hot water over his action in forcing George E. Woodberry out and the consequent fiery resignation of Edward A. MacDowell.

“Well, my boy,” he said. “I see you are bent on going. Good luck. I’ll keep an eye on your progress.”

Later, when I joined with James Harvey Robinson, Charles A. Beard, Thorstein Veblen, Herbert Croly, Mrs. Willard Straight, Mrs. George Bacon, and other liberals to launch the New School for Social Research I found in Butler our most savage critic. According to Butler, we were simply a little bunch of disgruntled liberals, setting up a tiny fly-by-night radical counterfeit of education. I wrote savagely about Butler too.

But years later, after I had set up the University in Exile, I once found myself sitting on the same platform with Butler. He was splendid, in appearance and speech, and I felt a glow of pride in my heart that I had sat under him as a student and served under him on the faculty. With all his faults he was a great educator and a great man.

After the program Butler offered me his hand and turned on me the super-power charm that had brought millions of dollars to Columbia.

“My boy,” he said — I was already getting gray — ”we are proud of what you are doing at the New School. I have a rather wild plan to propose, but I’ll leave it to Fred Keppel to talk it out with you.”

I allege to myself that I am beyond flattery, but the truth is, I felt stupendously flattered. I wasted no time in getting to Fred Keppel, at the Carnegie Corporation.

“You know, Alvin,” Keppel said, “Nicholas Murray Butler is great on consolidations. If he had been in business he would have consolidated all the corporations in America. He proposes to take the New School under the wing of Columbia. I’m commissioned to persuade you.

“He sees a fruitful combination between your University in Exile and the Columbia faculty, your faculty to take care of the European point of view, ours to take care of the American. He sees a fruitful combination between your general courses and Columbia Extension and would make you head of the whole show.

“If Butler were twenty years younger I’d say, join up with him. But he may retire any day. And he is the only protection you would have against the Columbia trustees, who would see no reason why Columbia should harbor two faculties of Political Science, when the Columbia faculty, enlarged by two or three of your best men, would suffice. And they would expect you to shape your general courses to bring in large classes, and money for the Columbia treasury.

“I know a merger would solve your personal problem. You’d be set for life, yourself. But the New School would fade into history. And education would wait another generation or more for an institution that would take up the real adult educational job, of educating the educated.”

I thanked Keppel for his good advice and came away in a sort of anguish. Personal security dangled before my eyes, but never in all my life have I given a hoot for personal security. There is no security for man except under a slab of marble or granite or concrete, and I have no preferences as among the three — or even a fourth, green sward with weeds to vex a curator. But in the here and now it was my job to raise money to support the New School, which meant mainly the University in Exile. If we merged with Columbia I’d never have to hear: “What can the New School do that Columbia isn’t doing?” I heard that so often. I’d never have to go to reluctant contributors: “You gave me a hundred dollars last year; in the name of God, give me another hundred today.”

The choice of Hercules was upon me, and I was not a Hercules. But I was a free man, resolved to be free.

Did I tell my board? No, I didn’t dare.

Julia Foulkes and Mark Larrimore are professors at The New School and senior editors at Public Seminar. Their multi-year investigation into the history of the institution has resulted in courses, a website, an exhibition, podcasts, and a series of essays. They have also supported the growth of the university’s archives, and its growing number of digital collections.
Excerpt from Pioneer’s Progress, ebook edition May 2020, published courtesy of