Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Historical wrinkles

Second week of "The New School Century," and we have to start telling a story about The New School! I'm better at taking stories apart - and, sometimes, then putting them back together. So, for instance, we need to challenge the "crisis at Columbia" story about The New School's origins. Columbia's importance is quite different.

The "crisis at Columbia" story
With the US's entry into World War I, Columbia's president Nicholas Murray Butler announced that the university would not tolerate any professors' objecting to the war. Two did and were fired. In 1919 historians Charles Beard and James Harvey Robinson resigned in protest, and, together with their buddies Thorstein Veblen and John Dewey, started a "new school" founded in academic freedom, a kind of anti-university that was truer to the ideal of the university than craven Columbia. (Some versions of this story make Beard and Robinson pacifists, too.)

A nice story, but unsupportable on the facts, most significant among which is that discussions about setting up a new school, involving Beard, Robinson and others, date back at least to 1916, well before the US entered the war. (Beard and Robinson both supported the war, by the way.) Butler's firing of Catell and Dana may have been the trigger, but plans for a new kind of school were already afoot. As a matter of fact, Robinson, Beard and Veblen had all published books criticizing American universities. Columbia and Butler were not the problem, universities were. Indeed, it was on Columbia's dime that Robinson and Beard were able to develop and publish their critiques of universities. Columbia (which Dewey never left) wasn't a terrible place but as good as a university could be. It was not Columbia's failure as a university which was the problem, but that even as accomplished a university as Columbia had shown it could not be trusted.

There are at least three problems with the "crisis of Columbia" story, beyond its inaccuracy. First, it suggests that New School developed as a reaction to Columbia - without Butler's patriotic persecution of pacifist and socialist faculty, there would have been no New School. But a new school was on its way to happening; the hub of discussion was The New Republic, which published the proposal for a new school a year before the Columbia resignations. Second, seeing a New School founded to protect true academic freedom under fire at Columbia makes it seem that the founders were concerned to form a truer, better university. In fact, they were suspicious of universities as a whole for all sorts of structural reasons, and exploring alternative structures.

Finally and a little more subtly, seeing the New School founded on "academic freedom" risks making the New School project sound like just what it was rejecting. When we think of "academic freedom" these days we tend to think of debates about tenure, which it is argued allow scholars not only to do politically unpopular work but also to devote themselves to the kind of specialized and often arcane scholarly projects which worldly trustees cannot understand. The university is a blessed space which allows the more otherworldly values of pure scholarship to survive, safe from the pressures of publication and popularity. Well, the founders certainly were all for academic freedom - understood primarily as academic self-government free of the intrusions of deans and trustees, who were seen as suppressing work critical of the Establishment to which they belonged. But they had no interest in unworldly scholarship; Beard, Robinson and Dewey criticized universities for being unworldly spaces which rejected knowledge of the real world, and accountability to it.

So yes, New School was founded by people, some of whom had resigned from Columbia because of Butler's firing of war-objectors - but others stayed on, and yet others had no connection to Columbia at all. Columbia had not stifled these founders' critiques of universities but made them possible, and productive relationships with Columbia characterized the New School's early years, from the large number of Columbia faculty who taught there to the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, whose editor-in-chief Edwin Seligman was at Columbia and associate editor was New School president Alvin Johnson. Columbia was friend, not foe. But New School wasn't trying to out-university Columbia; it wasn't trying to be a university at all. Already before the War, the founders had been involved in different institutions for "social research," from the Institute of Municipal Research to The New Republic. The discussions about a "New School of Social Science" begun already in 1916 were not about forming a better, truer university, but imagining something radically different than a university. "Academic freedom" was part of it but nearly anti-academic conceptions of social relevance and accountability were, too.

Does this make a better story, or a story at all? It does, I think, and a story even more relevant in this moment when, for old and new reasons, universities are under fire. But to tell the story well we really need to explore the alternative institutions of the progressive era and see The New School in the context of them, not just among universities. That's just where the class is going next week! Stay tuned!

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