Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Editor in chief

In New School Century, we have entered the Johnson years - the years after the jouissance of an administration-less school collapsed in acrimony in 1922 (I call it the "seven semester itch"), and the school was saved by the expert diplomacy, administrative skill and vision of an agrarian economist from the Midwest named Alvin Johnson. Well, not directly from the Midwest; he'd done doctoral work at Columbia and was working as an associate editor at The New Republic, in many ways the matrix of The New School.

(The picture above is from one of the scrapbooks, all our digitizations of which are now up on a web page hosted by the Parsons Kellen Archive, and, best of all, are accessible to anyone anywhere with an internet connection: check it out! This is on leaf 13 of the first scrapbook.)

My co-teacher J told the class about Johnson, framing it as an example of what historians call the "great man" approach to history. In the last weeks we've been reflecting on various ways to telling the story of the origin of The New School, and Johnson offers a great example of the genre. Like Solomon building the temple, or Francis Bacon initiating the scientific revolution, a good protagonist makes for a good story, even as everything else becomes background or, perhaps, chaotic forces the hero struggles against. Johnson plays a role rather like this in our spotty collective memory.

And then J complicated the story by introducing Clara Mayer: "Behind every great man," she said, "there is a great woman." (You got a promise of Mayer's story a while back which I haven't kept; sorry! Daughter of a wealthy German Jewish family, she studied with James Harvey Robinson at Barnard/Columbia and followed him to The New School. He left but she stayed, instrumental in a student group which helped the school survive in 1922, and the indispensable working partner of Johnson on everything from expanding the curriculum to include the arts to arranging logistics for the refugee scholars of the University in Exile, as well as an increasingly important figure in New School administration until 1962, when a new president fired her, only to be himself fired by a Board of Trustees which knew how vital she was to the school's life. Once you know to look for her, you find Clara everywhere in The New School (including the account of the New School years in Johnson's memoir Pioneer's Progress), but she's fallen out of all the school's narratives. Were it not for the efforts of stalwart librarian-archivist C, her memory would have disappeared completely.)

But my task yesterday was to talk about the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, a monumental fifteen-volume work which came out of The New School in 1930-35. (The image above is from the first volume, albeit an eighth reprint in 1949. Look: Clara's there, too!) This first ever encyclopedia of social sciences was proposed by New School anthropologist Alexander Goldenweiser in the early 1920s, and, while the eminent man he persuaded to be Editor in Chief (and fundraiser in chief) Edwin Seligman was at Columbia, the actual work of planning, commissioning and editing the thousands of entries was directed by Alvin Johnson. Until the complementary International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences appeared in 1968 (with a preface by Johnson), the ESS was indispensable.

I wanted students to think about how the ESS defined the project and scope of the social sciences, and to understand that this definition was consonant with if not indeed an expression of the ongoing experiment of The New School, even in the supposedly lean years between the 1919-22 honeymoon and the arrival of the University in Exile in 1933. Goldenweiser had had in mind not an alphabetical encyclopedia with a myriad entries, but a German-style handbook with book-length introductions to the various social sciences, each by a single distinguished author; these could even be published and sold separately.

Seligman and Johnson came up with something entirely different. They wanted to show the connections between the various social sciences - and, relatedly, to show that an understanding of the social dimensions of human life illuminated and required awareness of many other sciences too (including even the arts!). To encourage ease of use but also serendipitous discovery, articles are alphabetical. The editors also wanted to make manifest in this single work the vast community of researchers in social questions, and so there are articles by every scholar they could contact (articles are signed) and cross-referenced. To make the range, antecedents and variety of social research clear, fully a fifth of the ESS was given over to biographies.

But it wasn't only intended for scholars. It hoped also to reach the "intelligentsia," and to contribute to an educated public opinion around the world. Copies of the Encyclopaedia appeared in every public library and most high school libraries across the United States; I imagine many copies were sold internationally, too, as Seligman and Johnson had forged alliances not only with professional societies but with European universities and research institutes "from Florence to Oslo." (Japanese scholarship is represented, too.) The social sciences were not yet a monopoly of university researchers; written (or edited) in a deliberately jargon-free style, the ESS was conceived to make social research accessible for anyone - and not just as something scholars do.

Still, this is an encyclopedia we're talking about. How to make it engaging to students, especially in the age of Wikipedia? I think I found a way. Imagine you're a high school student in Fresno in 1949, I told the class, and stumble on the Encyclopaedia in your school or public library. What world does it open up for you? You won't be interested in the editor's programmatic introductions, but will dive right into the work.

Perhaps you'll start by looking up Francis Bacon, often cited as the father of the scientific revolution and the modern technical world. (In our class we've seen Bacon invoked in the founding "Proposal for a New School of Social Science for Men and Women," in Dewey's Democracy and Education and in Robinson's Mind in the Making.) This writer, one Roland G. Usher, thinks Bacon's influence exaggerated. Bacon's preeminence in natural science and philosophy has always raised the presumption that he had ideas of equal value upon the the social sciences, if only they could be found. Usher finds that Bacon's influence, while great, has been only indirect, in emphasizing the importance of experience. His actual, and limited, contributions to economics and political theory are more problematic than helpful.

Well!, you might think, having perhaps expected a great man account of Bacon's eternal legacies; these people are serious, and honest. And the author's name is right there, taking responsibility for his view, not like anonymous encyclopedias where peons speak like oracles.

After this article comes a shorter biography of one Roger Bacon, whom you may never have heard of or, perhaps, have (Mind in the Making's chapter on the scientific revolution starts with a Latin epigraph from him) but thought must be the same person.

Or maybe your eye will have been caught by the list of words a few lines above the start of the Bacon article. CIVILIZATION, COLONIES, IMPERIALISM, RAW MATERIALS, CONCESSIONS, SPHERES OF INFLUENCE, PROTECTORATE, MANDATE, FORCED LABOR, INVESTMENT, MISSIONS, INTERVENTION, DIPLOMATIC PROTECTION. What could this be about? You go back a page; it's "Backward Countries." What's that? You read it (the article doesn't endorse the term), you read the recommended articles, and before you know it you're getting an education. The article before this one, in turn, "Back to the Land Movement" opens new worlds, too...

Or perhaps you flick through that first volume and come on this.

Art? In an encyclopedia of social science? You start reading, and before you know it you're thinking about art in a whole new way, but also civilization, and intelligence. And science. Perhaps this inspires you to look at that long disquisition on the social sciences at the start of the volume. Sure enough, at the very end of his account of "social sciences" (political science, economics, sociology, etc.) "semi-social sciences" (ethics, education) and "sciences with social implications" (philosophy, geography, medicine, linguistics, etc.), an Edwin R. A. Seligman mentions art. It goes without saying that art as a creative activity stands in contrast with science, he writes, whose objective is analysis and understanding. But artistic creation is dominated by values and these are, at least in part, of social origin. Indeed, he concludes No one who wishes to understand the operation of social laws in the modern world can afford to overlook the evidence offered by the arts. (I.7)

This is surprising, and intriguing! After digesting the proffered mini-course in world art history (had you even heard of Primitive, Chinese, Medieval Art before, let alone thought about them socially?), you check the index to see what other articles in art are included.
Not so many, but still. "Dance," for instance, will no longer get an entry in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences thirty-three years later (though it returns in the 2008 second edition: topic for a term paper on the changing nature of the social sciences!). Our encyclopedia preserves a moment when the social sciences had different, perhaps greater, ambitions than in later years - and perhaps more interesting ones. Read more! (My colleague J, a former dancer, was disappointed by the "Dance" article, by John Martin, the dance critic whose lectures at The New School became the much more interesting and field-grounding text The Modern Dance in 1933. But perhaps you'll follow up his name, and find his book...)

And maybe, finally, as you're looking for the author or topic indices at the end of volume XV (where you might discover that Erwin Edman, the author of the lead article on "Art," was also charged with the article "Naturalism" - gotta check that out!), you'll happen on this spread:

A fifteenth-century Spanish ecclesiastic, a an early-twentieth century Japanese statesman, a fourth-century Chinese philosopher, a nineteenth-century Russian statistician? This is getting very interesting, and nothing like what you thought you were getting into... And if these people were leading lives of social relevance and interest, why not you, whether you ever set foot in a university or not?

Having played out this serendipitous way one proceeds through an encyclopedia (I used overhead slides of the page spreads above), I hope the students realized that it's not by accident that someone might discover a world in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. That's precisely what Seligman, Johnson, Mayer and the several dozen assistant editors wanted to happen. Alphabetization, signed articles, cross-references and indices, a generous understanding of socially relevant sciences, and attention through biography to the individual human lives which generate social knowledge and practice: it couldn't be more different from an authoritative handbook from on high, and couldn't be more inviting.

Closing question: If you were to put the world of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences in a building, what would it look like? Stay tuned!

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