Tuesday, February 07, 2012

On the make

Thus H. G. Wells about James Harvey Robinson's 1921 The Mind in the Making: The Relation of Intelligence to Social Reform, the first important book to come out of The New School for Social Research. Robinson was the leader of the "New History" and in 1921 he was The New School's first "director." The book was based on Robinson's popular lecture course on "The History of the Human Mind" and intended initially to be part of a Worker's Bookshelf series of inexpensive, accessible works of critical thought conceived by the new Worker's Educational Bureau of America, which was housed at The New School.

Mind in the Making was a best-seller, and put The New School on the map nationally. But the Worker's Bookshelf series was nixed by the head of the American Federation of Labor who feared it was communist. And in 1922 Robinson, together with his fellow New Historian (and fellow Columbia refugee) Charles Beard, had given up on the fledgling school. How to tell this story? And, the shades of the New Historians ask, why?

The New History argued that history should be useful. It should teach not lists of names and dates but what Robinson in his 1912 The New History called "the technique of progress." In Mind in the Making, he promised that "history, by revealing the origin of our current fundamental beliefs, will tend to free our minds so as to permit honest thinking" (14). Traditional forms of history teaching were disempowering not only because they focused on a distant past presented for genuflection but because they didn't explain how history worked. "[T]he present has hitherto been the willing victim of the past," Robinson and Beard wrote in 1916; "the time has now come when it should turn on the past and exploit it in the interests of advance."

Mind in the Making calls in particular for a "scientific" view of history. It begins with an account of how three centuries of scientific discovery and invention have changed the human understanding of nature and expanded our powers to control and use it. The study of human phenomena, meanwhile, remains "medieval," blinded by ancient abstractions and religious prohibitions. To truly understand ourselves, and reform ourselves, we need not only to focus on recorded history but to acknowledge the ongoing legacies of a half million year history.
To understand the four layers - that is, to learn to rule them rather than be ruled by them - we need to acquaint ourselves with the findings of four new scientific fields: animal or comparative psychology; genetic and analytic psychology; anthropology, ethnology and comparative religion; and the history of philosophy, science, theology and literature.

It's a tall order, but makes for an exciting course. One wonders what the equivalents in the human sciences of organic chemistry, electricity and flying machines will be, and hopes against hope that they will prevent another Great War. But Robinson's optimism was faltering already by 1921. The carnage of the war should have shown the world the need for a new age, an end to nationalism and ideology, but responses to the war were just more of the same. Mind in the Making ends with a discussion of the "repressive" nature of most human institutions (especially religion), and by 1930 Robinson was writing "man is by nature not an open-minded progressive creature, but, in general, one which distrusts innovation..." Mind in the Making's call for more intelligence shows both why and how we must grow, and why we will likely fail.

I don't think Robinson left The New School for world-historical reasons. It's certainly not a story of world-historical importance! Many of the other founders left, too. (Dewey even returned to Columbia.) Maybe it was a despondency at the souring historical moment. Maybe it was conflict between deeply different visions of The New School as a center for research or for teaching, for workers or for experts or for the middle class. Maybe it was the difficulty of fleshing out the dream of a new kind of institution - an institution, indeed, that wasn't supposed to function like an institution! Maybe it was personalities. Continuing in 1922 with a first "president" (The New Republic's Alvin Johnson) and a changed list of trustees, The New School continued to teach all those new sciences Robinson thought necessary (along with the social sciences he didn't - economics, sociology, political science) but the focus inevitably evolved.

It's hard to tell this story, but including the New History and the role of leading New Historians in the brief first efflorescence of The New School makes it easier. The question isn't the Rankian question of what "really occurred" but how (whether!) the story can be told in a way useful to us in the present. That doesn't allow us to make things up - Robinson and Beard understood themselves as social scientists, not spinners of tales - but it does both permit and require us to be "presentist." Although there's no question that we're telling the story differently than would people outside the school, or in different places within it, or a decade or two ago, or to a different audience (I'm always aware of the many Parsons students in the room), the aim is still "honest thinking."

A usable past, Robinson and Dewey and others would surely agree, should focus on processes rather than only on abstractions - or founders! But, and here they might not follow, a usable past also has to be past - if not a "foreign country" at least a place different enough from the present to enable us to imagine beyond the present and its problems. Or, to split the difference, a place with present problems of its own, some of the initially most useless-seeming of which might enable us to ask new questions of our present.

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