Saturday, February 25, 2012

A usable past

The "new historian" founders of The New School James Harvey Robinson and Charles Beard were opponents of antiquarian, institutional and nostalgic histories. The encounter with the past should be helpful to the present, not in justifying it but in letting us understand how we got this far and how much farther we might yet be able to go; it might well also show where we have lost our way. Here's a good recent illustration:

As you know, we were able to digitize a number of scrapbooks The New School maintained in its first decades, and then left to moulder in boxes in a back room. Students in our class were each given a 12-page section of the scrapbooks to explore. We haven't had a chance to work through all the scrapbooks ourselves, so students have encountered primary material it's possible nobody has read in the better part of a century! We didn't know what students would find, or think of what else they might do with it besides write it up for us.

Well, several members of the staff of the New School Free Press are in the class, and, through one of them the editorial above got its most compelling argument for the inclusion of students in the university's Board of Trustees: we did it once before, indeed, in the glory of our founding moments. We've "tragically fallen to a state unrecognizable to those who created it"! Scrapbook evidence follows:

In 1921, the Evening Post reported that two members of [The New School's] Student Council were elected as representatives to the trustees’ meetings, where faculty members also had representation. The meetings “[were] far from the cut-and-dried performance, being rather a clearing house for ideas from the three points of view,” wrote the Post.

Before concluding that we have broken faith with our founders, the editorial makes some other pretty convincing arguments. The founders (even those who left before students like Clara Mayer were given positions on the Board of Trustees) would be proud!

Nationwide, many public and private universities elect student representatives to the board of trustees. In New York State, all boards in the SUNY system have at least one student with full voting privileges, Bard College has two, and Rockland Community College’s tenth board member is always a voting student.

The New School should act swiftly to do the same and enact the recommendation brought forth to the board three years ago. Student tuition and housing fees accounted for roughly 90 percent of The New School’s operating budget in 2010, according to the most recent figures provided by the university’s website. The student body of The New School does their part for this university by almost single-handedly supporting it financially, and it’s about time the university gives something back: fair representation at the highest level of the decision-making process.

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