Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Multiversity

I think we did the three-ring circus of The New School proud today. With the help of one of our teaching assistants, we brilliantly conveyed the school at its early 40s apogee. The show began with these two images -
the familiar modernist auditorium repurposed as a theater by Erwin Piscator's Dramatic Workshop and the familiar Benton room playing host to a seminar (doubtless in French) by the École Libre des Hautes Études' Henri Bonnet. The point was not that earlier things had been displaced but precisely the opposite. The Dramatic Workshop and École Libre joined an already vigorous set of overlapping institutions. Alvin Johnson insisted that all the faculty of University in Exile (Graduate Faculty) teach a course in the Adult Education program each year. Piscator required all his theater students to take night courses there, too.

The École and the Dramatic Workshop are lesser known parts of New School history, as they did not last. The École, founded as a French/Belgian university in exile in 1942, severed connections with The New School in 1947 and helped build up the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. (A remnant remained in New York, too, at least through 1967.) And the Dramatic Workshop, established in 1940, was shut down after a decade, ostensibly for economic reasons. Piscator returned to Europe when called to testify before HUAC.

The many splendored New School of the early 1940s can be a bit hard to get a handle on. Had the place lost focus? Indeed, there were more entities than just the Adult Division, Graduate Faculty, École and Dramatic Workshop. The Graduate Faculty had spawned an autonomous Institute of World Affairs. And the Adult Division had created a Senior College in anticipation of the BAs it would offer starting in 1944 to returning GIs, itself divided into a School of Politics (dean Hans Simons) and a School of Philosophy and Liberal Arts (dean Clara Mayer - yes!). People at the time must have wondered if The New School had exploded, too, as Alvin Johnson in a December 1943 Bulletin wrote:
 
I had a theory about what Johnson meant by "true American" here - more than obligatory profession of patriotic commitment required for a group of emigrés during wartime (though there was that, too). The key was Horace Kallen's ideas of pluralism, as Johnson explained in 1946:
The New School was flourishing and, far from being diluted or disturbed by new divisions, it was living out its key idea - the "acceptancc with eager interest" of "multiplicity" of approaches and genres. If this hadn't been the central idea of the founders, so much the worse for them. Over the course of its first quarter-century, The New School had demonstrated that an institution might be stronger for being truly pluralistic in structure. How else would the "creative process" learn to outgrow received views?

Our teaching assistant R provided a lovely illustration of the fruits of such pluralism from within the École Libre. It involves these gentlemen,
the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and the structural linguist Roman Jakobson - both rather younger during their École Libre years. Lévi-Strauss (who died in 2009; imagine if, like Marc Bloch, he had not escaped the Nazis but died in 1944?) did not know Jakobson but attended his lectures at the École and realized he was an unwitting structuralist. Jakobson returned the favor, attending Lévi-Strauss' lectures on kinship, confirming the affinity - then recommended Lévi-Strauss write a book about it. Elementary Forms of Kinship was written in his studio on 11th Street off Sixth Avenue, and the discipline of anthropology was changed. Would this have happened without the École Libre and the interdisciplinary example of its Kallenist host The New School?


The cavalcade continued with my colleague J's account of the arts, social research and politics at The New School before and during the years Piscator spent here. The Group Theater (above) taught in the mid-1930s. The  communist-inspired First American Artists Congress Against War and Fascism also took place there. Arts as social research has been one of our central themes in the class thus far, but J took it up a notch by contrasting it with political art ("art as politics") like Piscator's agitprop of the 1920s, and with the applied art of the school led by Frank Parsons (which joined The New School family in 1970).

Political art used the arts to convey political messages. Applied arts took classical and European forms and adapted them to the demands of modern American life. But New School artists we've seen, from Cowell to Humphrey to Benton to Abbott, start with modern urban life and its problems, developing art forms to express its energy and its challenges.

Should I perhaps not describe this period, when artists and scholars of many disciplines and ideologies taught and wrote in many languages, as The New School's apogee? Does not that imply that it was all downhill from there? Perhaps. I can hear our new historians Robinson and Beard warning against nostalgia!

It's not clear that the rest of the New School's 20th century was just a routinization of the charisma of the first quarter-century. Exciting new ventures came and went, and the school institutionalized, managing in our own time to look enough like a conventional university to attract thousands of full-time students and employ hundreds of full-time faculty. It may still contain the Kallenist spark (which may itself have been less than entirely deliberate), but not if we think that it has all this while been trying to "become a university." At a time when "the university" is under fire as archaic and unaffordable, our gamble is that understanding the ongoing experiment of The New School will make us all more creative social researchers, thinking pluralistically outside the boxes of disciplines and monolithic academic institutions.

We all laughed when our past president paid some Mad Men to rebrand us and they came up with "The New School: A University." What else should we be, we scoffed, a bar and lounge? a pita bread? a scent? But they may have been onto something, if unwittingly. Long may the experiment go on! "For a time it even resembled a university," one imagines someone in the future saying; "Even Homer nods!"

Wish us luck telling the rest of this story!

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