Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Anti-establishment

My co-teacher J was away today, so New School Century was all mine. However the students have grown accustomed to frequent changes of tone and material, as J and I pass the narration back and forth, so I tried to put on a varied show. We started with architecture, turned to the student movements of the 1960s, explored The New School's artistic and curricular responses to these events, and ended with Hannah Arendt's On Violence, the text of the 35th anniversary General Seminar at the Graduate Faculty of Social and Political Science. Somehow it all hung together, I think. Some highlights:

The building story is pretty straightforward. After spending its first decade in Chelsea, The New School spent the next three at 66 West 12th Street, refugee and emigré intellectuals cheek by jowl with Greenwich Village artists, psychoanalysts, urban planners and curious or cruising layfolk. In 1956, the building was extended a bit to the west and across the block to 11th Street, creating both a courtyard - a campus! - and a new more international style face for the school, tho' facing inward. Where Joseph Urban's severe black 12th Street façade was modernism incarnate, the urbane school of the late 1950s was better represented by glass and the sculptures of the courtyard. The offices of the Graduate Faculty moved into the 3rd floor of the new lower-rise building on 11th Street, with a big cafeteria and an exhibition space above, classrooms and a street-level library below, with its stacks in the basement.
Then, for the New School's fiftieth anniversary in 1969, it was given an old department store at Fifth Avenue and 14th Street, and everything changed. The graduate programs along with the library moved out of 11th Street, opening spaces that were eventually filled by undergraduate liberal arts programs. The New School universe now had two centers, the historic hub now seeming rather out of the way by comparison with the very public one on the major Fifth Avenue intersection. This was a time also of great enrollments in MA programs in politics, sociology, etc. - young men avoiding the draft, in significant part - which enabled the GF to pay the highest professorial salaries in the country, and still have money left over to rescue the floundering Parsons School of Design (a story we'll be telling next week!).
For more than three decades, the GF at Fifth and 14th was the center of graduate life, the 11th-12th Street campus left for the adult division and a series of undergraduate experiments. A building diagonally across from the GF on 13th and Fifth was acquired to house Parsons, and a few other properties were picked up, too. But the experience of most students, if not of faculty, was now in the city, as they trekked from one building to another for classes. For reasons I haven't been able to discern, the Graduate Faculty building was also a sort of fortress, with thin slits for windows and an interior largely devoid of natural light - dramatically different from the spirit of the 1956 extensions. (I learned yesterday that the windowlessness was not an inheritance from its department store days; the conversion actually removed or narrowed most of the existing windows. And a ground floor apparently planned to be entirely glass-walled, giving an impression, perhaps, like that of the Vivian Beaumont theater at Lincoln Center, gave way to a solid granite wall as an Auditorium was built up against the Fifth Ave. facade.)

The next chapter is still happening, as the GF was razed, its resident departments scattered to buildings between 13th and 16th Streets, probably never to return. The ant farm-like University Center slated to open next Fall - shingled in evocation of the 12th Street building, we're told - will embody the new heart of the university as a place of primarily undergraduate instruction in design and liberal arts rather than as a graduate program in social science with assorted insignificant but cash-generating addenda. But the current cohorts of students arrived too recently to know the GF, and are probably thinking the New School has always been uncentered; certainly the story we've been telling suggests it's supposed to be that way. The thought of a University Center doesn't speak to them at all!

I started the story of the rise of undergraduate liberal arts at The New School by way of a discussion of the student movement of the 1960s. Arendt's On Violence, the main reading for today's class, argued that the international scope of this movement showed it to be a response to more than local dysfunctions of political and educational institutions. Students were protesting because it was the only form of concerted action - of politics - available to them in an age of bureaucratic states best described as "rule by Nobody." An attempt at expressing genuinely and responsibly political "power" in the age of mutually assured destruction, it would be a fatal misunderstanding to see it as as cognate with or even consummated in the "violence" starting to define the times. I allowed myself a digression about the countercultural vibe of Occupy Wall Street.

As young people protested against "the Establishment," the New School found itself in a sweet spot, at least potentially. Never a university, never an establishment! In response to the "crisis of the universities," condemned as the reproducers of mindless bureaucratic drones, The New School offered its first real undergraduate school. The New School College (for juniors and seniors bored and disgruntled by what they'd learned in conventional colleges and universities) offered small classes, few exams, interdisciplinary and independent work and a promise of relevance: students and faculty worked together on the curriculum. Higher ed took notice. One writer described one of its classes:
J. Kirk Sale, “The Changing Academic Landscape IV: The New School at Middle Age,” Change in Higher Education 1/4 (Jul-Aug 1969): 37-45, 44-45
But even this proved too establishment to students in 1968, who staged a "Fake-Off," developed their own curriculum, and told the faculty they were but "hired consultants." You've seen the sort of conversations which resulted. In its last years its brilliant young University of Chicago-trained faculty taught a contemporary great books quadrivium, but the New School College folded after five years.

How important the performative contradiction of a school-less school was in the failure of the New School College experiment I can't say. Even juniors and seniors of conventional college age must have felt a little vertigo in a place so defined by adult learners and their rhythms. Undergraduate liberal arts didn't start up again until the 1970 merger with Parsons gave The New School access to undergraduate structures like dormitories and financial aid - and a first sizable "college age" student body. We tend to hear that Lang and Parsons float the graduate programs while Lang and the GF are locked in an incestuous intergenerational struggle, but it wasn't always so.

Deliciously messily, the Freshman Year Program at The New School, which sought out bored and disgruntled high school students and later became the Seminar College and Eugene Lang, rode in on the coattails of a bankrupt Parsons School of Design - a Parsons which had in turn been rescued from insolvency by a Graduate Faculty flush with the tuition monies of radical draft-dodging graduate students. (GF students were noisily discontented with what they were being taught, too - a story for another day.) The 1970s brought conventional (or at least conventional-age) undergraduates to The New School for the first time, decisively changing the chemistry of the place, but the origin narrative of today's liberal arts divisions is as full of stops and starts and unforeseen lateral synergies as that of the New School of 1919.

New York Times, Feb 21, 1969
My lecture concluded with a discussion of Hannah Arendt and On Violence. Recalling our discussions of Gestalt thinking, I argued that while most of what people believe about Arendt and the New School is false, there is nevertheless something right about the school's being associated with her. While not rescued by the University in Exile, Arendt was a German Jewish exile (indeed her passage was paid by Varian Fry, agent for Alvin Johnson). While her most important books were not written at The New School, they were the kinds of books The New School - like her antitotalitarian rather than leftist - was producing. The infamous concept of the "banality of evil" of Eichmann in Jerusalem, too, seems cognate with the sorts of arguments we saw in Wertheimer's reflections on freedom. Arendt arrived at The New School at the end of her career but it was a sort of a reunion. While she hadn't been a significant part of it before, it was still like a home-coming. One could even argue - though she'd hate it - that her being a woman makes her an appropriate representative of an institution in which women had always played a disproportionately significant role.

What, if anything, has all of this to do with Arendt's arguments in On Violence? Read it yourself and see! And thank me for not calling this post "You're looking for Hannah Arendt* U?"
*German pronunciation, like aren't

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