Wednesday, August 28, 2013

New School history 2.0

First session of J and M's course on the history of The New School, this time entitled Who New. Much has changed since the first iteration, not quite two years ago: much more of the Parsons School of Design, including its traditions before the institutions merged in 1970; more on student experiences, including protests of various kinds; and more on the importance of women in the communities of students, faculty and administrators.

Today, as last time, we began by having the class break into groups and generate mission statements for The New School as they experience it, which we then wrote up on the board and did our best to synthesize into a single statement. Here's the raw material, and the final product.

In the discussion sections which followed, we had students read through the original "Proposal for a New School of Social Science for Men and Women" of 1919, noting more commonalities over 94 years than one might expect. (Discontinuities, such as the absence of the arts from the original proposal, were noted, too.) The "Proposal" is an argument, describing the new challenges of the world opened up by WW1, women's suffrage and the emerging institutions of modern welfare, and the need for an institution fundamentally unlike a university to meet them. If our rapidly generated mission statement seemed vague by comparison, we found it much more inspiring than the next thing we considered, the current university "Mission and Vision" statement.

This was, perhaps, an unfair comparison. Founding proposals tend to be tendentious and electric where mission statements tend to be safe and generic; what's most impressive about ours may only be an absence - the word "university" never appears. (Or another absence - for many a year we got by without any mission statement at all!) Where the "Proposal" imagines a radical (anti)institution, we sound pretty institutional now. More interestingly we no longer present ourselves as the solution to specific political, social and cultural problems of knowledge but rather offer a nice problem solving-focused curriculum which prepares students to understand, contribute to, and succeed in a rapidly changing society, and thus make the world a better and more just place.

That's hard to object to, but what does it mean? Will student success automatically improve the world? And do we all agree on what "better" means? Many in the New School past have called in question accepted ideas of social success, progress and even justice - starting with the authors of the "Proposal," who thought most thinking on political questions reeked of unexamined prejudices. We were never a Marxist school, but the possibilities of ideology, not to mention structurally-based conflicts about the good and the just, have always been themes.

Several of the students in my discussion section objected to the idea that New School students are or even should be oriented to improving the world. We're looking to find a job, said one. Said another: we're here to learn how better to express ourselves. Even an automatic dividend for the "public good" was baggage she didn't want to take on.

Such are our challenges, as a non-university with an eclectic mix of academic, artistic and professional aspirations. If a committee tries to find language capacious enough to accommodate all of these (as the Mission/Vision group did), it ends up as thin and flat as a pancake. What makes education exciting, necessary, unnerving, transformative needs more specifics - and perhaps a greater appreciation of the diversity and conflict of goods.

In any case, I think the students had a good first experience of the course. Their views are taken seriously, and brought into conversation with a history which raises difficult if inspiring questions about vision as well as implementation - questions which apply far more broadly than this particular history of this particular institution. How did we get from 1919 to 2013? Stay tuned!

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