Friday, August 30, 2013


Okay, I'm officially excited to be teaching about New School history again - that is, grateful to have permission to poke around in the archives and libraries to deepen and complicate the stories we tell about ourselves. Look what I found today!

Sara Ruddick, you'll recall, was one of the defining personalities of the first two decades of what was to become Eugene Lang College. Well, today I was looking at a book she co-edited in 1984 called Between Women: Biographers, Critics, Teachers and Artists Write about Their Work on Women (Beacon), and think I may have stumbled on a wonderful new founding myth for us. Between Women is a sequel to Working it out (1977), a pioneering anthology Ruddick edited about women's experience with work, itself the outgrowth of courses she'd been teaching at the Adult Division of New School.

This book grew out a series of courses Ruddick taught at the same time in the Freshman Year Program, later the Seminar College, about Virginia Woolf and other powerful women writers. Indeed, it was initially going to be all about women's reactions to "reading and writing on Virginia Woolf" - proof, through its richness and variety, that Woolf deserved to be among the writers assigned throughout American academe. Between Women winds up exploring women's experience wrestling with many other women, but Ruddick's essay is about her complicated relationship thinking and teaching with Woolf (and Simone Weil and Charlotte Brontë).

But it turns out there's another, more intimate connection with Woolf here, too. Ruddick was a trained philosopher (a Wittgensteinian!), but what made her a lover of The New School was the Freshman Year Program's director's permission to venture beyond the limits of her discipline. That director was Elizabeth Coleman, and Ruddick's essay "New Combinations: Learning from Virginia Woolf" is dedicated to Coleman, "Dean of the Seminar College, 1982-84" (137). Its epigraph, explaining its title, is from Woolf's Three Guineas:

The aim of the new college, the cheap college, should be not to segregate and specialize, but to combine. It should explore the ways in which mind and body can be made to cooperate; discover what new combinations make good wholes in human life. (137) 

In the book's acknowledgments all these pieces fit together:

Elizabeth Coleman insisted that I could talk and write about Woolf although I was not trained to do so. At the New School for Social Research, she created a version of Woolf's "New College," the Seminar College where faculty and students were urged to "discover what new combinations make good wholes in human lives." (vx)

Coleman's still around. I need to ask her if Three Guineas was explicitly a model for our school. The passage Ruddick quotes from, Woolf's sketch of the sort of school which would produce peace thinking rather than militarism, sounds remarkably like us (except for affordability!):

Now since history and biography—the only evidence available to an outsider—seem to prove that the old education of the old colleges breeds neither a particular respect for liberty nor a particular hatred of war it is clear that you must rebuild your college differently. It is young and poor; let it therefore take advantage of those qualities and be founded upon poverty and youth. Obviously, then, it must be an experimental college, an adventurous college. Let it be built on lines of its own. It must be built not of carved stone and stained glass, but of some cheap, easily combustible material which does not hoard dust and perpetrate traditions. Do not have
chapels. Do not have museums and libraries with chained books and first editions under glass cases. Let the pictures and the books be new and always changing. Let it be decorated afresh by each generation with their own hands cheaply. The work of the living is cheap; often they will give it for the sake of being allowed to do it. Next, what should be taught in the new college, the poor college? Not the arts of dominating other people; not the arts of ruling, of killing, of acquiring land and capital. They require too many overhead expenses; salaries and uniforms and ceremonies. The poor college must teach only the arts that can be taught cheaply and practised by poor people, such as medicine, mathematics, music, painting and literature. It should teach the arts of human intercourse; the art of understanding other people’s lives and minds, and the little arts of talk, of dress, of cookery that are allied with them. The aim of the new college, the cheap college, should be not to segregate and specialize, but to combine. It should explore the ways in which mind and body can be made to cooperate; discover what new combinations make good wholes in human life. The teachers should be drawn from the good livers as well as the good thinkers. There should be no difficulty in attracting them. For there would be none of the barriers of wealth or ceremony, of advertisement or competition which now make the old and rich universities such uneasy dwelling-places - cities of strife, cities where this is locked up and that is chained down.... 
(Harcourt, 1966), 33-34

Wow! What a delightful discovery, especially the same week as our course explored other mission statements for countercultural educational institutions!

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