Monday, September 16, 2013

New School history in a nutshell

Had a chance to give a 20 minute history of The New School today. It was to the seminar fellows (peer advisers to the first year class) and an effort to offer them resources for their discussions, as well as some storylines they might use. It wound up being a resumé of greatest hits of Mark's personal mythology of the place!

One of our alums was visiting the class, and had said that the old official history wasn't really that interesting to him: archiving his own personal history there was more important. This made it a little hard to try to get people born in the 1990s thinking about 1919, 1933, 1943/44 and 1970/71, my hop-skip-and-jump history, but I think I did alright. Happily the resources I'd assembled were almost all from a student's point of view, so I could with conviction argue that The New School, more than most, has been made by students, their personal histories becoming its official history.
I framed my tale with the commencement speech Jean Rohe gave in 2006, protesting the invitation of John McCain to be the speaker - delivered in front of thousands, just a few meters from where McCain was sitting. (Rohe was, of course, the orientation speaker this year, so it would connect well for first years.) Rohe gave us our graduation back when she said that McCain "does not represent the ideals on which this university was founded," and traced her protest in the "tradition of great political thought" of which The New School had been a part. So... what ideals? what tradition?

We start in 1919, an act usually linked to the struggle for academic freedom, but I folded the founding into a different question. What did "social research" mean? And how did a school offering courses in social sciences and current events wind up in just a few years a center of the modern arts? (An example from a little later.) Could it be that the arts are a form of social research? That making your personal history through exploration and experimentation is a kind of research, can contribute to a body of research on our times and how to live in them?

1933 brought us the University in Exile, a story I was shocked to hear nobody knew. (One student had heard that we brought a lot of Germans over! Umm...) I offered them a telling of the history connected again to student protest, delivered as part of a teach-in by the anarchist student group New School in Exile in 2009. No dusty old history this, nor a self-serving institutional one!

1943/44, which brought us the BA program (GI Bill!), set up the story of the New School as a inside-out trickster school that started with university extension, then added graduate degrees, then completion of BA degrees started elsewhere, offering a full 4-year BA - where everyone else starts - only much later. But throughout it was a place committed not to credits, degrees and disciplines but to the continuing educating of the educated - offering whatever courses the times demanded.

1970/71 gave us the Parsons merger and the establishment of the Freshman Year Program which would, 16 years later, become Lang. Only now did "traditional age" undergraduates come to school, live in dorms, etc.: a big culture change! And harbinger of another: I allowed myself to observe that, as the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament teach us, it takes forty years to change a culture - Parsons and New School have only really started functioning together since 2010!
Winding up, I told them how J and I are trying to get more information about students' experience of the school, something remarkably hard to do but each time revelatory. The cherry on the cake: Clara Mayer, forgotten but for the memory work of our librarian and unofficial archivist Carmen Hendershott. Mayer ran the school for forty years! But she started as a student. And she seems to have been the reason why they started offering courses in psychology and the arts... This place is what you make it!

We ended with a recording of a "Shout Out," a spoken-word poem by Sekou Sundiata, coming full circle - Sekou who had been instrumental in our visiting alum's experience of the place.

... Here's to the crazy, the lazy,
the bored, the ignored,
the beginners, the sinners,
the losers, the winners,
the smooth and the cool
and even to the fool
to the rule-benders and the repeat offenders,
to the lovers, and the troublers,
the engaging, the enraging,
to the yearless and the fearless
to the fixers and the tricksters
to the was you been
to the is you in
to was deep in deep
to was down and down
to the lost 
and the blind
and the almost found. 

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