Monday, September 09, 2013

O ye of little faith

You'll recall, perhaps, that we will feature at least two ways of "starting the story" about The New School in our course. One is the familiar Columbia story, according to which professors indignant over Columbia University's firing of pacifists during World War 1 headed downtown to start a better university, explicitly dedicated to academic freedom. The other could be called the Croly story, and suggests that the Columbia folks stepped into an already ongoing concern, the idea of "new schools of social science/research" developed not from a university but from a magazine, The New Republic. The New Republic's editor, Herbert Croly, wrote a long article about the need for "A School of Social Research" in June 1918. The school's first buildings were around the corner from the New Republic office on Ninth Ave, and many board members as well as its first president came from the New Republic too. It's quite a different story if we're born from the head of a university or a magazine!

More on that anon. But rereading the Croly essay (we've assigned it, along with the original "Proposal" and works on education by Columbia's president Nicholas Murray Butler and John Dewey), I find grist for another of my mills. The essay argues for a school like the Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques (now "Sciences Po") in Paris, bringing science's experimental method and practical learning to educate people who will provide the expertise and administrative acumen required for complex modern societies to thrive. Without such people - and Croly clearly has no faith in universities' ability to produce such people - civilization's in grave danger. Technical advances exacerbate class conflicts, and for this and other reasons everyone's giving up on human nature. The new school will be founded in the faith that science can give back to mankind some of the security and integrity which its own capture by individual, national and class particularism has jeopardized.

Yay science! But Croly's final paragraph ends all religious:
A "restoration" of religion? Are we to conclude that religion was part of the New School story not just with the secularization theorists in the 1960s and their critics in the 1980s, with Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1950s, with Jacques Maritain in the 1940s, with the "Religion - Why?" series of 1932, or with Horace Kallen's course "The Function of Religion in Social Progress already in our second year, but from the very moment of conception? Yes and no. Croly was, by some accounts, the first baby in America baptized into Auguste Comte's "religion of humanity"! The "new faith" whose birth we were to "anticipate by education" was humanist - but no less religious for that.

Can't you see it? The New School: A Religion.

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