Wednesday, September 02, 2015

The almost founded

In my first year seminar today, we explored "the founding" of The New School, noting ways in which times have changed, and haven't. But it was also an introduction to close reading, college level. I assigned three things - an article in The New Republic from June 1918 called "A School of Social Research," the undated "Proposal for an Independent School of Social Science for Men and Women," and an account of "The Founding / 1919" on our New School History Project website (written by a group of students in J's and my ULEC two years ago), which starts with an image of the "Proposal for an Independent School," dating it 1919.
I wanted them to think about different kinds of sources - published, private, primary, secondary - but there's also a Hoodunit here. Was the "Proposal" written after the New Republic essay, as we often say, or before? It's in any case significant that the editor of The New Republic, Herbert Croly, should have been the one to break the news of the school's founding, but of course J and I think the connection to The New Republic is more profound even than that. This gets buried in the standard narrative of the firing of pacifist professors at Columbia leading our founders to leave and start a new university anchored in academic freedom. Our students, knowing of our view, tweaked the Columbia story a little: The dismissals of these two professors led to the resignation of Charles Austin Beard and James Harvey Robinson, both progressive historians. Robinson persuaded the first editor of the New Republic, Herbert Croly, to join them to found a “new school.”
This is not quite what we think happened, but I let my students figure it out themselves (well, through dogged "Socratic questioning"). It doesn't take much sleuthing to figure out that the "Proposal" wasn't written in 1919 - it speaks of the War in the present tense. In fact, as we discovered reading our texts closely, it predates Croly's piece - Croly discusses it at some length (in his second long paragraph). Croly's call for new schools (not just the one) of "social research" to answer the urgent needs of a rapidly industrializing society riven by class tensions and suspicious of new ideas provides much more sense of the debates of the time; it must also be part of the story why the proposed Independent School of Social Science wound up called the New School for Social Research. But where does it mention academic freedom? There's even less about academic freedom in "The Proposal." I think my students figured out for themselves that the story in "The Founding /1919" is, well, unfounded. The New School came out of discussions unrelated to the debacle at Columbia, possibly predating the war - which were, we are pretty sure, based at The New Republic, not Columbia. Faculty independence and governance were central, not pacifism. All the clues were there in our documents. See the value - the fun! - of close reading?

Of course there's another moral one might draw from this. After all, the website post which recapitulates the Columbia story - albeit with a cameo for Croly - was written by New School students who had read Croly's "A School for Social Research" and "A Proposal for an Independent School of Social Science for Men and Women." They'd heard J and me lay out what we called "the Columbia story" and "the New Republic story," with its take-away: what if we thought of The New School not as a new kind of university, but as a magazine-turned-school? Aaaannnndddd, when it came to their group project, they told the Columbia story. Maybe it's just the better story - the "stickier" one. Or the one more compelling to students paying dearly to be at the funky university this new republic of learning has become!

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