Monday, November 09, 2015

As simple as two plus two

As the narrative part of "Seminar in the City" comes to a close (the final section of the course is devoted to "model seminars" which the students will lead on topics they choose), we had our Tristram Shandy moment. A course which students might reasonably have expected to tell the story that starts with Lang's birth in 1985 instead ends with this birth. But therein lies the tale - and another instance of 18th century English literary wit.

Not a simple tale, as my attempt to diagram it shows - the vertical axis represents the conventional sequence of four years of high school followed by four of an undergraduate degree and, perhaps, two more in a master's program. What I was trying to show was that it took the New School a good long time to treat the four years of a BA as a single unit.

• The square represents the BA program introduced during WW2, known as the Senior College since it was only for students who began their studies elsewhere. (Contrast with "Junior College.") It's alive and well as BPATS, the Bachelors Program for Adults and Transfer Students.
• The crossed-out circle next to it is the experiment of the New School College, which was a sort of honors program within the Senior College - full-time but still, like the rest of the New School, not residential. It began in 1966 and petered out five years later.
• Next to it is what came to be known as the Seminar College in 1976, a seminar-based curriculum but still only for juniors and seniors. Is it the renamed New School College? Occam's razor suggests so but I have yet to see or hear anyone confirm this.
• Above it was the Accelerated BA-MA Programs, introduced to entice students to stay more than two years, and take advantage of the university's graduate programs (in the social sciences, "management and urban professions," and media studies).
• Below these two was the kernel, as the story is conventionally told, of Lang - the Freshman Year Program at The New School for Social Research, which, starting in 1972, offered a specially designed one-year program for precocious high school students - many came after their junior year of high school, some even after their sophomore year. After the year at The New School, they transferred to universities with conventional 4-year undergraduate curricula.

By the 1980s (the advertisement above is from 1981), all these programs existed together in a sort of symbiosis. The Freshman Year Program was housed in the Seminar College, but each still had its own catalog. Indeed, just a few months after the advertisement above writes The Undergraduate Division consists of two colleges - the Senior College and the Seminar College... The New School ran another ad, describing four different programs, each of which seemed to cater to different students, most of whom came from and went to other universities.
All of this was in keeping with what The New School was - a long-standing alternative (and challenge) to conventional, credit- and degree-focused institutions. This piecemeal array represents a lifelong education approach to undergraduate education - and was par for the course in an institution which experimented with unconventional new forms all the time, seeking to accommodate learners at all different stages of their lives.

It took a presidential initiative, and an endowment, to gather together these pieces into a four-year liberal arts college. It made formal what had been emerging - students entering the Freshman Year Program and staying, making do with three years of the curriculum of a Seminar College originally planned as a two-year (or one-year) experience. Closure, a telos? It's tempting to see it this way, to see these parts as components of a four-year college destined to converge. We're just quirky here at The New School, one is tempted to observe; we've long done things back-to-front - like offering graduate before undergraduate programs, and "extension" even before that!

Not so fast. It wasn't through absent-mindedness or lack of vision that we didn't start with a liberal arts college - the default for American higher education. Perhaps it was through absent-mindedness or lack of vision that we ended up with one. While administratively shaggy (and doubtless frustrating for revenue), the gaggle of undergraduate programs of The New School's 1970s weren't feeling their way to the traditional-aged four-year college student, but seeking out other student bodies, and giving them more possible trajectories.

I think an ambivalence about convergence into a four-year program is to be seen in the first catalog of the still two-year Seminar College in 1977.
The inside front cover, sharing a spread with the grand words "THE IDEA" (but there's nothing about an idea on the following page!), is a line from Alexander Pope's satire of literary pretension, The Dunciad:

Ah! Why, ye Gods, should two and two make four?

Why, indeed? Why not two and two, or two and two and one and three?

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