Thursday, March 24, 2016

Traditions of The New

I interrupted my Spring Break staycation to head back to school today. Just for a few hours, and for a worthy cause - the third Staff Development Day kicked off with a plenary talk by my friend J and me - the New School history team! Our topic: "What does it mean to be a progressive university"? We took turns describing periods when "progressive" meant different things. J set the stage with the Progressive Movement, and all the new things (history, Republic, Negro, woman) contemporary with our New School. Then I talked about the pluralism - as ideal and practice - of The New School in its first decades, exemplified by pragmatist philosopher Horace Kallen. J then discussed the school's jittery ethos during the Cold War, already a "tradition of the new" in need of safeguarding. My turn again, the Matsunaga Affair which brought back the challenges of being truly diverse. (These last two sections expanded on our Offense & Dissent exhibition.) Finally we turned to the school's newest marketing campaign, which goes What happens when a university rethinks everything? Against the backdrop of our history this seems neither possible nor necessary nor, well, wise. One lesson of the bumpy road we've traversed is that we'll be most effectively attuned to our time and place and role only if we take our own history seriously. Our weighty talk ended on a light note, though, with Gnarls, our recently adopted - and "progressive!" - school mascot. Having a mascot might seem out of keeping with our unconventional history, but a narwhal is a most unconventional mascot. And, contrary to rumor, "narwhals are real, not magical unicorn-dolphin-clowns."

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