Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Merry trials

Today's New School history class was about how the curriculum of the newly opened school sought to teach not just new things (like social science) but new ways of learning and engaging the world. We'd read in Dewey's Democracy and Education last week about the importance of maintaining the "sympathetic curiosity, unbiased responsiveness, and openness of mind" characteristic of childhood throughout one's life - but how can that be done? What subjects, how taught?
Today we gave a taste of what students in the New School's first year might have encountered in three classes taught here, each in its way exploring new thinking. For instance, we read part of James Harvey Robinson's The Mind in the Making (1921), a brief for a new kind of education which would bring science to the study of human issues. He argued that only by confronting us with the "real causes" of our entrenched and frightened beliefs (through studies in comparative anatomy, psychology, anthropology, comparative religion and other social sciences) could one foster the "creative thinking" demanded by new times.

The "real" reasons for our beliefs are concealed
from ourselves as well as from others. (42)

Robinson and Charles Beard, two of our key founders, were leaders of a movement called the New History, which mobilized the past for better understanding the present and its prospects. My co-teacher J expertly described the the vision and stakes of New History, and illustrated it by looking at Beard's Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913), a book which dared to face down American nationalism and critique its founding document as resulting from the economic interests of its writers. But the most fun, I dare say, was had
in learning about Elsie Clews Parsons, who challenged the gender conventions of her time from the perspective of comparative ethnography. Long before it was fashionable (let alone common sense) she championed premarital sexual experience, divorce, and what she called "trial marriages" - to establish whether two people were really suited to share a life together. Her course "Sex in Ethnography" challenged gender divisions in every department of society. (She taught it only once, but among the students was Ruth Benedict, who was inspired to become an anthropologist by what she heard.) We read part of Parsons' book Social Rule: A Study of the Will to Power (1916), which argued that societies allow people to act out various forms of domination (and self-domination, when internalized) by accepting unexamined "classifications" like gender, class, race, maturity, etc. Comparison with other societies shows both the ubiquity of such classification (especially where gender is concerned, "marriage is on the whole the most satisfactory device yet worked out for the control of one adult by another" [45-46]) and enough variation to suggest it needn't be so. Women might be fully free only when not understood as women at all. As for the "new woman" of Parsons' time:

The new woman means the woman not yet classified, perhaps not classifiable, the woman new not only to men but to herself. (55)


One reason a "New School of Social Science for Men and Women" was needed was precisely this experienced novelty, the way upheavals economic, social and religious and changes in everything from international relations to gender relations had made everyone feel ill served by received classifications, "new" not just to others but to themselves. As open to new experiences as children, as estranged from storied pasts as the new historians, as excited about future possibilities as women coming to suffrage ... no wonder our founders thought the old ways of knowing, learning and teaching needed an overhaul!

The second and third images above are from a 1907 silent film. "Trial Marriages," which lampoons Parsons' proposal in a way showing how threatening it was to inherited understandings of gender relations. (You can watch it here.) J thinks the broker of the film's first ultimately unsuccessful "trial marriage" looks a little like yours truly.

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