Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Falling into revisionism

In our course on the history of The New School today we introduced the Parsons problem. How do we tell the story of Parsons before it merged with The New School? (If we identified as Parsons people it might rather be The New School problem.) Since all the university's efforts today are going into making us a distinctive and delightful fusion of the two, how does one avoid making it seem like TNS and Parsons were destined to come together, despite the 51 + 74 years they'd spent happily on their own?

My co-teacher J started the lecture with some important critiques of the "new history" we learned about last week. While it's good not to be terrorized by the past, mining the past only for answers to present questions risks missing much that happened. Many historians think we stand to learn the most  - both about the past and for understanding our prospects - from trying to understand the past's own questions. Distance allows perspective. For my part, I likened our slick common timeline to the way, when old folks get married, perhaps after divorce or widowhood, people often present a series of parallel old photos suggesting the present convergence was in the cards from the start. Look, both of them with lollipops as toddlers! hugging big dogs! awkward in formal dress as teenagers! raising a glass as young adults! with embarrassingly dated hairdos or eyeglasses! in the mountains or in Venice! Clearly they were meant to be one!

J then provided a helpfully defamiliarizing history of Parsons - starting with the several names it went through even before the arrival of Frank Alvah Parsons, its later namesake. American impressionism? Fine and applied arts? Period rooms? Decorative arts? Costume design? Standards of taste? None of these resonates with our current design-led argot.

But then I went and messed things up. I have a tendency - a virtue in most classes - to refer back to past classwork a lot, like a juggler who keeps adding balls, never letting any go. It gives students a sense of knowledge as a conversation, and incentives to do the readings and remember them, since they'll keep coming back. But in the setting of today's class I should have emphasized disjunction rather than continuity. I meant to! Instead, I talked about Horace Kallen, in the description to whose Spring 1921 course "Beauty and Use" the word design appears for the first time in a New School course catalog, as if he were already then part of the conversation of Parsons. Laying out the argument of the article which came out of this course 18 years later, I translated Kallen's somewhat forbidding mid-century philosophese into the familiar idiom of today's makers, innovators, design thinkers. Oops!


And then things got even worse. Before I knew it, the students' evident satisfaction at these harmonizing translations led me to assert affinities between the rather opaque arguments of Frank Alvah Parsons and Kallen, between Parsons and the historian founders, and - the nadir - between plein air impressionism of Parsons' earliest progenitors and pragmatism's anti-metaphysical ethos. Oy vey!

In my defense, the gap between the cultures of the two places seems to me so great that this was all just a rhetorical game: "if one were trying to bridge these histories, the best one could do would be X [clearly contrived affinity]..." But to the students, who don't know better (indeed, all they know is that The New School is part of the name of Parsons, and that The New School's logo is in Parsons Red), this may have achieved the opposite of what we were seeking to do, which was to keep the histories far enough apart from each other to open space for questions about our present smarmy symbiosis. Oops. Next week we estrange again.

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