Wednesday, November 30, 2016

All education is local

Some people think our interest in the history of The New School is mere navel gazing, can you believe it? How can you be here now if you don't know where here is, and how it came to be the way it is? And if you're from an interesting place like The New School, which professes to think outside the box, wouldn't it be foolish not to learn from its extensive and varied experience in and out of boxes? Still, one might yet wonder if any of this has valence beyond The New School itself. Could our history, however inspiring or chastening it is for those of us whose destinies are linked to it, be of use to anyone else?

Our class (and we) had a chance to explore this question today. We invited two young student activists from our neighbor the Cooper Union to talk about their work calling their institution to task for abandoning its commitment to free tuition in 2013. Free Cooper is an inspiring story of successful student protest, if also of the way an institution with a distinctive and unconventional mission can lose its moorings. Cooper is 50 years older than The New School and from the start was meant to be more than a school. The Great Hall at the core of its dedicated building, a famous site of public events, helped define its civic role.

The Free Cooper leaders anchored the story of their organizing in a history of Cooper and its buildings. A slide of the inside of the signature building, hollowed out beyond its landmarked façade for renovation, illustrated better than mere words could what can happen when an institution moves beyond its original mission. Left standing inside was only the multi-story cylindrical shaft Cooper's inventor-founder had set aside for future use as yet unimagined (perhaps an elevator?), a lovely symbol, too. It was exciting to see a history put to such effective work.

We learned about the 65-day sit-in in the office of the president who had taken Cooper into such debt to build a stylish new building that they could pay for it only by introducing tuition, a sit-in which helped topple the president and his board. Part of how it worked was through the organizers' savvy use of social media, performances, parties and other public events, and it was exciting to be shown them by the very people who masterminded them. It was fascinating to learn how they collaborated with and learned from Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring and tuition hike protests in Québec. It was moving also to hear them reflect on how hard it is to convey what it was really like, three years on, both as history and as continuing impetus for student activism.

I'm not sure what our students made of it but I'd be happy if they took from the talk some stories and strategies, a sense of the power of student organizing, and a renewed sense that the history of a place is a resource for present engagement and future hopes. All politics is local! New School isn't Cooper, nor should it be. But even in our lapses queer old birds like us can encourage each other in the struggle to resist the homogenizing of higher education. Our quixotic origins might make the lapses easier to see and to learn from. And who knows to what uses our future-focused founders' hidden shafts might yet be put!

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