Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Free to be you and me

In the New School history course today, we arrived at "the merger," the coming together of TNS and the Parsons School of Design in 1970. As in past iterations we capped the lecture with a student debate on the merits of such a mingling, from their own experience and perspective.
Today's lead-up was a little different, though, as one of our teaching assistants, a PhD student in the sociology of art, gave a mini-lecture on the history of Parsons in the decades before 1970. I learned a lot!

Particularly interesting was learning that Parsons had not followed the lead of the Bauhaus, or the American art and design schools to which Bauhaus artists fled with the rise of fascism, in anchoring its programs in a foundational course where students explored and experimented - with colors, materials, etc. - before choosing the genre they would pursue. A (not so) "Self-Critical Study" of Parsons in 1955 tartly observed that its students already knew what they wanted to do before they arrived, so no such program was required - quite missing the point of it!
A common (and grueling) Foundation year later become a defining part of the Parsons experience, and survives in the recently implemented new curriculum too. I need to find out when and why and how that got started. Its aims sound a lot more like the aims and pedagogy of progressive liberal arts colleges! But in the context of today's class, what was striking was what 1955 Parsons wanted instead: more "Liberal Arts," understood in a very traditional way: (western) history and art history, literature, music. Later added: psychology and aesthetics.

As in years past, we asked the students to formulate arguments pro and contra the question if design and liberal arts need each other. (As in years past, nobody took up the question if liberal artsers need design.)
There are echoes of several understandings of what "liberal arts" means here. For many Parsons students "liberal arts" meant what in Lang is known (and ignored) as "general education." I think our students would be as resistant to a liberal art requirement - as most Parsons students.

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