Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Failing by design

The penultimate session of our New School history course was really the finale. We're giving students next week's class to share and present the projects they've been working, so today was our last chance in the spotlight. What did we talk about? It was a little touchy-feely.

The theoretical framework was supplied, as in past iterations, by our colleague Ann Snitow's reflections on historical memory - and why the life of movements like the women's movement seems to those who were there to be "forgotten and actively misremembered" by historians.
Snitow's concern is feminism, though she suggests that what is true of feminism may be true of liberation struggles more generally. J and I suggest that ventures like The New School share some of these traits of forgettability too, and also by design. You can tell an inspiring story about visionary leaders doing decisive things, and we often do (lots of firsts!). But the New School project is only incidentally that. Presidents and (retrospectively defined) pioneers have done much to make the New School work, but the actual life of the place is more like the messiness of progressive movements seeking inclusive stories, plural voices, open futures. We gesture to the future not with a pointed finger or a fist of triumph but an open hand.

Still, we said, there are a few things we hope will stick - we offered four for starters. J talked about the different kind of story you tell if you start with discussions in the editorial office of The New Republic, discussions which included professors (notably New Historians) but were not about or confined to university education. She the suggested that the "through line" of our history is not social science but the arts, which can serve as forms of social research but also of reflection on larger questions, more sensitive and open to ambiguity than scholarly research or design. I talked up pragmatist understandings of education and of what it is to live in a world still on the make, where experiences of knowledge and beauty and other things are stages in broader processes unfolding - and inviting participation - all around us: that's the what and the why of our commitment to the "new." The fourth candidate for stickying was what design might do if really mixed up with liberal arts, a story only now, fitfully and belatedly, beginning to be told. Stay tuned!

If ours are likely to be unsticky stories, though, what were we doing devoting a course to them? Was it just telling (and contesting) stories with little chance of changing colllective memory? Snitow's essay is chastening. It was written ten years after the publication of The Feminist Memoir Project, conceived as an effort to gather and share voices which had been forgotten. But, ten years on, the misremembering seemed to be continuing unabated. Snitow proposes the "unstickiness" of feminism as a way of making sense of this difficult reality, and offers a sort of dilemma. Does one find a way to tell a "sticky" story - though the movement in question was "by design" not that sort of thing, and will be misrepresented - or continue to gather and share memories true to what happened in their multiplicity and messiness, knowing they will remain marginal?

We mention Snitow's fearlessly honest arguments in a half-magical thinking way to give students permission to forget - but also to remember - things we've discussed and engaged over the course of the semester. Perhaps they'll remember our synthesizing points. But it came to me that what I'd really like them to hold on to is a more general sense of what it feels like to have been part of this messy stickiness-resisting experiment in progressive engagement. And I recalled a reading we assigned the last times but not this time... perhaps we should bring it back next time.

The 1940 essay "A Story of Three Days," by Gestalt psychologist and University in Exile scholar Max Wertheimer, explores the valuable but incomplete contributions different disciplines make to an understanding of what freedom is, but ends with the argument that the best account of freedom is the way a free person faces counterarguments and new facts. When in the presence of a truly free person, you can feel it. 
Wertheimer's discussion of truth (in an essay we did include this time) is similar: hard to define in the abstract, truth is something you can recognize in the living of truthful people.

In our stories may we have given students an experience of what a school striving for true openness to the new feels like.

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