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Alvin Johnson, co-founder of The New School, with Eleanor Roosevelt. Johnson helped to save numerous central European scholars from persecution by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s, then brought them to a specially-created division of The New School which became known as the “University in Exile.”

By George Capsis

On the first sunny Saturday in April we sat down for sandwiches on a bench in front of the Café Panino Mucho Gusto (favored by the older crowd as a place to just sit and talk). A passing stranger looked down at me and asked, “WestView?” I responded, “Yes,” followed by his “Like your paper.”

“Are you WestView?” came again, but this time from an attractive young lady sitting on a bench six feet away. She introduced herself as the brand manager of The New School and invited me to a reception at President David Van Zandt’s home to mark the beginning of the 100th anniversary of The New School.

100th anniversary of the New School? This surprised me; and while I had raised a family in the West Village, my only knowledge of the New School’s history was that it had invited threatened German university professors to teach there after the rise to power of Hitler and fascism, and that now it was about to celebrate its 100th anniversary. But what did it do for the first 50 years and how did it get started?

Fortunately, the school has commissioned one of its faculty members, John Reed, to write a history. He offered me some of the opening chapters and came to a meeting in our blooming spring garden to explore how to tell The New School story in the pages of WestView during the next few months before the school’s week-long open house anniversary celebration in October. 

I have read, and read again, the very few words that explain about the school’s beginning, but am now satisfied that I have learned about those who decided to start a new university and call it The New School.

So, during the next few months WestView will be dedicated to tracing the history of  The New School, how it got its name, and examining what, a century ago, was the “old school” against which the founders of The New School reacted so vehemently. It has all the characteristics of a university and certainly a roster of famous names in education that gave birth to it, but it distinguishes itself from traditional universities, perhaps because of the group of former Columbia University professors who passionately rebelled against our entry into the First World War.

This group of professors were angry at the demand by the Columbia president that they sign a loyalty oath which would encourage their students to suffer the grinding maws of trench warfare. They were convinced that their first loyalty was to students and the principles of fair and objective education, and not to the arbitrary dictum of a university president.

It was, perhaps, this break from a “university” that prompted the name The New School and not The New University, and it was, perhaps, the social passion of the founders that made them attract and invite some of the great names in alternative social directions. They wanted not only to tell the story of our past, but also to allow their students to hear different perspectives from insightful thinkers on how a firm understanding of our intellectual history can lead to different views of our social future.

We began learning about what The New School is with a chapter by John Reed about its starting history. But as we began to work with The New School, four of our WestView staffers told of their own experiences with the school and we will be offering these each month along with similar accounts I’ve heard from our readers.

I invite our readers to join the 100-year journey that has challenged minds and helped direct the flow of social and artistic thought all around us here in the West Village.

We may never know the full extent to which the New School has shaped the past 100 years, but it now invites the community of the West Village to contribute to shaping the next century.

EXCLUSIVE PREVIEW

What follows is an excerpt from the soon to be released book “A Drama in Time,” by John Reed. The stories in this historical look at The New School are written in the present tense to capture the restlessness and vibrancy of the legacy.

Anachronisms in our Dynamic Age and the Extraordinary Revolution

Speaking to alumni, President Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia University expresses his belief that the school must support the congress and President Woodrow Wilson as the nation joins the fray of World War I. The United States, he explains, as of the declaration of war on Germany, is no longer neutral, and neither can be the university. 

The issue of alumni relations, to President Butler, is delicate: in 1911, the dismissal of Professor J.E. Springarn (one of a group of professors who were ousted or who resigned for reasons of politics, academic freedom, educational philosophy, or all three) was viewed critically by alumni. A swiftly acting alumni coalition had published a pamphlet, which collected the correspondence between Butler and the banished professor, and decried the injustice of an institutional lord of higher learning: 

“He has stifled all manly independence and individuality wherever it has exhibited itself at college. All noble idealism, and all the graces of poetry and art have been shriveled by his brutal and triumphant power. He has made mechanical efficiency and administrative routine the goal of the university’s endeavor. The nobler ends of academic life will never be served so long as this spokesman of materialism remains in power.”

Four months after the meeting, Columbia University professors James Cattell and Henry Dana, who publicly oppose the war and conscription, are dismissed. In the fervor that follows, Columbia University professor Charles Beard resigns. Beard, in the New York Times, was negatively reviewed for his 1913 work, An Economic Interpretation of the United States, which “sought to show that the founders of this Republic and the authors of its Constitution were a ring of land speculators who bestowed upon the country a body of organic law drawn up chiefly in the interest of their own pockets.” In stepping away from Columbia, Beard’s stance is not in opposition to the war, but in support of free speech and protest, and in the recognition of conscientious objector status for avowed pacifists. Columbia professor James Robinson, who former president Theodore Roosevelt has condemned for his “shameful perversion of historic truth,” resigns not long after Beard.

Cattell’s 1913 book, University Control, called for higher education that eliminated administration and trustees, and granted full power to faculty. While Cattell abandons his academic career, Thorstein Veblen, who had been in Washington working for the president to develop peaceable war settlements, joins the academic faction. In his 1918 work, The Higher Learning in America, Veblen finds particular potential in the American university, distinct from the tradition of Europe, and analyzes economic, class, and administrative constraints of the presumed model:

“It appears, then, that the intrusion of business principles in the universities goes to weaken and retard the pursuit of learning, and therefore to defeat the ends for which a university is maintained. This result follows, primarily, from the substitution of impersonal, mechanical relations, standards and tests, in the place of personal conference, guidance and association between teachers and students; as also from the imposition of a mechanically standardized routine upon the members of the staff, whereby any disinterested preoccupation with scholarly or scientific inquiry is thrown into the background and falls into abeyance.”

With surprising alacrity, Beard, Dana, Robinson, and Veblen go on to realize an ideological model of education in The New School, which opens in Chelsea, in 1919. The first course catalogue begins: “The New School for Social Research is organized to meet the needs of intelligent men and women interested in the grave social, political, economic and educational problems of the day.” 


John Reed is a NYC writer, author and associate professor in Creative Writing (MFA) at The New School.

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