Between Principle and Practice (Part 2): The New School for Social Research

This is the second in a three part series “Principle and Practice.” See here for Part 1.

At the New School for Social Research, my intellectual home for just about my entire career, the relationship between principle and practice is counter-intuitive. Principle, in my judgment, has been, since the institution’s founding, at least as important as practice, and, ironically, probably of more practical significance. The New School’s history has been set by its principles, even as sometimes in practice the principles were not fully realized.

I am thinking about this at a turning point in our history: a relatively new university president, David Van Zandt, has just appointed, following faculty review and recommendation, a new dean, Will Milberg. It is a hopeful moment, rich with promise and possibility for our relatively small, financially strapped, unusual institution. How we now act has, potentially, significance well beyond our intellectual community. This is directly related to the founding principles of our place, their historical significance and continued salience.

Founded in 1919, as an academic protest, The New School has represented, and worked to enact, central ideals of the university in democratic society, doing a great deal on relatively little. The New School’s founders were critical of the way economic and political powers interfered with the intellectual and scholarly life of American universities. While they were responding proximately to the firing of two Columbia University faculty members for their disloyalty during WWI, they were, more generally, concerned that those in control of American universities, their trustees, who were (as written in the mission statement) “composed for the most part of men whose views of political, social, religious and moral questions are in no way in advance of those of the average respectable citizen. Their tendency is therefore to defend established thought than to encourage a fundamental reconsideration of long accepted ideals and standards.”

Just a few years after the American Association of University Professors was founded to defend academic freedom and after the association wavered and didn’t defend the principle as it was systematically compromised during WWI, The New School was formed, primarily dedicated to independent social research, addressing pressing social and political problems. The New School’s principled commitment has been its distinction, with twists and turns, and up and downs.

The founders raised one key question and offered their solution in their original mission statement, “A Proposal for An Independent School of Social Science”:

“The question naturally arises, how can the Social and Political sciences be given the opportunity to develop at least as freely as the natural sciences…. The answer is by establishing an institution free from the ancient embarrassments.”

“Free from ancient embarrassments,” The New School opened in 1919, seeking to address the challenges of those times. The mission statement highlighted a variety of concerns: the expanding role of government, the importance of the labor movement and its organization, the problems of the modern economy. The makers of the school sought to develop modern social science and public policy that would respond to changing order of things. I particularly find intriguing the prescient declaration on women’s education and its purpose:

“The granting of suffrage to women and the extension of women’s interest into new and important spheres of public life will lead them to seek a better equipment both for power and service.”

The new institution emphasized interdisciplinary study and engagement in practical problems. Its founders sought a lean and mean educational enterprise, focused on research, teaching and public engagement, with a minimal administrative apparatus.

They sought to “Secure a sufficient endowment on the understanding that the greater part of the income shall be spent on research and education and the least possible amount on administration.”

But they were not just dreaming. The great American historian, Charles Beard, perhaps the most prominent mover and shaker behind the establishment of this new school, revealed an inventive practical side in his personal account of its project, making a special appeal.

“Those who give financial assistance to the New School are not so ingrained in their distrust of liberated human minds that they are not willing to accept the result of free inquiry… In other words, the New School is a cooperative concern, a pooling of interests intellectual and financial, designed to advance knowledge of the world and its pressing problems. ..It proposes to build up a center where those who care to work at the modern and industrial problems may find guidance and imagination. Those who have found ‘the one road’ or are now convinced that they can exercise the evil spirits of the age by single incantations will find no peace or comfort there. Those who have highly resolved that the human mind which has been so fertile in its inventive genius in the material world shall be freely applied to the problems of the social world will find welcome, good cheer, and if it is not too bold, some genuine help. The door is open and the way is broad”

Reading the original mission statement and Beard’s note, I am struck by how true The New School has been to its original mission, even at it seems to be long on idealism, short on realism. The theme of engaging the world using the advanced means of social and political science early on was extended.

In the twenties and thirties the arts and design were added to The New School’s agenda, formally pushed forward in 1970 when Parsons School of Design was merged with The New School. Aaron Copeland, Martha Graham and Erwin Piscator contributed to an expansive definition of social research at The New School.

The missions of academic freedom and opposition to dogma were radicalized when The University in Exile was created, as a refuge to endangered European scholars, artists and intellectuals from Hitler’s Europe. An independent center linking European art, social science and philosophy with American intellectual and public life was established.

I am particularly proud and honored to have been a part of extending this division’s activity to East and Central Europe’s democratic opposition in the 1980s, with my colleagues Elzbieta Matynia, Andrew Arato, Jose Casanova and Ira Katznelson. The New School’s board, importantly including Walter Eberstadt, Henry Arnhold and Michael E. Gellert, and the The New School president, Jonathan Fanton, supported our efforts, in the manner Beard imagined. And Fanton pushed this forward forging a cooperative relationship between The New School, and Helsinki Watch and Human Rights watch, taking a leadership role in both.

New School faculty became supporters, colleagues and collaborators with key opposition figures of the region, Adam Michnik, Martin Butora and Janos Kis, among many others, engaging in clandestine seminars before the changes of 1989, and open meeting and educational initiatives after the changes. In the region, The New School developed a significant reputation, known for its founding principles.

Independent scholarship pitted against tyranny and small mindedness, opposition to intellectual dogma, and engagement with the pressing problems of the day, these are the ideals of The New School’s founding, which have informed its history. The stated principles provided the opportunity for innovative actions. They are also strikingly present in the daily life of the university, in the faculty’s creative work and scholarship, and in their teaching, and in the problems and the challenges student pose in our classrooms and in their own work. I would love to document this in the future – an idea for a book or at least a series of cooperative blog posts.

There have been times, of course when practice has ignored principle. Many in the institution, even among its leadership, have forgotten what makes The New School, The New School, especially in recent years. And, there are a variety of different readings of its distinctiveness. More about this soon.

For today, though note my major point: the principles of The New School’s founding have persisted. I believe that these principles define the university’s history, including ups and downs, constitute its importance, and suggest its future promise.

  • Scott

    I have been out of the country for the past 6 months or so,
    and have missed much in Town Halls, etc, that may have taken place about what I
    am about to discuss. However, I feel that it is necessary to say something
    about “principles and practices” from a student’s perspective. I believe that
    the effectiveness of the New School’s principles should be measured in part by
    the experience of its students, both inside and outside the classroom. In a
    time of continually expanding costs of education, the ability of student’s to practice
    these principles may in fact be hindered by an unreasonable, and
    dis-empowering, debt burden.

    Furthermore, I find it to be ironic that many
    students which recently protested the malfeasance of the largest financial
    institutions in our country are at the same time often dependent on these
    institutions for the capital necessary for “free inquiry” and criticism of the
    problems these institutions cause. Perhaps this is an example of the “Social
    Condition” which has been recently written about on this blog; it creates a contradiction
    where, at least for a good many students, social criticism in the academic
    environment is all too often dependent on those same institutions which are
    being criticized. The principle of “free inquiry” is being put into practice,
    but at a very real cost.

    This is of course a problem faculty and administration have been working diligently on, and have
    taken steps to address. Also being addressed are the fates of students after
    leaving the New School, and possibly how they live out the New School’s
    principles post hoc. A discussion of these constraints (and conditions of our
    times), as experienced by both students, and former students, as they relate to
    principled practice should be placed alongside a discussion of the universities
    founding principles.

  • Jeffrey Goldfarb

    This is a very important point. I am hoping to open a serious discussion about the New School’s principles and how they inform practice, how the principles can be extended in our practices – research, teaching and learning – and how our practices fall short of principles. Student participation and appraisal of all this is crucial. Thanks for opening it.