EducationLetters

Reimagining Our Institution

This is the prepared text of a presentation to the General Seminar commemorating the 80th Anniversary of the University in Exile.

Dr. Wagner-Pacifici draws our attention to two states of event: event as particle, and as wave. Event as particle may feel more conceptually intuitive: an event has a “shape” and a “name”; this historical moment has had thus and such impact; we are forever changed by what transpired on X date. But to understand event as wave is to recognize that it may, in her words, “spread, grow, morph, or get bogged down.”

Here we have the first seed of a doubt. Is the event celebrated on our website the same event that has arrived here in our historical moment, 80 years later? Or has it changed in some important way?

Dr. Roitman wonders if we’ve made too much of “crisis;” if our critique has become despairing and energy-draining. To continue the particle and wave analogy, she seems to be asking whether the waves we imagine into the future are too restrictive. She wonders if there are “sites” within NSSR where “intellectual collaborations, networks, and experiments” are thriving despite financial and administrative barriers.

The answer, of course, is yes. It is the nature of crisis to either destroy or make stronger (Nietzsche). I can point to many examples of “exceptional and positive knowledge” I have been able to participate in here. But I’m not sure the presence of unusual, individual demonstrations of strength and ability addresses our question, which is about the future of an institution.

From Dr. Miller’s perspective, the event “particle” has been oversold from the beginning. Forget how the mission of the original University in Exile has been diluted over time, forget that we see and experience the event differently now—his point seems to be that the original mission was never the radical project we have been led to believe it was. What “New School” he asks? This has always been very Old School. Although he wonders if we can now reimagine a truly “experimental” institution, his pessimism is palpable.

I share in his pessimism from my experience here, and simultaneously reject it from my experience in the world. The particle-like nature of our current challenges — and they are significant, at times overwhelming — can, I believe, become more wavelike, more malleable, can lead to surprising changes, new kinds of particles, chain reactions, that could, within a generation, allow NSSR to thrive in a way it has never thrived. I’m speaking of a kind of psychological thriving that we do not collectively experience. We currently — we, real people sitting in this real room–have the ability to re-imagine our institution as a place where our principles become direct, tangible currency in our practices.

And guess what? It need not cost a dime.

We can start in the classroom, with experiments in transformative pedagogy. We can question the idea of education as a top-down banking system, where information is deposited into students to be cashed in later, and allow knowledge to be co-constructed between and among students and professors. We can engage new, possibly threatening ideas with curiosity instead of defensiveness. If some of you are squirming in your seats now, I pause to ask, why does a 50 year old idea from Paulo Freire feel “radical,” here of all places, at NSSR? I suspect it is because there is a gap between our stated commitments and the lived experience of students, faculty, or staff. What do I mean by stated commitments? Let’s look at the language on our website. On the webpage for Clinical Psychology, my departmental home at NSSR, it states that our program:

[I]s integrated into the mission of the university as a whole, which values progressive social thinking, and the mission of The New School for Social Research, which values critical thinking, pluralism, diversity, and interdisciplinary dialogue.

This language entices would-be psychologists of diverse identities and backgrounds from all over the world. Yet when we arrive, we learn that the reality feels starkly different. We learn to put our heads down, not “ruffle feathers,” and accept a quietly enforced normativity. And when we point out this contradiction, this gap between principles and practice, we are often politely told all the reasons why change is impossible.

Dr. Wagner-Pacifici observes the oxymoron in “institutionalizing the anti-institutional.” Yet somehow over the past 80 years we’ve managed to do just that. I suggest we now attempt the inverse: de-institutionalizing the institutional. Think how truly radical it would be for us to work toward a shared commitment to values of critical thinking, pluralism, diversity, and interdisciplinary dialogue, practiced with sincerity. Think of the light in students eyes when they feel the energy in a place like that, think of faculty meetings that feel collaborative and trusting instead of embittered and hostile, of staff who feel empowered and well cared-for. If we were to seriously take up this project of reducing the gap between our stated commitments and our lived experience, think of how quickly word of mouth would travel, how students, faculty, and staff would be falling over themselves to be at a place like that. My experience here tells me this is far-fetched, at best. But my experience in the world tells me changes like this are possible. I choose to hold out hope.

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William Somerville

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