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On James Baldwin and The New School

What It Means to be a Progressive University

A few times a year I get asked about James Baldwin’s time at the New School. While the history of the institution for which I work is not my primary research topic, over the last few years my colleague Mark Larrimore and I have become the historians nearby. We have developed a lecture course, an  exhibition, and a website about the school’s past; we’ve supported the formal establishment and growth of the university’s archives; and we’ve been asked to speak to staff, new faculty, and new students.

And it is the local experts who field questions about Baldwin. The most recent request was from the university’s marketing and communications department to confirm that he had, in fact, been a student. The Baldwin estate had agreed that the university could quote him on its website but the estate could not verify that he had attended the school. And herein lies the paradox of being labeled a progressive university.

From all available evidence unearthed so far, Baldwin never took a course at The New School. There are rumors of a writing workshop or an acting class, following Marlon Brando in the early 1940s, all logical guesses given Baldwin’s wanderings in Greenwich Village at that time. Above all, though, it just sounds right. Of course Baldwin gravitated to a school notable for its action regarding freedom of expression when it became a refuge for scholars fleeing fascism in Europe in the thirties and forties. Of course Baldwin found a haven at The New School for speaking hard truths about the country’s endemic racism. This is what The New School would like to think of itself as well.

The New School has often played the role of a progressive icon in the academic imaginary. As the home of the Frankfurt School and the progenitors of critical theory, for instance. (That was Columbia.) Or the place where Hannah Arendt laid out her stark vision of totalitarianism. (She did not arrive until 1967, long after she had written her most important works.) Baldwin fits into this imaginary pantheon, one that lets the school ignore its murkier legacies.

Legacies like these: the philosopher Leo Strauss was one of the refugees that the New School harbored in the 1930s. Strauss stayed for ten years before moving on to the University of Chicago, much longer than Arendt was at the school. The essayist and critic Anatole Broyard, unlike Baldwin, actually did take courses at The New School in the early forties (and later taught here). Broyard wrote about the impact of these courses on him in his memoir, Kafka Was the Rage, even as he perpetuated the masking of his mixed racial heritage.

Unlike Baldwin, Broyard and Strauss fit uneasily into the history the school promotes. Some of this elision is true of all institutions and eras. It is a historian’s job to expose what has been forgotten, overlooked, or not thought about thoroughly, and we take great pleasure in puncturing myths with the contradiction, the nuance, and the messiness of lived experience. Wanting to promote a connection to Baldwin, however, exposes the historical contortions necessary to being named a progressive university.

The university makes the claim explicit: “The New School is a legendary progressive university in New York City” is the first sentence of the description the university provides for itself on its homepage. It is a sentence that may be as paradoxical as the name of the institution: to be a nearly 100-year-old university that is called both new and a school; to be both legendary and progressive. What, then, has it meant to be a progressive university?

Born in the Progressive Era

A storied element of The New School’s founding in 1919 is rooted in the betrayal of academic freedom by Columbia University. John Dewey, Charles Beard, and James Harvey Robinson protested the rejection of a faculty decision to tenure two professors. The rejection stemmed from the administration’s dissatisfaction over the professors’ public pacifist views (both had argued against U.S. intervention in World War I). Beard, in particular, ranted about this abuse of the principles of faculty governance and academic freedom. He resigned and became part of the founding team of The New School, along with Robinson, another historian on the faculty of Columbia, and Herbert Croly, the editor of The New Republic.

John Dewey is often named as a founder of The New School but he never gave up his position at Columbia and only lectured here occasionally in the early years. Our claiming of Dewey as a founder is only one of the first myth-making stories that attempt to attach the school to renowned names in higher education. But, even though his presence may have been sporadic, Dewey’s philosophy of education was in fact fundamental to The New School — especially his belief that, to maintain a robust citizenry and a sound democracy, learning must continue throughout life. For both Dewey and The New School this principle was as important as that of academic freedom. So it began intentionally as a school aimed at adults — there was no granting of any degrees — and one that denounced the administrative bulk of universities that favored institutional continuity rather than learning for immediate ends. The New School became a place for people to come together for “no other purpose than to learn,” as  the original proposal for the school put it.

History had a particular role in this vision of education. Charles Beard disagreed with Columbia President Nicholas Butler’s vision of history as much as his view of faculty governance. In  The Meaning of Education (1905), Butler advocated the teaching of “inheritances”: scientific, literary, aesthetic, institutional, and religious. “Each generation owes it to itself and to its posterity to protect its culture, to enrich it, and to transmit it. The institution that mankind has worked out for that purpose is the institution known as education,” Butler wrote. [i] The languages of Greek and Latin formed the bedrock of a classical tradition rooted in the most important texts of western civilization. Butler’s leadership at Columbia sought to embed this philosophy in the institution: it was to be a place where the past was to be honored, where education steeped the learner in the critical inheritances of the western tradition so as better to contribute to their continuation.

Beard and Robinson, on the other hand, advocated a different view of the past. They called this school of thought “New History,” with a view of the past less about honor and more about critique. In books such as The Mind in the Making (1921), Robinson pushed this critical perspective on the past beyond politics toward an expansive view of human thought and action as geared toward future progress. And Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) applied contemporary concerns about corporate interests to the American Revolution, a comparison that put in relief the class conflicts embedded there. Both Beard and Robinson, then, used the past to focus on present challenges. For them history was a kind of adventure in creative thought.

This historiographical concern merged with the politics of the moment as well, especially those found in the editorial offices of  The New Republic. Established in 1914, this bimonthly magazine of politics and culture embodied the reformist impulses of the Progressive Era. It advocated neither a new government nor a new revolution, but a better republic, a reinvigorated one devoted to solving society’s problems. One way to make that happen: build a new school.

It was Editor Herbert Croly who articulated, in the June 1918 pages of the magazine, just what such a school might look like. The “School of Social Research ” he imagined would “study society rather than politics” and use research to further social progress. Students would seek not degrees but learning that could be applied to real-world problems. A few months later “A Proposal for an Independent School of Social Science,” the official founding document of the school, made the pitch to prospective donors and students — specifically targeting both men  and women. The proposal began with a look at the recent past, noting that the impact of industrialization demanded a “new type of leadership,” and “trained workers of scientific insight.” Because the “excessive specialization” of older educational models had led to “such minutiae and such remoteness that they have little or no relation to the great purposes of a democracy seeking all the light it can obtain upon its own pressing problems,” the mission of this new school would be “first-hand knowledge of the world of actual endeavor.” This would be a kind of learning geared toward action and results. And it would be located in New York City itself, “the greatest social science laboratory in the world.” Instead of lectures, seminars and field work would constitute the means of instruction. Innovation would come from the “reconstruction of old discipline in the light of the new age and the bending of them all to meet the social purposes of the time.” It was with the aim of accomplishing this mission that, in February 1919, The New School for Social Research opened in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan — a few doors down from the offices of The New Republic.

Many of the values embedded in the school — its attention to expertise and to reform, to the bolstering of democracy, and to a sure belief in a linear notion of progress — were common elements of the Progressive Era. Looking beyond principles of academic freedom and Dewey’s educational philosophies, though, highlights what is more radical in this proposal: not an inheritance of the past but problem-solving for the future; not obtaining a degree but knowledge to be applied in public forum or work; and not a university but a school.

Progressive as Cultural Pluralism

The institutional and educational vision of this new school had social implications as well, particularly in articulating and enacting a more influential role for women. There were no women on the faculty of Columbia University — the few women who taught uptown were on the faculty of Barnard — but one of the first six courses offered in the Spring 1919 semester at The New School was “Habit and History” taught by classicist Emily James Putnam. The anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons taught “Sex in Ethnology” the following semester. There were only occasional women on the faculty in the school’s first decade, but the evidence suggests that women were the bulk of the students. (Or, as a 1925 brochure fashioned it, more than 30 percent of the students were men!)

Except for these general statements, it is difficult to figure out exactly who these first New School students were precisely because they were not being tracked on their progress toward degrees. The 1925 brochure signaled that two-thirds of enrolled students were American-born, which means at least some among the more-recently-arriving immigrants attended in those first years. It is notable that Jews were prominent on the organizing committee of the school, and that it was Clara Mayer, herself from a wealthy German Jewish family involved in real estate, who effectively ran the school for over 40 years from under the shadow of Alvin Johnson, the long-time influential director of the school. Johnson in fact inscribed the copy of his memoir that he gave to Mayer “to my co-founder” — but left her out of his history of the institution almost entirely. [ii]

When the school’s new building opened in 1931 it bore prominent murals by Thomas Hart Benton and José Clemente Orozco that visually rendered the ideals of the school. Orozco’s work, in particular, pronounced a forthcoming era of “universal brotherhood,” with a global collection of people gathered around a table upon which sat an open book. Learning and dialogue beckoned, and so, too, an open mind. Even more radical, at the head of the table was a person of color. Still, while Orozco’s ideal put forth a racially just world, there is no indication that the faculty, administrators, or students of The New School included many African Americans. There was an occasional course on race, including one taught by Franz Boas from 1937 to 1938, but these appeared about once every ten years in the early decades of the school. Notable by their absence in Orozco’s vision were, however, women. The one clear dominant group at The New School — white women — was not a part of his vision of the leadership of global harmony.

What perhaps better defined this era of the school was not Orozco’s mural, but rather what Alvin Johnson called Kallenism, after long-time faculty member Horace Kallen. (Although Kallen’s vision, too, did not render women visible.) A philosopher and pragmatist, Kallen taught at The New School for an astounding 54 years, from 1919 to 1973. His courses covered a wide variety of subjects: “Beauty and Use,” “The Function of Religion in Social Progress,” “Poets as Philosophers,” “The Philosophy of Consumption.” Kallen added to The New School’s emphasis on educating adults with a pamphlet, College Prolongs Infancy (1932), but was most well-known for his articulation of the concept of cultural pluralism. He first sketched out the concept in a 1915 essay in The Nation entitled, “Democracy versus the Melting Pot” (his 1924 book, Culture and Democracy in the United States, later retitled Cultural Pluralism and the American Idea, furthered the argument). In these works Kallen raged against the Americanization of immigrants — against assimilation, that is — calling instead for an embrace of difference and distinction. It was Johnson who re-worked this as Kallenism, “the principle that we live in a multiple world, multiple in national and racial characteristics, in art and letters, in religion and philosophy. It is the essential doctrine of Kallenism,” Johnson wrote, “that out of multiplicity alone, multiplicity accepted with eager interest, can the creative process grow, in matters intellectual and in life itself.” [iii]

The most notable example of Kallenism in action was The New School’s efforts to rescue persecuted scholars in Europe. Johnson had the foresight, the connections (made from managing the first Encyclopedia of Social Sciences), and the will to launch into action in April 1933, just after Hitler’s decree banning Jews from civil service became widely known. By September the first refugee scholars had arrived at The New School to form the University-in-Exile, soon renamed the Graduate Faculty for Political and Social Science. From 1933 to 1945, 303 scholars received aid from the Rockefeller Foundation to leave Europe; 181 of them came through The New School. For some scholars The New School became a home, for others it was a first stop toward a more permanent landing. At a time when federal immigration restrictions limited both Jewish faculty and students in American universities, The New School opened its doors.

Anatole Broyard identified how central both The New School and this new Graduate Faculty were to Greenwich Village in the postwar moment. “Education was chic and sexy,” he wrote, and this energy, vitality, and anxiety seemed bound up in the school itself. This was a school that was keenly aware of the reality of war and its aftermath, although Broyard did consider it perhaps unduly focused on what’s wrong: “What’s wrong with the government, with the family, with interpersonal relations and intrapersonal relations — what’s wrong with our dreams, our loves, our jobs, our perceptions and conceptions, our specs, the human condition itself.” [iv] The New School may have opened its doors with a robust belief in democracy and action but more relentless critical perspectives soon joined the offerings.

Progressive as Liberal

The New School’s critical outlook and embrace of multiplicity had its limitations, though, most notably regarding matters of race. If Broyard’s passing eased his interactions in the Village, Kallen’s cultural pluralism never fully tackled matters of racial injustice and discrimination — and The New School did not either, despite some efforts in that direction. The late forties featured courses on race and related subjects by notable faculty. These included “Social Philosophy: Minority Group Relations” taught by Alain Locke, “The Negro Contribution to American Culture” with a section on literature taught by Sterling Brown, and “The Negro in American History” taught by W.E.B. Du Bois. Similarly, an early course on women’s history by Gerda Lerner, then a student finishing her undergraduate degree, appeared in 1962 to 1963. But these courses were essentially one-time achievements and did not lead to sustained attention to either racial injustice or gender equity.

More concerted attention to civil rights re-appeared in the early sixties when the issue could no longer be ignored. In 1962 to 1963, programs honored the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which prompted some concerted discussion about how the school could be involved in the civil rights movement. In a 1963 report, administrators recognized that the school had not “excited much interest or support” from African Americans and that it was seen as “disinterested” and even “hostile” to them. Given the school’s longstanding interest in teaching adults, it considered opening an “uptown center” in Harlem catering specifically to job training and vocational skills. But the idea was quickly discarded because of its perpetuation of segregation — keeping African American students in Harlem rather than integrating them into courses downtown — and because of the disconnect between the school’s offerings to “educate the educated” (the school’s shorthand maxim for targeting adults) and the need for vocational or remedial learning. [v]

Instead, the school chose to “enlarge non-Negro understanding of Negro culture, history, and life,” to provide “programs designed to serve as bridges between the Negro and the general communities.” [vi] To that end, the school initiated a lecture series for spring 1964 on “The American Race Crisis.” Martin Luther King, Jr. opened the series; speakers on housing, labor, education, and desegregation followed. Audiotape of both King’s speech and the subsequent question-and-answer period suggests that he was indeed speaking to a largely white audience as some of the questions concern the extremities of activism and preferential treatment for African Americans. The audio records King responding to such questions with restraint even as he pointed out those who had received preference in the past and the urgent need for “atonement.” [vii]

The school invited both Malcolm X and James Baldwin to speak in the series as well, although it rescinded its offer to Malcolm X after his comment that Kennedy’s assassination was a case of “chickens coming home to roost.” The school believed that his participation would alienate the very audience they were trying to convince to support the civil rights movement. Baldwin did not appear either, although it is unclear why. Instead, he gave the keynote address at a conference the following year on “ The Negro Writer’s Vision of America ” — his only confirmed New School moment.

In the following year the school’s attention to social problems moved on. The U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam took pride of place, and a merger with Parsons School of Design in 1970 had consequential impact in adding more degree-seeking students to the university as well as introducing questions of design to the contemporary problems the school had long considered. It was a few of these Parsons students who staged an exhibition in response to the bombing of Cambodia and the deaths of students at Kent State in May 1970. This exhibition, titled “My God! We’re losing a great country,” turned these young designers’ skill at persuasion into a critique of American actions, didactic and relentless. In one entry, the tag line “The United States is offering a course in package design” sat atop images of coffins.

An incident in 1989 more clearly revealed the limitations of The New School’s progressivism in an era built on economic liberalism. That year the university hosted a show of the Japanese graphic artist Shin Matsunaga. Amid the 300 works on display, one utilized a racially charged caricature in an advertisement for a Japanese soda company. A few faculty protested, asking President Jonathan Fanton to remove the image or at least denounce it by placing a sign in the gallery. When no action was taken, the poet, activist, and faculty member Sekou Sundiata wrote “This is racist bullshit” directly on the image and signed his name. The action prompted more debate. The university still did not remove the image and the exhibit closed as planned shortly thereafter. [viii]

Following this event Fanton addressed the university on the need for balance, arguing that freedom of expression and freedom from intolerance were not incompatible. He urged the school’s design and art students to think carefully and to take responsibility for the images they created. He also noted that the university had a special role to play in controversies such as this — that of being a platform for debate rather than a censor of it. Fanton’s defense of liberalism — balance, rationality, and toleration as the highest ideals — roused more protest. Feminist writer and faculty member Ann Snitow took hold of the opportunity to make an accounting of the school’s particular history, noting how often and clearly it stood for freedom of expression. What was less obvious, she concluded, was its stand on racial justice, where its rhetoric had rarely matched reality. Snitow argued that structural inequalities demanded that the institution be not a passive platform but an active force in tipping the scales toward justice. This was as true of the inconsistent attention to gender inequities as to racial ones. [ix]

The incident rankled. And this prodded more attention to diversity in the curriculum, to the hiring of staff and faculty of color, and to striving for a more inclusive student body — all of which remains a contentious, ongoing effort. These issues exploded again in 1997 over the plight of a visiting professor who sought tenure, in what has become known as the Mobilization. Race, gender, and economic justice wrapped into postcolonial critiques roiled the university. Many faculty at the Graduate Faculty argued against turning away from concerted attention to Europe and the longstanding tradition of European-inflected social science and philosophy embedded in the school. Faculty and administrators also clung to protocols of hiring and promotion that would not allow a visiting professor to be appointed to tenure without a wider search and vetting process. Students, on the other hand, saw the dismissal of postcolonial critique of the curricula and the clinging to protocols as only more evidence of the institutional conservatism that betrayed what they viewed as a more radical past. Students appropriated that past to their cause, creating their own university-in-exile. The title of an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education summarized the paradox: “A Haven for Oppressed Scholars Finds Itself Accused of Oppression.” The movement ended with the hospitalization of student hunger strikers, the dismissal of the visiting professor, and the ending of a Gender Studies master’s program. In incidents like this the school could make few claims to any kind of progressivism. [x]

Progressive as New

The Mobilization was a specter over the university for many years, a painful recognition of how far a storied history and inspiring rhetoric differed from action and implementation. Despite continued efforts to close this gap — including the recent commissioning of artworks by Kara Walker and Glenn Ligon that confront the legacies of slavery — it remains. The number of faculty, staff, and students of color at the school continues to be small, and work to change this has been inconsistent at best. Then the march for Black Lives Matter passed the school’s University Center in 2014 and President David Van Zandt hauled out the words of “alumnus” James Baldwin to remind the school community of its place on the right (and righteous) side of history. This was yet another case in which the university raised expectations, and made the divergence from reality that much more acute.

Van Zandt and the university’s marketing department have stepped back from this embrace of Baldwin in response to our plea to stop this falsification of the institution’s past and betrayal of Baldwin’s still prescient judgment. But I doubt the long-lived, unrequited romance with Baldwin is over. And this is because we have yet to recognize that The New School’s progressive credentials foundered on race. This has not been an uncommon failure, given the entrenchment of racial inequities in American society and the difficulties and challenges in working toward justice. Recent research clearly implicates many universities in the slave trade (with Georgetown and Brown leading the way in excavating that history); educational institutions can claim no higher ground in this battle. Even newer institutions such as The New School must confront the perpetuation of these inequities. What is surprising, however, is The New School’s desire to mask these limitations by evoking the names of Baldwin and King — both of whom made, literally, one-time appearances on the school’s stage. It is clearly a failure that at a school Broyard described as being passionate about what’s wrong, the commitment to racial justice was so inconstant.

The university’s new branding campaign contains the paradox of being a progressive university in the contemporary age. “What happens when a university re-thinks everything?” reads its slogan. It was the desire for reinvention that was written into the school’s name, and now being progressive can be satisfied by being new. But The New School is nearly a hundred years old. We can no longer claim to be new — nor should we. Instead, we might more accurately face our current contradictions by acknowledging our past ones. One of the most obvious is that the school offered some of the first courses in African American history and women’s history, and yet failed to see those achievements through with a commitment to racial and gender diversity in curricula, faculty, students, or university leadership. Advanced thinking about racial and gender politics was not characteristic of the Progressive Era; claiming Baldwin as a student does not solve that. Instead, the school’s roots in the Progressive Era may be a more accurate way to embrace the term progressive. It recognizes the ideals of the era — in a hopeful view of democracy, in the belief in reform and change — and also a certain myopia in the difficulties to be overcome.

The New School has increasingly become more university than school. The number of non-credit students has decreased dramatically over the last two decades as the school has sought more degree-seeking students from all over the world. At the same time, there has been a renewed interest in the university’s past. The valorization of the institution’s history and the desire to re-think everything may have more to do with wanting to believe the university remains progressive when, in fact, it has become more conventional than ever.

Footnotes:

[i] Nicholas Butler, The Meaning of Education: Contributions to a Philosophy of Education (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1915), 39.

[ii] Alvin Johnson, Pioneer’s Progress: An Autobiography (New York: Viking Press, 1952).

[iii] Alvin Johnson, “Foreward,” Freedom and Experience: Essays Presented to Horace M. Kallen , eds. Sidney Hook and Milton R. Konvitz (Ithaca: Cornell University Press for The New School for Social Research, 1947), xvi.

[iv] Anatole Broyard,  When Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 14-15.

[v] William Birenbaum [Dean, Adult Division] to Robert MacIver [President], “New School & Civil Rights Possible Uptown Center,” 2 August 1963, New School Archives.

[vi] Ibid .

[vii] A 2014 exhibition, Voices of Crisis, showcased the materials regarding this lecture series including audiotapes from the speakers, which can be found in the New School Archives and online here.

[viii] The exhibition “ Offense+Dissent: Image, Conflict, Belonging”(2014) delved into three incidents when art roused protest at the school, including this 1970 exhibition by Parsons students against the war in Vietnam and the “Matsunaga Affair.” The third incident discussed the covering of portraits of Lenin and Stalin in the Orozco mural during the 1950s.

[ix] Writings by both Fanton and Snitow are featured in the Offense+Dissent exhibition website.

[x] Alison Schneider, “A Haven for Oppressed Scholars Finds Itself Accused of Oppression,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (11 July 1997): 43-44. A general overview of the Mobilization from that time can be found in Eyal Press, “Nightmare on Twelfth Street,” Lingua Franca (August 1997), 34-43.

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  • Scott Thornbury

    As well as being black, Baldwin was gay, a fact elided in this otherwise illuminating essay, and perhaps symptomatic of another lacuna in The New School’s progressive credentials. (Is there an LGBT+ history of TNS yet to be written?) You wonder if Baldwin’s sexuality – explicit in his writing – might have made him feel less than welcome in this ostensibly straight male environment.

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