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Centering Human Relations in Learning

Human Relations Center at the New School: a place for women to come learn and to socialize

In Spring 1973, the author and women’s rights leader Betty Friedan taught a course on “Women in New York” at The New School. The eight sessions focused on the problems females faced in the city, in work and beyond, and it drew a large crowd. Enrollment consisted of 97 women and three men; ten percent of the women crossed out Miss or Mrs. and substituted Ms. on their registration cards. Friedan’s appearance at The New School and the large number of women students in the class are just what might be expected at a school devoted to contemporary issues, attracting women as the majority of students throughout its history, and arming people with knowledge to more fully participate in society.

But there was a far earlier convergence between Friedan and the school. In The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, Friedan exposed the underlying anxiety and depression that prescriptive images and circumscribed roles as wives and mothers provoked in many middle and upper class white women. Fulfillment eluded these women, isolated in homes and cut off from conversation and duties beyond their domestic responsibilities. In the early 1950s, The New School recognized an unaddressed need that it could fill: a place for these women to come to not only learn but also to socialize. The resulting school within a school was called the Human Relations Center (HRC).

From its beginning, The New School intended to provide learning not offered elsewhere — a founding principle that still guides many of our curricular discussions. Most often, we articulate these unaddressed educational needs as intellectual concerns — what people should or want to know. But the needs the school met also encompassed people’s broader desires — who they wanted to be. Narrowing our understanding of unmet needs to intellectual issues masks the social connections, skills, and communities that learning offers.

The HRC exemplifies the school’s responsiveness in this regard. In 1950, Clara Mayer, the influential administrator who ran the school for 40 years, heard a presentation on “Modern Women’s Dilemma — What Direction Now?” and recognized an unmet intellectual and social need. By the next fall, the presenter of that talk, Alice Rice Cook, was offering a course at The New School called “Women in the Community: A Workshop in Human Relations.” Forty-three women enrolled. The next semester, Spring 1952, there were two workshops, filling empty classrooms in the daytime –and the beginning of the HRC.

The HRC was a part of the school for almost 30 years, shifting emphasis as women’s needs changed. It grew quickly and dramatically. A 1956 report noted that 650 students had taken courses under the aegis of the HRC in five years, most of them married white women who had gone to college, were over 40, and 77 percent of whom identified themselves as housewives. (This contingent was older than most New School students. A third of students overall at the school were women below the age of 30, as documented in a 1952 report.) The purpose of the workshops was ostensibly to make learning “social” rather than merely “intellectual,” adding to learning the “warmth and stimulation of personal contact.” The luncheon which accompanied the workshop was as important as the course which preceded or followed it.

The social aspect also served the less sanguine purpose that Friedan’s research at the same time was just uncovering: confronting women’s feelings about their lack of worth and purpose. The courses aimed to help women achieve an “adjusted vital personality.” Multiple surveys in the files in the university’s archives asked students to grade themselves on their relationships with questions such as “Is your voice usually pleasant and easily heard?” and “Do you make it easy for people to like you rather than driving them away?”

Workshops and courses concentrated on building self-awareness and appraisal to increase confidence and enlarge opportunities. Materials which read now as a sad commentary on many women’s lives in the 1950s in fact show the ways in which the New School created a sense of community and paths for growth.

These “human relations” were not the first to be given attention at the school. There had been a Research Center for Human Relations just prior to the workshops aimed at women. That research center, though, was focused specifically on “questions of group dynamics,” “from neighborhood street gangs to the United Nations,” and disappeared after a preliminary report on “intergroup relations” in public housing in 1948. The human relations projects at The New School point to similar initiatives elsewhere; institutes of human relations also appeared at Harvard, Yale, MIT, and Michigan at around the same time. These institutes were places of interdisciplinary social science research, geared to bringing together various disciplines to solve social problems — not unlike the founding mission of The New School. (Yale’s Human Relations Area Files are one lasting inheritance of this movement.) The other developing field that had some parallel concerns at the time was organizational behavior and management, also coming out of the social sciences, but keyed to labor.

There is a bit of each of these fields in The New School’s HRC. Throughout the workshops and courses there was an interdisciplinary social science approach (if heavy on psychology) and a concern with succeeding in the public and work spheres. But luncheon played a far more crucial role in the center than it did in any of the other institutes or developing fields. I have also found no emphasis on women in the other initiatives or on practical applications of these ideas directly on individual lives as opposed to institutional, policy, and research impact. The New School seems to have recognized that mature women were looking for purpose — and developed its own brand of learning to meet the need.

The HRC’s focus — and success — did not go unremarked. In 1961, The New School’s new president Henry David asked the dean of the Adult Division to investigate the center; he was concerned about the independence of the unit and whether its workshops and classes were supplanting or supporting interest in the general adult division courses in the evening. The first data point that the dean requested: the number of men registered in HRC courses. He then questioned the preponderance of courses with a “psychological orientation” and the use of the feminine pronoun in the promotion of courses: “What happens to the more than 25 male enrollees currently in the program if these assumptions are made?” (Out of approximately 300 students, 25 were men.) These questions, the dean claimed, all served one objective: “…that the educational activities of the New School be superior qualitatively.”

The HRC persisted. In fact, its leader Cook initiated a new effort to tie together training and placement programs for women re-entering the labor market, something also taking place at women’s colleges, Rutgers, and Harvard. In fact, the center increasingly focused on women in the world of paid work under its next director, Ruth Van Doren. Under a revised name, the Human Relations Work-Study Center trained women in social work, community planning, and early childhood education, even gaining funding for low-income women from new city initiatives, bringing into the center more women of color. Eventually, the HRC focused on adults more generally and — without a distinct purpose — was replaced when its primary benefactor Vera List instead funded a new center for art and politics, which continues today.

Even as the emphasis changed through the years from psychological needs to work training, the HRC argued that school be thought of not as a particular place but as a set of relationships. The always-populated and thriving cafeteria in the University Center today may be a recent rejuvenation of the importance of lunch — and social community — in a day of learning. Human relations may be a phrase too quaint for our present moment, but the goal of making learning not only intellectual but social may be a persistent unmet need.

Julia Foulkes is a Professor of History at The New School, and the author of A Place for Us: “West Side Story” and New York (2016).

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