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Horace Kallen and the Jewish Roots of The New School

The longest-serving member of the faculty was instrumental in helping Alvin Johnson to organize the University in Exile in 1933

American Jewish philosopher Horace M. Kallen (1882-1974), famous for having coined the term “cultural pluralism,” taught at the New School for Social Research from 1919 to 1973. His contribution to the academic life of the school is noteworthy in itself. The longest-serving member of the faculty (he taught his last class mere months before passing away), he was instrumental in helping Alvin Johnson to organize the University in Exile in 1933, which rescued many Jewish scholars from the rising threat of Hitler. When he was sixty-five, friends and students created the Horace M. Kallen lectureship, which featured guest speakers yearly until 1964, and he was presented with a collection of essays written by colleagues in his honor. Edited by Sidney Hook and Milton Konvitz, it was published with the title Freedom and Experience, with a foreword written by Alvin Johnson.

Kallen’s name, it seemed, was indelibly connected to the New School. And yet, it was only an accident of circumstance that this was so.

Horace Kallen was among the first lecturers at the New School in Spring of 1919. Probably no one was more surprised at this than he. Beginning in 1918, Kallen’s life was upended. He had left the University of Wisconsin, where he had chafed for years against restrictions on academic freedom and intolerance for pacifism during the War. In April of that year, he confided to a friend that his departure had brought only uncertainty. Only one thing seemed certain — he was done with teaching: “Precisely what to do I do not know for the present — for the present there is some work in the way of propaganda and war stuff which may keep me going for a little while…. Certainly, I do not want to have any teaching responsibilities, that is a deadly thing under any circumstances.”

Although Kallen had, at the invitation of New Republic editor Herbert Croly, participated in the weekly organizing meetings for the New School and supported its bold vision for education aimed at effecting social reconstruction, he was not ready to commit to teaching there. He was more interested in the possibility of becoming a correspondent for the New Republic in Europe. Despite Croly’s support, the U.S. State Department thwarted his plans by declaring that the New Republic was “oversupplied” with correspondents in Paris. But by this time Kallen had realized that it was not teaching that he hated, but the academic system in which he had felt constrained. The New School’s promise of creating an educated cohort of adult learners who were interested in self-improvement and in the pressing issues of the time, together with the circle of like-minded anti-establishment academics with whom he had now surrounded himself, opened up a new orientation to academia for him. In January 1919, Croly telegrammed Kallen with an invitation to teach, and the rest, as they say, is history. Well, almost. Money was tight and Croly wasn’t sure that there would be funding to pay Kallen for very long. But it worked out.

As Judith Friedlander argues, the New Republic gave birth to the New School for Social Research. The school’s tangible ties to a magazine devoted to progressive ideals shaped its educational agenda. But having brought in a thinker like Horace Kallen, the New School would become deeply influenced by Kallen’s views regarding the character of American democracy and the role that ethnic groups play in it. His views in turn were shaped by his experience as a second-generation Jewish American, and, in a country seized with paranoia regarding the purportedly deleterious effect that immigrants and refugees would have on American life, he sought to reconfigure public perceptions about its founding ideals. In so doing, he positioned Jews not as outsiders, but as central to American interests and ideals. Kallen’s first and perhaps most significant contribution in this regard was his 1915 article, “Democracy Versus the Melting-Pot,” in which he set forth the basic parameters for what he would later call cultural pluralism. He perceived the forced-assimilation programs that were then in vogue (over one hundred organizations were involved with the “Americanization” of Jewish immigrants by 1918) to be a threat to the spirit of American democracy. He argued that America’s viability as a democracy hinged rather on its willingness to support ethnic diversity.

Cultural pluralism, Kallen wrote in 1924, was the only real alternative to the KKK’s vision for America. It was not so much a developed philosophy with defined goals as it was to be a lived experiment in democracy. It was closely akin to the kind of social program advocated by the Chicago School of Sociology, and it found allies in progressive thinkers like his friend John Dewey. In this first iteration of cultural pluralism, though, Kallen went further and sought to underscore the necessity of pluralism. Grounding his views on ethnicity in his understanding of what he referred to as psychophysical inheritance, developed from his sense of Jewish identity, he initially believed that ethnicity was inherited and determined. As time went on, he came to embrace the consensus view that cultural association was voluntary in nature, and not a biologically inherited force. He now conceived of cultural pluralism as a faith commitment to the democratic process. Only by embracing the diversity of ethnic cultures would creativity blossom and American democracy flourish.

By the 1950s, he espoused the notion that American democracy was a religion, and was, moreover, the religion ofreligions because it was the ground for the faith proposition that each religion had a right to flourish, operating with the same common commitment to respect and equality. His Secularism is the Will of God (1954) and “Secularism as the Common Religion of a Free Society” (1965) propose essentially the same ideas that Robert Bellah would advance in his classic 1967 essay, “Civil Religion in America.” But for Kallen, it had grown out of his sense of Jewish identity and out of a Jewish worldview.

Alvin Johnson dubbed cultural pluralism “Kallenism” in the 1947 Festschrift, writing that it was the core principle of the New School “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 that out of multiplicity alone, multiplicity accepted with eager interest, can the creative process grow, in matters intellectual and in life itself.” What to Johnson was a universal commitment to tolerance and diversity was to Kallen also an affirmation of his Jewish identity. As Daniel Greene has shown in The Jewish Origins of Cultural Pluralism (2011), this ideal grew out of the Jewish struggle to belong in America. What Johnson took to be a core value of the New School was indebted to the American Jewish experience. Kallen made the connection to Jewish values explicit when, in the early 1950s, he praised the New School for its role in restoring “the entire Hebraic heritage to cultural parity” by integrating Jewish themes into courses in “the humanities, the social sciences, the graphic and the plastic arts.” Kallen felt that the New School’s recognition of what he believed to be the integral relation between Hebraism, Judaism, and Americanism offered “an effective example which, when followed elsewhere, will contribute to strengthen the survival, the growth and the services of the Jewish cultural heritage in the cultural democracy whereof consists the power, the character and the values of Americanism.”

Kallen’s perspective as an American Jew framed his teaching at the New School. Although his dismissiveness of traditional religion had earned him the hostility of a number of rabbis, Kallen’s articulation of the unique gifts that Jews offered to American democracy had inspired a generation of Jewish university students and transformed American Zionism. One of the first courses that he taught, “The Evolution of the International Mind,” was firmly rooted in his cosmopolitan understanding of Zionism. Zionism, for Kallen, expressed more than a desire for a Jewish state. It was predicated on a commitment to ongoing cooperation with other nations and contributing to the whole of human civilization and progress. Kallen’s vision of Zionism as representing the best of cosmopolitan transnationalism informed his commitment to promoting American interests abroad in the post-war era, and it undergirded his course which explored the “psychological and social factors in the rise, development, and subsidence of international ways of thinking and behaving.”

Kallen brought his philosophical orientation to Judaism to bear on issues in contemporary Western civilization. He offered to his students at the New School a reconfiguration of Matthew Arnold’s notion of the operation of “Hellenism” and “Hebraism” at the heart of European civilization. One of his most popular courses, “Dominant Ideals of Western Civilization,” was organized around his conception of the difference between Hebraism and Hellenism, with Hebraism corresponding to the modern, scientific frame of mind. This reflected ideas he had first advanced in 1909 in “Hebraism and Current Tendencies in Philosophy,” and developed in his The Book of Job as a Greek Tragedy (1918).

As was typical of faculty at the New School, the courses that Kallen taught were designed to be outward-facing. They provided opportunities for engagement for the reading public. Topics that he discussed in class had a habit of seeing their way into print.Why Religion (1927), Individualism: An American Way of Life (1933), Art and Freedom (1940) and The Liberal Spirit (1948), for example, are books that germinated in his courses. His seminal work, Culture and Democracy in the United States (1924), which contains the first published instance of the term cultural pluralism, includes ideas that had been discussed in courses like “Fundamental Problems in Americanization.” Course offerings were ongoing social projects.

The last course that Kallen taught, “Consumerism, cooperation, & the idea of the consumer,” addressed a subject that had occupied him for most of his life. He had written extensively for many decades on the topic of consumerism, including such publications as Education, the Machine, and the Worker (1925), The Decline and Rise of the Consumer (1936), and Consumer Cooperation and the Freedom of Man (1945). Together with secularism and cultural pluralism, Kallen understood consumer collectivism to constitute an important building block in a functioning democracy. It affirms the intrinsic value of each person, in accord with the democratic principle that all persons are created equal, and it declines to assign people value according to their productive role in society.

“We are consumers by nature and producers by necessity,” Kallen wrote in The Decline and Rise of the Consumer. “We are born consumers, and remain consumers all our lives. But we are not born producers. We become producers under coercion…we are compelled to live to work instead of living to live.” Whereas cultural pluralism lauds the diversity of people for their unique lived expression as group individualities, the industrial economy creates “a false division of men, distinguishing them from one another by their vocations rather than their persons.” Upon recognition of this basic fact, it follows that a philosophy of education that considers education not in its vocational aspect, but recognizes the primacy of the consumer and works as “the prime tool to equality, liberty, fraternity, the paramount assurance of democracy,” should empower the working-class to participate in American democracy. Cooperation, Kallen argued, undergirds transnationalism, cultural pluralism, democracy, and provides the ultimate basis for the mutual assurance of freedom to live a “life more abundant.” Today, as income disparity between the labor force and CEOs is accelerating exponentially, and as institutions of higher learning acquiesce in hobbling the humanities and prioritize funding the interests of producers, it is perhaps more important than ever to remember the efforts of those who have sought to reform American education and industry along the lines of consumer cooperation.

It is worth remembering as well that Kallen’s philosophy of education was fundamentally shaped by how he refracted the pragmatism of his mentor William James through his experience as a Jewish American. Being different must not suggest inequality. Being different must not imply an outsider status. Education should affirm the parity of the different. Education should help the student not to integrate, “since to integrate is usually to liquidate a many into a one, to digest diversity into homogeneity,” but to orchestrate. Kallen’s biography is a story of self-orchestration, of coordinating the manifold aspects of his life such that he could live a life more abundant.

One hundred years ago, Kallen observed that “without memory, without the presence of the then in the now, there is no individuality. When a group forgets its history, it has lost its social memory, it has lost its individuality.” It is perhaps worthwhile for the New School at one hundred to recall these words. Memory is the wellspring from which the present draws and with which the future is aligned. The New School’s centennial celebration offers an opportunity to reflect on how prominent a figure Horace Kallen has been in its history, and to consider the role that Jewish experience has played in shaping the New School’s distinctive approaches to social engagement and educational philosophy.

Matthew J. Kaufman is a rabbi and an independent scholar, and the author of the new intellectual biography Horace Kallen Confronts America: Jewish Identity, Science and Secularism (Syracuse University Press, 2019).

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