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The New School’s Long Road to a Four-Year College

100 years in, the New School's experimental ethos lives on

The aim of the new college, the cheap college, should be not to segregate and specialize but to combine. It should explore the ways in which mind and body can be made to cooperate; discover what new combinations make good wholes in human lives. [1]

Most American universities start as 4-year colleges, eventually adding masters and doctoral programs, professional schools and conservatories, and ultimately continuing-ed programs. The New School did things pretty much back to front. It took the better part of its first 100 years to establish a 4-year undergraduate college. This wasn’t an oversight. Offering a 4-year degree program to traditional-age college students was the last thing on the minds of the founders, critics of universities and their dusty degrees. When a 4-year college was at last set up, sixty years in, it was only after experiments with programs of other lengths, testing boundaries with graduate, non-degree — and even high school — education. As questions arise anew about the nature and structure of higher education, the New School’s adventures with undergraduate education record a plethora of possibilities.

1919’s New School for Social Research did not offer degrees and was not interested in conventional-age students. It was suspicious of the administrators and trustees that made universities hidebound, but also of alumni, tenured professors and even lecture halls. Better to learn about a changing world from those who knew it best — experts on the factory floor, the trading floor or the Bureau of Municipal Research. New School stalwart Horace Kallen wasn’t the only one to think that college education was backward-looking and infantilizing.

The granting of degrees was contemplated by the end of the school’s first decade but these would be “advanced degrees” for adults. The New School sought to break “the time honored conception of education as essentially an adolescent monopoly.” The establishment of 1933’s University in Exile as the Graduate Faculty of Social and Political Science in 1934 brought the first actual degrees — MAs. A BA program opened a decade later to take advantage of the GI Bill. Designed for returning servicemen completing interrupted educations, this “Senior College” was decidedly a school for adults.

In the 1950s thoughts went to creating an undergraduate college, not least to make use of the school’s expanding space during the daytime. By 1958 a proposal for a 4-year “New School College” had been made — and shelved. The Board of Trustees, while divided about the prominence of graduate degrees, was united in commitment to the New School as America’s pioneer “university for adults.” Wrote one trustee to president Hans Simons,

Looking over the span of years preceding adulthood, it is probable that the college years are generally the least accessible to outside influences. The young man or woman, leaving home, is conscious of his independence and equality in the body politic, of the superiority that in this country belongs to the rising generation, and the corollary that anything worth listening to comes only from his peers. His teachers like his parents, with few exceptions, are taken on sufferance…[2]

Sounding a Deweyan note, this trustee articulated a commitment to lifelong learning beginning long before and continuing long past the “college years.” Everyone else focuses on “college age”; why should the New School? The Senior College with its more mature students continued, introducing special seminars for degree students and an honors program (Gerda Lerner, age 42 at the time, was a member of the inaugural class of 1962), but it remained small. It would take a few more years for educators to learn to see the particular mindspace of the “college years” as a fertile place for progressive education.

The first step towards an undergraduate college for traditional age students was taken in 1966, under a new president, John Everett, and a new Dean, Allen Austill, brought in from the University of Chicago to help cultivate new programs. The “New School College” was unveiled as a response to a national crisis in universities. Student movements across the country showed that higher education had again become sclerotic. Students were right to demand “relevance.” Colleges should resist the pressures of specialization from graduate schools to instead produce disciplined general thinkers — an approach in line with the aims of New School’s understanding of adult education. While targeted at “college age” students, the new day college was like the Senior College in welcoming only students who had completed their first two years elsewhere.

Led by the visionary Elizabeth Coleman, the newly formed college was thrilling for the students involved. Non-disciplinary classes, focused entirely on the reading of primary texts, took on crucial questions in seminar format. The reading lists in the two tracks of Social Sciences and Humanities are impressive, embracing the classical and the cutting-edge: Giotto and Gandhi, Mozart and Marcuse, Rabelais and Robbe-Grillet. Thomas Kuhn’s recently published Structure of Scientific Revolutions was the order of the day, and Paul Goodman’s Drawing the Line was ceremonially presented to each new student in 1967. But in the late 1960s even this anti-hierarchical approach to learning and teaching wasn’t radical enough.

New School College was designed to be a self-critical and self-correcting institution.The curriculum was revised at the end of each year in light of the past year’s experience. Students had a voice in this revision but in 1968, inspired by the protests of their fellows at Columbia, some decided they needed to take more direct charge. Faculty arrived one day to be informed that they were “paid consultants” as students recalibrated their courses in real time.

One instructor described this as a “catabolism” — the disaggregating step in cell metabolism required for the building of new structures — but it turned out there was no time for anabolism.[3] An “Assembly” consisting of all students, faculty and staff was formed but withered over the summer of 1969 for lack of student participation. Who could decide what should be taught? The experiment proved too demanding to maintain. Celebrated in New School 50th anniversary publications in 1969, The New School College had disappeared from the New School catalog by 1970.

The Senior College returned to its pre-New School College structure, but experiments in undergraduate education continued. Buoyed by new institutional possibilities brought by the 1970 merger with Parsons School of Design (itself just making the move to granting degrees), Coleman introduced a new idea in 1972:

In the past several years, more and more questions have been raised about the amount of time spent in formal education. It is no longer automatically assumed that the traditional pattern of 12 years of elementary and high school followed by 4 years of college is necessarily the best or only way in which a student can receive a Bachelor of Arts degree. Most of the recommendations for changing the quantity of time have focused on the university level in the form of recommending 3-year degrees. Relatively little attention has been paid to the issue of the amount of time spent in high school.

The Freshman Year Program at the New School rescued precocious high school students from the drudgery of high school (not just seniors but even some juniors) and sent them on to complete their undergraduate degrees in prestigious universities. College here didn’t prolong but foreshortened infancy! A faculty drawing on New School College veterans offered a rigorous curriculum in humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Everything was taught in a seminar format like that of a graduate school.

Freshman Year Program students successfully transferred into famous universities but those who wanted to stay at the New School to complete their studies found they couldn’t. The Senior College was for juniors and seniors — not to mention for grown-ups. Indeed the Senior College was looking in the other direction, setting up BA/MA programs for its adult students with the Center for New York City Affairs and all the departments of the Graduate Faculty.

By the late 1970s, however, the Senior College was joined by a “Seminar College” for “college age” students, led by the indefatigable Coleman, which eventually retrofitted a sophomore year. New School had almost arrived at having a four-year college — but not quite. While the faculty and ethos of the Freshman Year Program and Seminar College were substantially the same, the former continued as an independently marketed entity until 1981. The latter was explicitly a school for transfers; students who completed the Freshman Year Program were eligible to transfer in! The faculty inhabitants of the hothouse knew it was unconventional. The glossy 1977-79 catalog for the Seminar College opened with a blank two-page spread with only these words from Alexander Pope’s Dunciad: “ Ah! Why, ye gods, should two and two make four?”

The Seminar College got a boost with the arrival of Jonathan Fanton, the New School’s first president charged by the Board of Trustees with making a proper university of the New School. Fanton convened an impressive Commission on Undergraduate Education, chaired by economist Robert Heilbroner and drawing from experts across the university and the country. Inspired by Coleman’s ideas, the Commission recommended a radical rethinking of existing 4-year college curricula. Everyone else followed two years of general education courses with two years in a major. The New School should do it differently. The Seminar College’s interdisciplinary first year seminar curriculum should be mirrored by a similar curriculum for the senior year. Disciplinary specialization would happen in the second and third years, to be tempered by the integrative final year, where specialized knowledge would be brought back to broader, fundamental questions. Echoing earlier ventures, the ideal was forming “educated non-experts.”

Veteran university trustee Eugene Lang committed funds to strengthen the Seminar College, but the Heilbroner Commission’s proposals proved too visionary. As the central administration dithered, Coleman — who had led the undergraduate experiments from the New School College days on — resigned. Commission member Jonathan Z. Smith of the University of Chicago was brought in to lead university-wide discussions of undergraduate education. Abandoning as unworkable the 1+2+1 year curriculum, Smith recommended taking advantage of the New School’s existing strengths. An undergraduate school should be positioned as something in which every part of the university had a stake. Not all of Smith’s recommendations were followed either, but those which were were experienced as a hostile takeover by the Seminar College.

The college, now called Eugene Lang College, grew slowly but steadily. The first year program continued to be the focal point of a shared faculty project. Pedagogy continued to emphasize the reading of primary texts but an often strained relationship with the Graduate Faculty led to the emergence of a Lang faculty in many ways its polar opposite. While the Graduate Faculty struggled for years about gender studies and decolonizing its curriculum, Lang offered every kind of feminism. Where the Graduate Faculty shot down a proposal to diversify its curriculum (“Rethinking Europe in a Global Context”), Lang secured a Ford Foundation grant to “create diversity throughout the college community” through a new course development workshop in which almost the entire faculty participated, and a series of performances and cultural events called the “Multi Kulti Move.” When the Mobilization brought the New School to a standstill, the Lang community was one center of gravity of protest.

Since those heady days, the college has grown sixfold and a more integrated university has grown around it. New students and faculty can’t imagine a 4-year college wasn’t central to the university from the start — let alone that the original New School was designed to be an undergraduate-free zone. The Bachelors Program for Adults and Transfer Students (BPATS) in the Schools of Public Engagement, descendant of the Senior College, is in many ways closer in ethos not only to the New School’s original commitment to adult education but also to the Seminar College’s commitment to interdisciplinary study and student-designed learning.

Even as it has established itself as a liberal arts college with a national profile, the energy of New School’s earlier experiments continues to flow through Eugene Lang College. A self-directed curriculum model prevails, although majors have been offered for (only) a decade. Most students choose interdisciplinary majors and many pick up a minor or two. Some of Lang’s most innovative features, like courses which partner with non-educational institutions, harken back to the New School’s earliest suspicions of college instruction, while BA/BFA programs and new majors blending the academic with the vocational continue the outward-facing commitments of America’s first university for adults.

A 4-year New School degree isn’t the default. Debt-conscious students try to finish in three years, and more than a third of each graduating class are transfer students who began their studies elsewhere. Students take time off, study abroad. The BA/MA continues to blur the boundary between graduate and undergraduate studies. These practices accord with national trends, but harken back to earlier New School experiences. We’ve been there, done that. What will we do next?

Ye gods, why should two and two make four? The catabolism unfolds.

Mark Larrimore is the Program Director of Religious Studies in Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School.

[1] Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas; epigraph of Sara Ruddick, “New Combinations: Learning from Virginia Woolf,” in Between Women: Biographers, Novelists, Critics, Teachers and Artists Write about Their Work on Women , ed. Carol Ascher, Louise DeSalvo and Sara Ruddick (Boston: Beacon, 1984), 137-59. The essay is dedicated to “Elizabeth Coleman, Dean of the Seminar College, 1972-1984.”

[2] “Memorandum to President Simons in re Day College,” New School Archives, Allen Austill Records NS.02.01.03, Box 1 folder 20

[3] Joseph S. Lobenthal, Jr., “The Catabolism of a Student Revolt,” The Journal of Higher Education 40/9 (Dec 1969): 717-30

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