The New School Convocation
September 6, 2007
Today’s convocation signals a very special moment in our history. Just last week, The New School for Social Research moved from 65 to 79 Fifth Avenue in preparation for the construction of a new signature building that will not only double our present academic space but signal a new era in the academic and intellectual integration of our university. We are on the verge of transforming our whole institution into what can only be called the new New School.
This transformation builds upon on our unique history and tradition of civically engaged progressive education but updates it to face the challenges of an increasingly complex world. What has always differentiated The New School from other institutions of higher learning is our institutional imperative to seek out the most relevant and pressing challenges facing society and our willingness to engage them in ways that structurally transform the institution and how we teach. The New School was established in 1917 in response to the repression of academic freedom during the First World War. Our founders, Charles Beard, John Dewey, Thorsten Veblen and James Robinson imagined an educational venue where they could freely present and discuss their ideas without censure, where dialogue could take place between intellectuals and the general public and where an education for adult learners would include theory, practice and performance. Since then, our history has been a continuous narrative of transformation and civic engagement. When the National Socialist Party rose to power in Germany, we founded The University in Exile as a refuge for European intellectuals fleeing the rise of fascism. When Europe lay in ruins after World War II, New School faculty played central roles in the development of the Marshall Plan. When America began to transition its WWII war machine toward peacetime development, The New School established the Senior College; the first academic institution organized to meet the special higher educational needs of returning World War II veterans and other working adults. When financial crisis hit New York City in the 1970s we transformed our J. M. Kaplan Center for New York City Affairs into what would become Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy, with a curriculum structured around progressive social, economic, and political change. Subsequent programs and divisions that expanded the university–Parsons, Lang, Jazz, Mannes and Drama- have all strengthened and diversified our practice perspective.
This “practice” orientation has been at the heart of the New School ever since its founding shortly after World War I. Today we are rethinking what a “practice oriented education” means in a world where the challenges facing humanity are increasingly non-linear, socially complex, and riddled with feedback loops that change the nature of the problem even as solutions are enacted. Problems such as environmental degradation, sustainability, poverty, financial crises, even democracy, cannot be handled within traditional disciplinary frameworks or national research paradigms. Rather, they require collaborative teamwork that usually results in incremental improvements rather than singular solutions. The need for interdisciplinary collaboration combined with complex feedback loops between theory and practice suggests that today’s challenges require a collaborative critical process of continuous reframing—i.e., a “micro-democratic” process—for their improvement, if not their solution.
At the New School, we are poised to create a “new New School” that directly confronts these challenges and seizes the opportunities encoded in complex problems. We have a unique vision based on the understanding that both the form and content of education must be rethought in order to create the rigorous programs and curricula needed in a globalizing world. This vision is based upon our guiding insight that education has to critically engage and continuously reframe the problems that it is designed to solve.
Building on academic strengths across the university that are currently locked in programs and divisions, the new New School will unlock the university’s creativity and intellectual energy by creating a site for pedagogical innovation. There are many branches to our strategy but the catalyst is vintage New School. Given the nature of the challenges facing society today and our capacity to direct the university toward creative engagement with them, we will proceed with two intertwined initiatives; university wide programs in media studies, management and policy, arts and performance, urban and environmental studies, and international affairs and a new New School building to house them.
The new New School will be populated by students in cross-cutting, university-wide programs, some of which will be collaboratively developed with our overseas partners and instantiate the “micro-democratic” processes needed to design solutions to problems ranging from global equity to financial crises. Unlike other proposals to internationalize the curriculum that maintain the primacy of traditional disciplines and nation-based educational frameworks, we will devise new curricula in which collaboration (at all different levels, local, national, and international), practice, and civic engagement organize what students learn.
The new building will be the space where the global and local meet. There will be at least three major performance venues, including eight hundred and two hundred seat auditoria and a black box theater. These performance spaces will anchor a new School for Arts and Performance and revitalize downtown Manhattan into a vibrant cultural district. Along with Tishman Auditorium on 12th Street, we will have the capability of host a range of international conferences, film festivals, or multimedia cultural events. Currently, no such venue exists in lower Manhattan.
The new signature building will contain 500,000 square feet of performance, learning, library, faculty, and university wide spaces and will double our total academic space. It will become the space in which design, social science, performance, humanities, and the liberal arts intertwine. Critically important is our commitment that the new building will adhere to the highest environmental standards. Going beyond this, however, we are working with city and federal authorities to design the building as a teaching tool that will function as the cornerstone of a global environmental program with a distinctive urban focus.
The programming and design of the new building mirror the pedagogic space we are developing to launch The new New School. Students in our cross-divisional programs and the honors college will develop a combination of capacities that allow them to identify and define problems and analyze their historical, cultural, political and economic roots. They will also develop skills to enable them to design and plan for solutions, participate in their implementation, and assesses their impact over time. These students will study in a process rich environment in which projects organize knowledge, studio methodology is interwoven with seminar and service learning, and lectures from leading international scholars serve to frame the challenges of our time. The new library and cutting edge information technologies will support real time in-the-classroom collaborations with foreign colleagues and students. These synchronous collaborations will train students to work in a global environment even as they participate in remaking their own local landscape. The new New School be a holding environment for pedagogical innovation that will not only transform the New School, but also be a model for higher education in a globalizing world.