Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts was founded 26 years ago, but its spirit emerged years earlier. If every history is about novelty replacing convention, you might say the history of The New School is a history of constantly updating our approaches to teaching and learning as successive earlier innovations become themselves outmoded.
The New School was established in 1919 as a Progressive Era experiment in adult education, informed by the ideas of John Dewey and his colleagues. In the same way, the program that became Eugene Lang College began at The New School in 1972 as a way to meet the educational needs of a special group of talented young people who wanted to go beyond a traditional high school education.
In that year, The New School, by then a thriving urban university, established the Freshman Year Program. This program offered exceptional high school seniors and new high school graduates an opportunity to earn college credits by taking seminar courses at The New School before they formally entered a college bachelor's program. Courses in the humanities, math and sciences, and social sciences were led by a small faculty of accomplished scholars, who were deeply invested in bringing their love of learning to their young students.
The Freshman Year Program was neither an early admission program nor a typical first year of college—there were no teaching assistants, lecture halls, or required survey courses. There was no competition from organized sports, fraternity/sorority rushes, or other features of traditional college entry. The intellectual adventure of college life was the sole focus. “On the streets of Greenwich Village, they could be heard discussing the art of fiction, literary revolutions, Social Darwinism, ancient Greek philosophy, and modern mathematics,” wrote one observer.
The opening class, just shy of 50 students, matriculated in 1972. The experiment attracted attention, and in the following years, more students came from all over the country, even a few from overseas. In addition to their own seminars, the students could audit other New School classes. They attended the university's public lectures, art exhibits, poetry readings, films, and concerts. Yet, they could not earn a degree at The New School. The university's bachelor's degree program was set up for part-time adult students, not full-time, traditional-age undergraduates. The Freshmen Year students had to leave The New School after a year, but many wanted to stay here.
To satisfy them, in 1975, the university launched the Seminar College for full-time undergrads—the direct precursor of Eugene Lang College. Its curriculum grew to keep pace with enrollments, accelerated BA/MA programs were set up in association with New School graduate
programs, and, by 1983–1984, the Seminar College had become an important part of the New School academic community. Fieldwork, internships, exchange courses with other New York City universities, and study abroad had all been introduced into the Seminar College education.
In 1985, a $5 million gift from philanthropist and New School trustee Eugene M. Lang established the Seminar College as a full division of the university, and it was named Eugene Lang College. For 26 years now, Lang has grown and prospered as an intimate urban liberal arts college where engaged learning and civic engagement frame the culture. What shaped the identity of the Seminar College—the seminar method of teaching and learning, the intellectual adventure, the BA/MA programs, the cross-disciplinary studies rather than a compartmentalized curriculum—have shaped the identity of Eugene Lang College and the experience of its students.
Eugene Lang College reinvented undergraduate education in record time. More than 70 new faculty members have been brought on since 2003. Today, there are more innovative areas of study, including BA/BFA dual degree programs in art and design (with Parsons School for Design) and music (with the School of Jazz at The New School). There are far more internship and fieldwork prospects. Lang students work in all kinds of organizations in the public and private sectors, including Common Cause, South Street Seaport, Environmental Action Coalition, HBO, NBC, MTV, Vogue, the New Yorker, the Museum of Modern Art, the New-York Historical Society, the Urban Justice Center, and many others. The internship program provides opportunities for real work and professional development in New York City, and beyond, like the Tishman Environmental Merit Scholarship that funds environmental protection internships in Alaska.
The curriculum has become an exciting and unique mix of traditional and innovative majors, minors and interdisciplinary programs. A hallmark of the Lang curriculum is integrated courses that bring different disciplines into lively, often unpredictable, conversation. Innovative programs like environmental studies and urban studies cross the colleges of The New School, bringing Lang students into the studios of Parsons School of Design and vice versa. The legacy of Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts gives the promise of its future as The New School as a whole leads the way to the higher education of the future.