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The Twentieth-Century Saga of an Iconoclastic University

By Marjorie Heins

A Light in Dark Times: The New School for Social Research and Its University in Exile by Judith Friedlander. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019.

“What had been wrongheadedness was now sedition. What had been folly was now treason.” So declared Columbia University president Nicholas Murray Butler in 1917, just after the United States entered World War I. Neither students nor faculty members who protested the war or the draft would be permitted to continue at Columbia, Butler announced. He forthwith fired two antiwar professors, James McKeen Cattell and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana; two others, James Harvey Robinson and Charles Beard, resigned in protest.

So began the saga of the New School for Social Research, which was organized in response to Butler’s frontal attack on academic freedom, and where Robinson, Beard, and scores of other prominent social scientists taught in the 1920s. The school quickly became a leader in adult education, attracting people in various walks of life who sought after-work enlightenment from prominent scholars in the still-novel social sciences. Its lasting claim to fame came in the 1930s, when its founder, the ever-resourceful Alvin Johnson, created a “University in Exile” within the New School as a refuge for professors driven out of Germany by the Nazi regime.

The school soldiered on through the 1940s; faltered in its commitment to academic freedom during the second, post–World War II Red Scare; and rebounded in the last decades of the twentieth century to emerge as the multifaceted fixture of New York City’s higher education landscape that it is today. Along the way, it survived multiple cliff-hanger financial crises, thanks to Johnson’s persuasiveness and the commitment of several determined and generous donors. In A Light in Dark Times: The New School for Social Research and Its University in Exile, Judith Friedlander, a former dean and professor at the school, recounts the whole saga with well-chosen excerpts from the innumerable meeting minutes and memoranda that populate any university’s historical archive, punctuated by occasional anecdotes that convey the human side of some of the characters in this remarkable tale.

Chief among these characters is Alvin Johnson himself, a peripatetic economist and political scientist who found his true calling first as an activist and public intellectual writing for the New Republic, then as a consummate networker, arm-twister, and fundraiser over the twenty-six years that he led the New School and even after retirement, until his death in 1971 at age ninety-six. Johnson was no angel—Friedlander mentions but does not linger over his unconventional administrative style and his adulterous affairs—but he had a keen sense of how to build a progressive intellectual community by linking professors and students with the arts and culture all around them in the city of New York.

One of Johnson’s early coups was to commission murals by two eminent artists, the American regionalist Thomas Hart Benton and the Mexican revolutionary painter José Clemente Orozco, for the walls of the New School’s first building on West Twelfth Street in Greenwich Village. Friedlander touches upon other artistic links—Erwin Piscator’s Studio Theatre and Dramatic Workshop in the 1940s, poetry readings and lectures by the likes of T. S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein, revolutionary modern dance performances by Martha Graham and her company— although I would have liked more detail on the exploits of these and other avatars of the avant-garde and the students’ responses to them.

Friedlander does provide a few more expansive descriptions—for example, Anatole Broyard’s vivid recollection decades later of the German professors who populated the University in Exile, “furious at the ugly turn the world had taken,” the school resounding “with their guttural cries: kunstwissenschaft, zeitgeist, weltanschauung.” They were often incomprehensible, but the students admired them just the same. Broyard was one of many veterans returning to school on the GI Bill after World War II. “We had won the fight against fascism,” he wrote (and Friedlander quotes), “and now, with their help, we would defeat all the dark forces in the culture and the psyche.”

Equally memorable is Friedlander’s description of one prominent donor and longtime trustee, Dorothy Hirshon—a socialite, literary mover and shaker, and passionate advocate of progressive causes—who would sometimes make an entrance with her three dogs on leash, and who was delighted that the first choice for an endowed chair she established in the Graduate Faculty was the brilliant young Marxist economist David Gordon. Hirshon, Friedlander remarks, “liked smart, good-looking, radical men.”

So, sexual attraction—and sexism—were by no means absent from this highly intellectual institution. Friedlander recounts that when, in 1970, the dean of the graduate school publicly boasted that he had chosen the “prettiest woman” on the faculty as editor of the scholarly journal Social Research, the woman in question, Arien Mack, was “mortified,” but Hannah Arendt, who had come to the New School in 1967, urged Mack to ignore the wisecracks and accept the job, which she did.

The New School was not a beacon of high principle during the post–World War II Red Scare— commonly though inaccurately called the McCarthy Era, since it began well before demagogic Senator Joseph McCarthy emerged from political obscurity to exploit it. In 1952, the social realist painter Robert Gwathmey resigned, after (so he said) being interrogated by New School administrators about Communist Party membership. Bryn Hovde, president in the late 1940s, was floridly anticommunist: he virulently red-baited and jettisoned the Studio Theatre and Dramatic Workshop from their association with the New School because their productions were too left-wing. The trustees had a curtain hung over a part of the Orozco mural that depicted Lenin and Stalin. President emeritus Johnson was furious about these departures from what he believed were the New School’s founding free-speech principles.

But actually, since the University in Exile days, the charter of the Graduate Faculty had prohibited membership “in any political party or group which asserts the right to dictate in matters of science or scientific opinion,” a policy, Friedlander writes, that was later adopted by the entire New School, even if president Alvin Johnson “interpreted it loosely.” (Johnson, she writes, felt he could distinguish between a real “Commie” and a “crocus Communist”: someone who joined as a youngster “and would later mend his ways.”) The theory was that anybody belonging to a totalitarian party could not be a genuine scholar—a form of guilt by association that became a major rationale for purges during the worst of the 1950s witch hunt.

The presidency of Jonathan Fanton in the 1980s and 1990s saw a revival of New School high principle: Fanton resisted “culture war” pressures against National Endowment for the Arts funding of art deemed blasphemous or homoerotic by grandstanding politicians and sued the NEA for requiring an oath of all grantees that they would not use the money to support anything that “may be considered obscene.” (In response to this and a similar suit in California, the NEA dropped the oath requirement.) Fanton welcomed back the Actors’ Studio, descendant of Piscator’s Studio Theatre and Dramatic Workshop.

The final chapter of New School history that Friedlander recounts, as a sad epilogue, involved its efforts to forge links with scholars and build free societies in Eastern Europe in the 1990s and 2000s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Those links inevitably weakened as Eastern Europe turned increasingly to authoritarian governments. But in 2018 Arien Mack created a “New University in Exile Consortium” of academic institutions to help scholars at risk around the world. The consortium has been a way to revive the spirit of the now sprawling New School’s pioneering beginnings.

A Light in Dark Times is chockfull of prodigious research. I noticed just two errors: First, Thomas Hart Benton’s classic mural, America Today, commissioned by Alvin Johnson for a board room at the New School, is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—not at the Met’s temporary branch at the Breuer Building in Manhattan, as Friedlander has it. Second, and more substantive, is her statement that the left-wing lawyer William Kunstler was at one time head of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)—highly unlikely, given Kunstler’s avowals during his long career that he would defend the freespeech rights only of those he agreed with. Kunstler was from 1964 to 1972 a member of the ACLU’s large board of directors, which is probably how the error arose.

The New School today is a well-established denizen of New York City’s higher education scene, having taken over the prestigious Parsons School of Design in 1970 and the invaluable Mannes School of Music in 1989. During Jonathan Fanton’s presidency in the 1980s and 1990s, it created an undergraduate branch, Eugene Lang College. No longer, of course, is it “Heidelberg on Twelfth Street,” with its teeming classrooms led by German refugee scholars. But for much of the twentieth century, it was a beacon of academic freedom—a “light in dark times,” as Friedlander rightly titles her book— and its history is well worth remembering.

Marjorie Heins is the former director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Arts Censorship Project and the author of Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge. Her most recent book is Ironies and Complications of Free Speech: News and Commentary from the Free Expression Policy Project, 2001–2017


I appreciate this thoughtful review, partly because I am an alum (M.A., 1992 and Ph.D, 1999), and partly because I find that very few people outside a handful of enlightened academics have any idea about the New School's valiant and vibrant history. Thanks to her for writing it, and thanks for AAUP for publishing the review.

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