Alvin Johnson, The New School’s first director, was a visionary by almost all accounts. A renowned economist and former editor of the New Republic, Johnson was a founding member of The New School. With the likes of Charles Beard, James Harvey Robinson and John Dewey, Johnson established The New School in an act of rebellion against the entrenched hierarchy and outside influence plaguing higher education in the first quarter of the 20th century.
During his time as director, Johnson would draft an editorial in each edition of The New School Bulletin, the school’s course listings. The editorials would broadcast his public position on a slew of issues, ranging from the dangers of xenophobia towards Germans in America, to what the United States and and the international community should do with Germany once the World War II inevitably came to its end. Johnson would urge his students and his university to critically analyze societal and economic problems both at home and abroad.
In a 1944 edition of The New School Bulletin, Johnson wrote an empowering thesis about the race crisis in America, entitled “Where America is Vulnerable: The Negro Problem.”
“This, not social discrimination,” Johnson wrote, implying that economic discrimination lay at the core of race problems in American, “lies at the bottom of the accumulated frictions that produce race riots. And race riots are easily fomented, and are utilizable as arguments on a failure of democratic government and the necessity for ‘strong’ government, government of the self-chosen few, the Fascists.”
The New School’s current administration, and recent administrations prior, dramatically toned down the school’s tradition of advocacy and social critique. In the midst of Occupy Wall Street — arguably the largest social movement since the anti-war demonstrations of the 1960s — and the heightened awareness of income inequality in the United States and around the world, not one statement solidifying a stance on the topic has been issued.
Instead, students are told to tread carefully as they demonstrate in the streets and, while it is admirable that events like a university-wide town hall meetings and a teach-in on Occupy Wall Street were held, many students felt uncomfortable that a definitive stance was not made on the institution’s behalf.
The New School still revels in its history of activism and the extraordinary circumstances of its founding. It’s time for The New School to take a stand.