This chapter in New York City education is largely forgotten today.
The New School for Social Research was founded in 1919 by a distinguished group of intellectuals, some of whom were teaching at Columbia University in New York City during the First World War. Fervent pacifists, they took a public stand against the war and were censured by the university's president. The outspoken professors responded by resigning from Columbia and later opening up their own university for adults in New York's Chelsea district as a place where people could exchange ideas freely with scholars and artists representing a wide range of intellectual, aesthetic, and political orientations. The original faculty of The New School—the abbreviated name by which the school was often called—included Charles Beard, Thorstein Veblen, James Harvey Robinson, Wesley Clair Mitchell, John Dewey, and Alvin Johnson.
From the very beginning, The New School maintained close ties to Europe. Its founders, in fact, modeled the school after the Volkshochschulen for adults, established in Germany after 1918. Then during the 1920s, Alvin Johnson, the school's first president, became co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. While working on this massive undertaking, Johnson collaborated regularly with colleagues in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. It was they who made him aware of the danger Hitler presented to democracy and the civilized world, alerting him to the problem before many others in the United States had grasped the seriousness of the situation. With the financial support of enlightened philanthropists like Hiram Halle and the Rockefeller Foundation, Johnson responded immediately and in 1933 created within The New School a University in Exile to provide a haven for scholars and artists whose lives were threatened by National Socialism. Later renamed the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science, the University in Exile sponsored over 180 individuals and their families, providing them with visas and jobs. While some of these refugees remained at the New School for many years, many others moved on to make an impact on other institutions in the United States.
Alvin Johnson created faculty positions for ten distinguished scholars: five economists (Karl Brandt, Gerhard Colm, Arthur Feiler, Eduard Heimann, and Emil Lederer); two psychologists (Max Wertheimer and Erich von Hornbostel, who was also a leading musicologist); one expert in social policy (Frieda Wunderlich); and one sociologist (Hans Speier). A year later, in 1934, the University in Exile received authorization from the Board of Regents of the State of New York to offer master's and doctoral degrees.
Other leading figures of Europe's intelligentsia soon joined the Graduate Faculty, enhancing the school's name even further. Together they introduced students to the breadth and depth of Western traditions in the social sciences and philosophy, and The New School quickly established a reputation as a place that fostered the highest standards of scholarly inquiry while addressing issues of major political, cultural, and economic concern. Several members of the faculty, such as economist Gerhard Colm, political scientist Arnold Brecht, and sociologist Hans Speier, served as policy advisors for the Roosevelt administration during the Second World War. Others helped transform the social sciences and philosophy in this country, presenting theoretical and methodological approaches to their fields that were poorly represented in the United States.
When, for example, Max Wertheimer came to the United States and joined the faculty at The New School, he challenged behaviorism, the dominant paradigm at the time in American psychology, and introduced Gestalt, or cognitive, psychology. Still marginal in the years following World War II, cognitive psychology has become a major subfield in the discipline today. Similarly, the work of Hans Jonas was virtually ignored when the philosopher first came to the Graduate Faculty after the war, but it now frames many of the questions of scholars writing on bioethics and the environment. Perhaps most famous of all, the work of Hannah Arendt, already widely read in the 1950s and 1960s, has attracted a great deal of attention for decades, as political theorists have reevaluated their assumptions about totalitarianism, democracy, and revolution.
There were other scholars associated with the Graduate Faculty whose work remains influential today, including such major proponents of the German philosophical tradition as Alfred Schutz, Leo Strauss, and Aron Gurwitsch. There was also the economist Adolph Lowe, who introduced his critical analysis of classical economic theories and developed an institutional approach to the study of economics.
The New School promoted French scholarship as well in the American intellectual community, largely thanks to the creation, in the early 1940s, of the Ã‰cole Libre des Hautes Ã‰tudes. Receiving an official charter from de Gaulle's Free French government in exile, the Ã‰cole attracted refugee scholars who taught in French, including the philosopher Jacques Maritain, the anthropologist Claude LÃ©vi-Strauss, the linguist Roman Jakobson, and the political thinker Henri Bonnet, the originator of the idea of the European community. After the war, the institution eventually evolved into the Ã‰cole des Hautes Ã‰tudes en Sciences Sociales. To this day, the Ã‰cole continues to maintain close ties to the Graduate Faculty. In recent years distinguished members of this French institution have come to New York to teach at the New School.
What the New School achieved in the 1930s inspired other American colleges and universities at the time to try to do the same. By the time World War II broke out, thousands of Europe's most accomplished intellectuals had escaped with their families and found positions for themselves in the United States. Even after the campaign spread, the New School remained at its center and was the symbol of hope for Europeans for years to come.
Speaking at a University in Exile convocation in 1937, Thomas Mann remarked that a plaque bearing the inscription "To the living spirit" had been torn down by the Nazis from a building at the University of Heidelberg. He suggested that the University in Exile adopt that inscription as its motto, to indicate that the "living spirit," mortally threatened in Europe, would have a home in this country. Alvin Johnson adopted that idea, and the motto continues to guide the division in its present-day endeavors.
In broadening our horizons, we remain true to the ideals that inspired Alvin Johnson to create a university for teachers and students from different races, religions, and ethnicities, who are willing to take risks for their intellectual and political beliefs.
13 May 1933, New York Times, pg. 7:
FACULTY OF EXILES
IS PROJECTED HERE
Graduate School to Employ
15 Professors Ousted From
Germany Is Being Planned.
FUND CAMPAIGN IS OPENED
Justice Holmes and Dr. Frank-
furter on the Committee -- Noted
Teachers Willing to Come.
The formation of a graduate school having day sessions at the New School for Social Research, 66 West Twelfth Street, to be called "The University in Exile," which will employ as instructors fifteen Jewish and liberal professors recently ousted from German universities has been started, it was revealed yesterday.
1 October 1933, New York Times, pg. X11:
"University in Exile," With Prominent German
Professors, to Start Sessions Here Tomorow
Graduate courses which the American pilgrim last year would have had to travel to a half-dozen German universities to attend start tomorrow as the so-called "University in Exile" under the roof of the New School for Social Research at 66 West Twelfth Street.
Fourteen political exiles from Germany, formerly professors at the universities of Berlin, Frankfurt, Kiel, Hamburg and other higher institutions, organized as a graduate faculty of political and social science, will give lectures and seminars under the German system.
26 April 1984, New York Times, pg. B6:
Drama Marks 50 Years
Of University in Exile
By WILLIAM G. BLAIR
The University in Exile, the first gathering in this country of refugee scholars persecuted by Nazi Germany, was founded by the New School for Social Research and became the school's Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science. The yearlong events commemorating the founding will end in West Berlin in December.
Conceived by School's Founder
The idea for the Graduate Faculty originated with the New School's founder, Alvin Johnson. Mr. Johnson was worried about European intellectuals who in the early 1930's were being driver out of their academic posts. With backing from the Rockefeller Foundation and other philanthropic groups, he set up the University in Exile and brought more than 170 scholars to the United States.