The 1919, “A Proposal for an Independent School of Social Science”, a key document in the founding of The New School, argued that the circumstances over the past two and a half decades call for a “new type of leadership in every field of American life.”

“A Proposal for an Independent School of Social Science” (1919), a key document in the founding of The New School, argued that the circumstances over the past two and a half decades call for a “new type of leadership in every field of American life.” Source: New School Archives (1918). Read the entire proposal here.

It was towards the end of the Great War when the key events that led to the founding of The New School began. In 1917, Nicholas Murray Butler, the President of Columbia University, dismissed Henry Dana and James McKeen Cattell due to their outspoken objection to the war. The former was an assistant professor in comparative literature and a socialist; the latter a distinguished tenured professor of psychology and a pacifist. This was not unusual during this time period. In 1917, Congress passed an Espionage Act that mandated sentences of up to 20 years for individuals who encouraged “disloyalty” in wartime. The dismissals of these two professors led to the resignation of Charles Austin Beard and James Harvey Robinson, both progressive historians. Robinson persuaded the first editor of the New Republic, Herbert Croly, to join them to found a “new school.”

52924_ca_object_representations_media_918_largeCharles Beard. Communications and External Affairs (CEA). New School Archives and Special Collections Digital Archive. Web. 23 Sep 2014.

James Harvey Robinson. Culver images, accessed through Encyclopaedia Britannica. Web. 23 Sep 2014.


Herbert Croly, 1925, photogravure by Doris Ulmann (1882-1934). A Portrait Gallery of American Editors, 1925. Art of the photogravure. Web. 23 Sep 2014.


Alvin Johnson. 1959. The New School Photograph Collection. New School Archives and Special Collections Digital Archive. Web. 23 Sep 2014.

Established in part to combat what Beard and Robinson had seen at Columbia, the New School was “created to oppose outrages against intellectual liberty, the institution sought to promote the study of human affairs in order to renovate democracy.” They were blazing a new trail in adult education, a term that “had scarcely been coined and had generally taken to mean education for foreigners, lyceums, lectures, chatauquas, and the like.” They believed that the social studies were a way to analyze the existing order of things as to allow for readjustments and social reform. The 1919, “A Proposal for an Independent School of Social Science” argued that the circumstances over the past two and a half decades call for a “new type of leadership in every field of American life.” The proposal suggests revamping labor organizations, giving suffrage to women, and efficiently teaching, through the scientific method and training in the field, future employees who will become an integral part of the country’s infrastructure. Men and women should be able to question anything and talk amongst themselves about any topic they deem fit and should be educated on the current issues. For an institution to be successful at this, they must not be under the donors’ thumbs in which monetary stake overrides intellectual progress. According to Beard, “Endowment spells dry rot. Given an endowed income, a group of professors will sit in their cushioned chairs, avoiding all issues that might arouse controversy.” The instructors shall be given the freedom to investigate, publish, and teach and be relieved of administrative duties. They declared that most of the money coming to the school would be spent on research and education rather than administration.

The moment they opened their doors, the school became a topic of controversy. Some believed that aside from offering a “unique line of teaching” that the school was spreading pro-German and un-American propaganda. An article in The National Civic Federation Review (April 10, 1919) investigated who was involved in the school. It stated that Croly attempted to justify Germany’s war of aggression in his book The Promise of American Life. It quoted Theodore Roosevelt as saying that Robinson’s  textbook Medieval and Modern Times is “an outrageous piece of German propaganda.” The Junior League also deemed the subject matter taught by the school too socialist and radical and declared that their members were too young to understand the content sufficiently.

The school had specialists in their field come and teach. There was Thorstein Veblen, the “heretical economist”; Wesley Clair Mitchell, the “pioneering student of business cycles”; Emily James Putnam, the “historian and leader in women’s education”; John Dewey, the “great philosopher of democracy and reform”; Horace Kallen, the “important student of ethnicity and cultural pluralism”; and many other progressives, and pragmatists. The courses they taught went for $20.00 a course for each semester (which is $270.00 in 2013). They had open and closed courses: classes were either for the general public or for students who worked in the field or who the instructors thought had a special aptitude for the field. Classes were also held in the evenings so as to allow those who worked to be able to attend. There were 782 students in the founding year.

In 1922, the New School for Social Research fell into personal and financial difficulties. According to the course catalogs, Beard left by the 1922-1923 school year, Robinson left by the 1923-1924 school year, and Croly left by the fall of 1926. Alvin Johnson stepped in as its director to save it from bankruptcy by the summer of 1923. For the first two years, as an editor at the New Republic, Johnson was only an inactive trustee but he became the man to give the school a name. According to Johnson, Beard had stated that the school could not live on student fees and that every year the deficits would have to be covered by friends of the institution. “The first director, James Harvey Robinson, fainted on the job of raising money to cover the deficits. The second director, Charlie Beard, threw it up in high dudgeon. The third director, Clark Ansley could never discover a contributory dollar.” Even though he had little fundraising experience, Johnson took over and saved the school from a financial crisis. He continue to be its director until 1945. Under his direction, subjects, such as mental hygiene and psychoanalysis, were added to the course offerings far ahead of when they were picked up by other universities. He also incorporated contemporary arts into the curriculum in 1923 and, in 1926, introduced music. “The institution’s social-science perspective, its educational unorthodoxies, and its liberal philosophical ideals set a distinctive tone, nurturing an unfettered and accepting haven for a progressive community.”

The school had begun in an environment that was not very hospitable, with the population wary of different ideas. It had started something new and continued to experiment with the foundation of an education, not giving up when encountering failures and continuing to press forward until it succeeded. However, as to not be stagnant and to keep to its founding principles, even when success was found, they still continued to experiment by introducing new subjects, different course, different ways of teaching, current issues, and allowing the students to choose what interested them.


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