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New School University Convocation

New School University, New York, NY
September 9th, 2004

Good afternoon. I am here to say a word or two about why we are all here, which is one of those tasks that is in one sense intuitively clear, and in another sense unknowable. We are here to mark the beginning of an academic year, which is an old and comforting ritual which in this institution has always had a somewhat odd tone – after all, the New School was founded to break away from the rituals and protocols of traditional universities, and yet this afternoon we are trying, even in this starkly modern, abstract auditorium, to follow them. Those of you who are new to this institution, as I am, will realize that this is not the first paradox you will encounter here – that this is an institution that simultaneously prides itself on its radical beginnings and on its ability to embrace the traditions and customs that unite academic communities that are far, far older than we are. Accept the contradiction; it is not worth fighting it, since the essence of the New School, I have figured out in my short time here, is that it is a bundle of contradictions.

This is a new place and an old one; it is a large and complex institution and a small one; it is a place that is known throughout the world for its continuing education programs for adults and yet is now effectively dominated by full-time, college-age undergraduates; it is a place full of venerable, distinguished tenured faculty yet whose programs are highly dependent on the richness brought to us by part-time teachers; it is a place that celebrates and encourages informal, casual encounters yet has no real campus to facilitate them; it is a place whose roots are in the social sciences and yet whose largest schools are now in the arts.

What makes all of it work – what ties together all of these disparate programs that did not so much spring from a single source, as they did at traditional universities, but rather joined together in a kind of powerful academic coalition – is New York, and the belief that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Cities, of course, have this belief at their basis. It is in the urban DNA, we might say, and it is in the DNA of the New School as well. This institution came to be because of the belief of its founders that things happen in cities that do not happen elsewhere, or certainly do not happen as easily. New York City is not merely our home. We are not here by accident. We are here because everything we do connects to New York, and is informed by it.

There is education, and there is education in the city, and they are not the same thing. At the New School, we believe that a liberal education is an education of engagement. We do not come here seeking an ivory tower. I think this institution is based on the belief that there is no real ivory tower; we know that, even as we fantasize wistfully about exquisite academies where everyone sits under the elms and talks of Kant and Spinoza. I don’t think there actually are very many elms any more. But there are certainly no bucolic academies under them, except in novels and movies and, for many of us, in our dreams, where such make-believe places still hold out promises that real institutions like this one cannot hope to fulfill.

The New School is a university based on a belief in the real, not the virtual Ð and that is precisely what the city itself is, a place based on a belief in the real, not the virtual. That is not a comment about technology, or about the values of computers in the learning process, but rather a way of saying that the principle of the city is one of engagement, not withdrawal, and that this is the principle upon which a liberal education is based, too. I will go farther and say that the city is a metaphor for liberal education, in that the city has diversity at its very essence, and its greatest gift is choice and opportunity. We are accustomed to thinking of cities as restricting us, and in some ways they do – they do not permit us to keep cows or to ski or to run for miles on quiet roads, as we might do in the country; they do not always permit us the share of sun and sky and tranquility that we feel, justifiably, are our due. They are physically confining, and we cannot deny that they trap many of us economically, too, as well as restricting us physically.

But the essential gift that the city can give us, the gift that compensates for the city’s demands and its harshness – and we all know that city life is rarely the easiest and the least stressful option we can choose – but what makes up for its pressures is the way in which it holds out a sense of the richness of possibility. The city grants options, it offers choice, its very essence lies in a sense that there are multiple paths. The sense that there is no absolute right or wrong way to be, that there is room for everything – indeed, that there has to be everything, for the very idea of the city is deeply intertwined with a belief in the energizing power of diversity. Both the city and the liberal arts education share this belief at their very core Ð the notion that there is no orthodoxy, no single mode of thinking.

It is a commonplace to speak of the liberal arts college as a marketplace of ideas, as a place in which ideas push and pull at each other with the disorder, but also the energy, of the agora. But it is true. And when a liberal arts education takes place within the real agora, this can only enhance its strength. The sense that the city shows us that diversity is meaningful, that there are multiple roads, different routes to every goal, cannot but profoundly affect the nature of education. It cannot but make it broader and richer, but also deeper, for it enforces the notion that there is no single way, that there are no easy truths – and if there is anything that a liberal arts education must confer on every student, it is the understanding that there are no easy answers and never will be.

Conversely, removing the liberal arts education from the agora – going to the pastoral place of our fantasies – limits choice and reduces options, and is contrary to the idea of the liberal education. Now, of course it is perfectly plausible to have a liberal education in an environment that is not metaphorical to it, the way the city is. We all know that all kinds of glorious things are taught successfully every day in places that are not remotely urban, and many of the nation’s greatest institutions of learning are far away from cities. But I think there is a level of meaning, perhaps we might say a level of resonance, to the notion of learning in an environment which in and of itself embodies the values of possibility, of choice, of options that the liberal education itself stands for. That is what we offer at the New School – education in the city, education in an environment that reminds you by its very nature that there are diverse cultures and diverse possibilities and therefore that there are diverse ideas.

Now, I realize I’ve been speaking mainly about the metaphor of the liberal arts education and the city, and the value this metaphorical relationship confers. There are more tangible issues, too, to the presence of the college in the city, more quantifiable ones. I spoke a moment ago about the notion of engagement, and that is key: the city makes possible, even necessary, a level of personal and institutional engagement that rarely occurs in other kinds of places. If we study the meaning of community, it is here to be seen. If we inquire into the effect of education on society, it is here to be seen. If we inquire into the relationship of aesthetics to daily life, it is here to be seen. That strange colloquialism in English that dismisses something as minor or irrelevant by calling it "academic" – as in "it hardly matters, it’s academic" – carries no weight in New York. Here, we see how the things we study, the things we ponder, the things we make, all have a meaning and an effect upon the world.

Of course if we’re talking about the tangible effect of the city on the educational environment, then to be honest we do have to admit that what we lack here, at least until the latest wave of building plans at the University bear fruit, is something resembling the more traditional means of engagement and interaction that colleges and universities offer, which is the special environment of a campus in which there are places that exist not just for teaching and eating and sleeping, but for casual interactions, for random encounters, for those serendipitous meetings that are essential to the creative life of any institution. Paradoxically, we have a harder time with those at the New School, because we don’t run into each other around campus; our campus, as all of you know, is the city, and we share it with the world. We do not have that magical in-between kind of public-private space that most universities do, space that belongs to all of us in the academic institution as a communal thing, but is still not totally public; nobody here has the pleasure of hanging out on the campus, even on the most beautiful of days, and we miss the joys of random encounters with our colleagues. Indeed, I sometimes think that one of the reason we as administrators here have so many meetings is that we have fewer opportunities to run into each other by chance, the way faculty and staff do at more conventional institutions, so we have to arrange everything.

That is, as I said, a paradox, because we are in the middle of the one of the greatest public environments anywhere in the world, which is the streets of New York City, and yet because we are so deeply woven into the fabric of the city, with our buildings scattered about, we don’t get to experience it in the way a traditional campus is experienced, even though the streets themselves, of course, teach the lesson of a campus better than any campus ever could.

And that is the real point I want to make, in the end. There is yet another value to the connection between the college and the city, and it is both a great one and an urgent one in our culture today. I think it is impossible to be educated here and not to come away believing in the public realm, in the idea that there is something worthy in the idea of public places, of civitas, of common ground. In an age in which most people wake up in private houses and get into little metal boxes on wheels and travel by themselves to private offices and then back again, in an age in which most people are almost never in a public place save for an occasional visit to a sports stadium, and when the private experiences of television and communication on the internet have replaced so many other public experiences for many, like going to the movies or shopping, there is precious little sense of shared experience in our lives, precious little sense that there is such a thing as a common physical place that is designed for all of us to come together and that, in and of itself, symbolizes our commonality as well as our diversity.

The role of a city, to put it as bluntly as possible, is to be that common ground, to be a common place, and as such, to support us and to stimulate us. "Now, the great function of the city is to permit, indeed to encourage and incite the greatest possible number of meetings, encounters, challenges, between all persons, classes and groups," wrote Lewis Mumford, "providing, as it were, a stage upon which the drama of social life may be enacted, with the actors taking their turns as spectators, and the spectators as actors."

There is no better definition not only of the city, but also of the process of education as "a place to encourage the greatest possible number of meetings, encounters, challenges, between all persons, classes and groups." Now, every place, and certainly every college, could to a certain extent meet Mumford’s definition of a stage, and certainly every college campus represents a symbolic common ground. But when you are educated out of the city it becomes all too easy to minimize this aspect of it, for life out of the city depends so heavily on the illusion that the private realm is everything. The city reminds us how much the public realm matters. Engagement is the lesson the city offers all of us, and the lesson that being educated in the city makes it impossible to ignore.

In the city we are engaged with one another; we feel in the innermost fiber of our being that our destinies are intertwined, that we live together on common ground, that we struggle together, for better or for worse, and that there are multiple paths. There is no greater gift, I think, that either a liberal education or a city can give us than an understanding of the value of diversity, and within it, a belief in common ground. The idea of the city is not contrary to the mission of the university it is at its very core.

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