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A Special Supplement: The Old School at The New School

In order to understand how a response to the national crisis regressed into a bitter confrontation at the New School, we must review certain events. During the first week of the strike, from May 4 to May 11, the faculty, students, administration, and trustees appeared to be united. The president had, in fact, issued a statement supporting the goals of the strike and suspending normal school operations through May 9. The statement was based on a Graduate Faculty resolution adopted on Tuesday (May 5) expressing solidarity with the students and calling for voluntary cancellation of all classes. In view of the traditions of neutrality we have described, this resolution seemed to mark a new departure.

By Wednesday it was clear that the students, in accord with the national mood, had decided to extend the strike for at least the duration of the semester. By that time, rallies were being held in the lobby of the Graduate Center and committee work was going on in classes and offices throughout the building. A meeting of the Graduate Faculty was called to deal with what some considered a potentially dangerous situation. The members of the faculty adopted a compromise resolution which incorporated the initial statement of solidarity with the students and which also suspended classes, on a voluntary basis, until the end of the term. At the same time, the intent of several faculty members was to limit the activities of the strikers to work against the war. (“No Black Panther Defense agitation,” insisted a distinguished philosopher. “What has that got to do with us?” A distinguished economist questioned the connection between anticapitalist propaganda and antiwar activities.) However, the definition of legitimate antiwar activities was left vague.

Another resolution, signed by two-thirds of the faculty, requested the removal of Ellsworth Bunker as honorary trustee of the New School. This was also received with vague reservations and, by parliamentary maneuvers designed to preserve the official unity of the faculty, was never formally adopted. One faculty member passionately called to our attention the removal of Thomas Mann by the University of Bonn, as a precaution against the university’s making political decisions, a view that fairly summarized the abstract principles of the traditional faculty.

It is doubtful that Thomas Mann would have agreed. His autobiographical essay, “Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen,” asserts that the artist cannot ignore politics. Mann defined politics as public morality: the artist was obliged to become political in order to protect the conditions of his creativity. Mann was, of course, an outspoken opponent of fascism from the very beginning, and he never lost faith in his capacity to distinguish concretely between legitimate and illegitimate political attitudes.

The Bunker issue, however, remains unresolved at this writing. Presumably because an honorary trustee of the New School is, so to speak, a trustee emeritus, largely nonfunctional, the school administrators took no action to remove him. They stated that Bunker’s honorary status is simply the reflection of his services to the school as a working trustee before he became a major architect of the war and it would be unethical to punish him retroactively. The point is that for various reasons, principled or otherwise, no one in authority is prepared to move directly against Bunker. Of course, the argument of the striking students and of many faculty members is that the more symbolic the ambassador’s position, the less savory his connection with the New School. It is less, not more, tolerable for him to be an honorary trustee than an ordinary trustee. The question, those of us who objected to Bunker insisted, is the present integrity of the school. It is not an effort to rewrite past history.

The Bunker issue was an immediate clue that the antiwar unity of the four major elements comprising the New School (trustees, administration, faculty, students)2 was deeply threatened by the concerns of some not to risk giving offense to the trustees and others with whom they had been long associated, or to the stratum of society they represented. In quite the same way, the insistence of some faculty members that certain activities (e.g., anticapitalist analyses) were irrelevant to antiwar activity indicated the limitations of that unity. (This truth, or truism, holds throughout the country; nonetheless, the ad hoc influence of the campus in organizing a popular front against the war is growing.)

A more pressing practical question unresolved in the faculty meeting of Wednesday evening concerned the division of facilities between the various antiwar activities and the normal operations of the university. A faculty subcommittee was appointed to handle the issue but subsequently deteriorated because it did not have the authority to make decisions binding on the students or, for that matter, on individual faculty members. At a mass meeting on Thursday evening, the students, having been informed of the actions of the Graduate Faculty, decided to support the faculty resolution despite its having provided that, following the first week of suspension, routine university business should go on, with classes to be held for those who wanted them. The students thus decided to support the faculty’s view that strike activities should not have automatic priority over the regular work of the school.

But the competition for facilities in a single building with limited space was to dominate what followed. Schools throughout the country were faced with similar problems. (It was charged, for example, as it was elsewhere, that tax-exempt facilities were being used illegally for political purposes.) The New School, lacking both a conventional campus and a student union building, threw the issue into bold relief. By accident, as it were, the struggle over facilities forced all parties concerned to define their basic notion of the university, an issue which, as we have seen, had been latent for some years. The resolution of the facilities problem could not of itself settle, even though it helped to dramatize, the question of the New School’s general character.

On Thursday night, after the student vote, the school had become an apparently unified but still uneasy community. A group of conservative students had begun to form, generally sharing the view of the traditional faculty. Later they would threaten the administration with legal action, and the strikers with physical coercion, if the facilities of the Graduate Center were used for political activities. The admissions office had been set up as a communications headquarters; the sociology office was host to the High School Co-ordinating Committee, composed of about thirty high-school students who seemed to work around the clock; a number of junior faculty and departmental assistant offices had been turned over to various committees. The telephone exchange was largely devoted to the strike and a group of anthropology students, quietly settled into the duplicating office, were turning out thousands of copies of pertinent and impertinent leaflets, bulletins, and flyers. They were to look up from their work only sporadically and wanted no part of what one of them characterized as “chicken-shit micropolitics” from any quarter.

The lobby had been wired for public speaking and had the atmosphere of an optimistic campaign headquarters on election eve. Signs, posters, information bulletins, caricatures of Nixon, Laird, Bunker, and Agnew lent a touch of color and absurdity to the severe modern décor. The indeterminate head of a sculpture figure in metal was crowned with a precisely lettered sign which read: “We are sad but the time for gargoyles has passed.” The main Fifth Avenue entrance was draped with signs announcing the strike and the vestibule claimed proudly that the Graduate Faculty was “with us”—no penalties for missed work or struck classes would be exacted.

Tables set up inside the lobby served as stalls for distributing radical political literature, including newspapers, for soliciting signatures on antiwar petitions, and for collecting funds for the defense of the Black Panthers. When news broadcasts were not forthcoming through the radio public address system, the sound of rock filled the air. One sensed that this square and serious building was being baptized, circumcised, christened. The collective structure, composed of its specialized parts, was dissolving into a momentary community. This was not only an experiment in direct political action at a time of crisis, but the students’ coming-out party in a new building which had been dedicated last year under quite different circumstances on the fiftieth anniversary of the New School.

By the end of the first week, the strike was flourishing and regular school facilities had been taken over with the tacit or active consent of the authorities. Some students and faculty did continue with classes and academic work. No official policy was ever adopted by the Graduate Faculty concerning grades and examinations; however the faculty stated that no student should be penalized for participating in the strike. The problem was one of defining what “interference” consisted in. The intention of the strikers was not to interfere. For example, an orderly line of pickets appeared at the entrance to the Graduate Center carrying signs reading “Ideas Have Consequences” and “Socrates Was No Insider.” The traditional faculty, however, began to claim, in spite of students’ denials, that the strike was interfering with their access to school facilities. Conflicting affidavits were finally to be sworn on this matter.

The internal crisis developed the following week. The High School Committee, initially organized by graduate students but later run by high-school students themselves, proved successful beyond anyone’s anticipation. On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, large numbers of high-school students—at times, it is claimed, more than a thousand of them—appeared at the Graduate Center for antiwar meetings and rallies. This compounded the appearance of confusion—although the students were there for specific purposes and hewed strictly to the prevailing sentiment against physical violence or damage to the premises. In no time at all, a slogan was being reported from high schools around the city that went roughly as follows: “If you want to keep cool, go to the beach or the New School.”

The trouble was that the high-school students were not going to their old schools. The Board of Education reported that during this period more than half the city’s high-school population, largely in response to the national strike, was absent without leave. And certain high-school principals quickly isolated the New School as, wittingly or unwittingly, encouraging truancy, etc. This led to a potential legal problem, including presumed health and safety hazards. Although the influx of high-school students was unexpected, the purpose of the High School Co-ordinating Committee was to educate the students about the war and help to devise ways for them to protest by canvassing against the war in city neighborhoods and by other methods. Their committeemen worked very hard and soberly; their capacity for self-discipline was striking.

Those of us who had the opportunity to observe high-school activities quickly realized that we were seeing only the top of the iceberg. A kind of political underground has developed in the urban high school, overlapping with more spontaneous, visceral protest against the conditions of school life. The high schools are seething; it should be remembered that older high-school students are more immediately vulnerable to the draft than are most college and graduate students. Moreover, in a city like New York, a large segment of the high-school population is black or Puerto Rican. Most are not going to go to college. Their discontents are real, their insights can be shocking, and their demands on the community at large are relentless.

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    Blue and white collar workers at the school were generally sympathetic to the strike. But after much discussion, their own immediate interests apparently prevented them from actively joining the students.

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