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A Special Supplement: The Old School at The New School

This largely proved to be fantasy. But while such fears about the immediate response of the encircling society preoccupied the mentors, the anxiety of the students was somewhat more localized. In brief, they feared that the administration preferred to break the strike by legal means rather than confront the issue of shared facilities. Hence they feared a bust. The struggle was now over the nature of the school.

It would be fruitless to document the charges and countercharges, the bureaucratic indecision, the misunderstandings and misinterpretations, the struggle between the exilarchs and the internal émigrés, the ethology of the faculty moderates fluttering in response to changing signals from administration, from students, and again from the administration, the sudden shocking revelations of character, the sickening pull of self-interest. After three weeks of heightening tension, the psycho-physiological exhaustion of the faculty and administration was all too evident. In these subterranean battles, the young have the endurance, the old control the established order. A rule of thumb emerges, and we offer it for what it is worth: students have a better chance of negotiating to their advantage early on rather than later. Administrations lean upon the law; the more weary they become the more heavily they lean.

III

If the details of the conflict are irrelevant, the social character of each side is not. We need not linger on the nature of bureaucracy—the literature is voluminous. But imagine a bureaucracy confronting a tribe, let us say the Swiss Douane vs. The Crow Indians, and the absurdities and frustrations that were acted out over the past three weeks at the building on 14th Street become more comprehensible. For these young graduate students, with the even younger initiates from the New School College who joined them, may be seen as a tribe. They represent the communal underground in a collective society. They respect solitude; and they suspect “ego tripping.” Doing your own thing is one thing, but they have learned to beware of the ego trip, which is “doing your own thing at the expense of others.”

They have no readily visible organization. Every decision, after endlessly patient debate, becomes the decision of the body; political education is considered as important as reaching decisions. During the strike, votes were taken and the results regarded as binding; but on several occasions decisions or motions were modified to take account of strongly held dissident or minority positions, in order to keep everyone committed to the strike. But voting was not that important; most votes were overwhelmingly one-sided. Decisions expressed the sense of the meeting as it arose from the discussions, and voting was only one among several devices for revealing or expressing that sense. Neither mass meetings nor committee meetings were “chaired” in the usual way of academic meetings.

Early in the strike several people emerged as fair-minded and effective co-ordinators of meetings, among them a number of girls from New School College. Through a kind of implicit consensus, one or several of them would take charge of a meeting, frequently rotating control of the microphone. Conventional notions of orderly procedure had no place. They were the wrong style, for a good reason. Conventional procedure leads by fairly rigid steps to a majority decision. The rather different procedure which the strike adopted imposes another kind of order upon individual responses so as to form a common will. What emerges is not a majority decision but a community response. Parliamentary rules may be helpful in this, but parliamentary politics clearly are not.

Meetings were open to anyone who wished to take part. This openness very much worried the administration. Whom did the representatives with whom they were negotiating represent? Only themselves, came the inevitable reply. They could not have said differently, for the strike rejected the formal apparatus of representative democracy. No decision could be binding upon anyone who did not take part in formulating and making it. To put it in a slogan: No decision without participation. Obviously not every trivial detail had to be discussed and ratified by mass meetings; this principle applied only to major policy issues. Equally obviously, it sacrificed speed and efficiency, as bureaucratically defined, to egalitarianism. But there is no doubt that, at least for a limited time, it worked.

But the administration, bewildered by the indeterminable nature of the group it was dealing with, insisted at a penultimate stage on student signatures to validate one of the many agreements that seemed in sight. These students, reared among computers, recoiled, laughed, and grew as suspicious as savages confronting a census taker. They knew who they were—why must they be counted?

Among this generation of students, discussion is hardly ever cut off unilaterally. The ties that bind are moral, not legal or parliamentary. Each person is responsible for his own action, there is no coercion. Autocratic, secretive, or intolerant behavior is a sin against the whole, yet an individual who dissents may simply get up and leave. On the other hand, they permit most direct expressions of opinion. They understand and withstand exchanges that could lead to suits of libel or physical assault in an older generation. They do not hold grudges. These young people, who seem to have neither fathers nor mothers, protect and shelter each other. Their physical closeness is both affective and symbolic. They are not basically violent because they do not oppress or repress each other.

They do not seem to have been bred for competition. They come to school to learn, if possible, not to compete. They see through cant and are skeptical of their teachers; it is the man behind the academic mask who interests them. Their question is existential: “What has that man done with his life?” But they do not express this openly. Except in crisis, they reserve their candor for themselves. They detest manipulativeness; a bureaucratic maneuver is simply a lie. Their language can be direct and shocking but they do not mean it to be obscene. One is reminded of the concrete, pungent, sometimes surrealistic, yet hardly ever pornographic terminology of primitive peoples. Their music is rhythmic and vital, to be danced to, lived with. It is neither intellectual nor refined. But they discriminate between imitations of their genre and the real thing.

Like savages, they suspect strangers; if they are terrified by anything, it is by the force and casuistry of the civilization that surrounds them. They distrust abstractions; when they occupy the registrar’s office they substitute their living selves for the frozen records and the filing cabinets. And make no mistake about it, their instinct for our failings is deadly and accurate. Yet, with it all, they are a curiously gentle breed. It takes everything they’ve got to pit themselves against authority; they do not struggle for the sake of power, but to deny the validity of irrational, compulsive—whether familial, vocational, or governmental—power. That is why their language can seem in such violent contrast to their social character. This is a post-hippie, post-SDS consciousness with something of the affective style of the one and the political impulse of the other, but soberer, more solid, more permanent. The cultural blend is cool and the style is spreading.

It would however, be wrong to assume that this cultural style cannot be negated by certain social realities. These are, after all, children of the bourgeoisie. As students, they represent a transient status, not a class. In the ordinary course of events they would take their “normal” position in society. Students rarely become déclassés. But it would be equally wrong to imagine that these students are merely suffering some kind of oedipal rebellion, unconsciously bent on overthrowing and replacing their fathers—in spite of the implications of some of their favorite terms.

They are authentically repelled by the society for which the schools are preparing them. They reject its fundamental character. This is what they mean when they call themselves revolutionaries, not rebels. Their problem pertains to their position in the social structure; it is not primarily psychological. By and large, for example, workers have not thus far shared the affinity that students claim with them. For the conventional white or black worker, and this applies with equal force to the small bourgeois, the college or university student is privileged; he retains access to the power structure, his sympathies seem patronizing. The question then is one of leverage, and the students clearly understand the dilemma.

One is led to the ironic speculation that the only immediate political consequence of the student movement, its cultural style aside, may be to shake up the bourgeois elements they deride sufficiently to help bring down the Nixon Administration. Education is, after all, America’s magic, as Ruth Benedict put it, and higher education is a major, perhaps the major, channel for social mobility. Today, the bourgeoisie may resent the students whom they cannot control, but they have invested enormously in them and tomorrow they may shift their loyalties in favor of their imperilled “children.”

Indeed, the violent anti-student reaction of a portion of the workers and lower middle class can be interpreted as resentment against student rejection of the conventional American goals of education. Should the pendulum swing, it will certainly fall short of the revolutionary rhetoric of the student movement, although it may move far enough to re-establish the American “liberal” consciousness. Such historical ironies are, after all, familiar.

Of course, the tribe on 14th Street was defeated by the bureaucracy. On Monday morning, May 25, after three weeks of what must have been one of the longest sit-ins in history, the administration launched a slow, civilized bust on grounds of criminal trespass. The students naturally perceived this as a violent act despite the avoidance of physical violence. The police arrested twenty-one strikers who refused to vacate the building after the third warning. They had been self-selected to represent the tribe as a whole. Two were high-school girls who were remanded to Family Court; one was a street mystic who had been wandering in and out of the building all week, and was subsequently released by the court. The rest were booked, arraigned, and released on parole until September 15. This police action interrupted, but did not invalidate, injunction proceedings, which were scheduled to continue before a sympathetic judge on Wednesday, May 27.

He had not, contrary to expectations, issued a preliminary injunction, but had requested a further hearing in his chambers. The students seemed to have won a moral victory at the very moment the administration called in the police to clear premises that had been illegally occupied for a week. That is, while in the midst of a civil proceeding, the angry, resigned, and pressured administration resorted to immediate physical force. As the students walked out of the building to the waiting vans, through a cordon of police, under the puzzled eyes of the faculty, an authentically conservative political science professor wept. One distinguished philosopher in exile said to no one in particular, “Now we’ve got the building back.”

They’ve got the building, but the conflict over the character of the university is just beginning, and the struggle for the soul of the country goes on. As for the student strikers, they are moving their antiwar committees, seminars, and meetings out of the New School. This declaration of independence is a healthy thing and they have made their point. The Graduate Faculty of the New School was conceived in one crisis. Will it be reconceived in another?

Letters

From Athens to the New School: An Exchange November 5, 1970

Workers and Students at the New School October 8, 1970

The Old New School September 3, 1970

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