Reflections on Eight Years of The New School

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I’ve been looking back on eight years of The New School.

When we started in 2007, I thought we’d mostly tape phone conversations. Then it turned out that people liked to hear the conversations live. At first a dozen or so people would turn up. Over eight years, The New School community has grown…now it is common to have two hundred people or more for one of our larger conversations.

But we don’t judge the quality of the conversation by the size of the audience. Some of our more intellectually challenging events draw small audiences, deeply dedicated people who are intensely interested.

One of the things The New School teaches us is that true dialogues about what really matters are in no way restricted to academia. In fact (having taught both undergraduates and graduate students at Yale), I find our New School conversations frequently more interesting than what happens in an average Ivy League classroom.

I also love the freedom of The New School. I’ve held recent dialogues with philosopher Jacob Needleman, food writer Michael Pollen, physician Rachel Naomi Remen, astrologer Caroline Casey, film-maker Walter Murch, archetypal scholar John Gouldthorpe, and zen priest and poet Norman Fischer, just to name a few.

Some of these–the talks with Rachel Remen and Michael Pollen–were part of our Healing Circle series. Healing Circles is dedicated to extending the work of the Cancer Help Program and the other healing programs at Commonweal. Mark Renneker, MD, recently did a beautiful workshop with us entitled “Leave No Stone Unturned,” about how he works with cancer patients and others to go far beyond what conventional medical practice offers.

We are often asked how Steve Heilig and Eric Karpeles and I choose the people we do dialogues with. It is pretty simple. We each choose people we are passionate about talking with. Each conversation requires considerable preparation; I often spend a week reading for a conversation. What keeps The New School so fresh is that we engage with people and questions that truly matter to us.

The New School now has more than 3,000 partners who are signed up to come to events or to hear what has gone up on the web as free podcasts and videos. Ram Dass. Angeles Arrien. Brother David Steindl-Rast. And many more.

Here is a beautiful passage from Ivan Illich, the French Catholic priest and social critic, from his iconic book Deschooling Society:

Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue’s responsibility until it engulfs his pupils’ lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring. We hope to contribute concepts needed by those who conduct such counterfoil research on education–and also to those who seek alternatives to other established service industries.

That is truly what happens at The New School. We weave “educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.”

Thanks for being part of The New School at Commonweal.

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