Radical Cacophony: A Review of ‘A Drama in Time: The New School Century’ by John Reed

A Drama in Time, published by The New School to commemorate a century of the New York-based university’s existence, is larger and heavier than my laptop, and when it arrived in the mail, I admit that I didn’t quite know what to think of it. It bears little resemblance to the chronological—or even topical—organization of most institutional histories. In the introduction, the author, John Reed (who teaches writing at the New School), states that he did not want to be preoccupied with the past or with terrain already covered by other authors. Instead, he wanted to incorporate “Atelier 17, or John Cage, or Clara Mayer, or Sekou Sundiata” into the story. His aim is “a characterization” or “a now-and-then tableau that renders The New School”—in other words, to capture the spirit of the place on paper. That spirit, it turns out, is vibrant but chaotic. Paging through the book is like looking through a box of artifacts found in the attic, artifacts that sometimes lack context but are nonetheless worth attention because they played an important role in social and cultural change.

The founders of The New School created what was, at the time, a radical and progressive space for education, a space that emphasized women’s rights, populist principles, and a space that provided refuge from the xenophobia and racism present in much of the nation. Other books, such as A Light in Dark Times: The New School for Social Research and its University in Exile (Columbia University Press, 2019), have delved into the university’s early history, exploring important academic and intellectual contributions made by faculty and former students, particularly those who fled Germany during World War II. A Drama in Time does not attempt to compete with those more academic texts.

The format of the book is instead collage and visual noise. A given spread might contain archival photos, course descriptions, letters, and quotations from faculty and students. It is not possible to read in (chrono)logical order, or even to read without rotating the book on occasion. For the most part, this serves the purpose of creating a museum retrospective feel, though poor layout often obscures the text (seemingly a technical issue, not intentional obfuscation). There is an index, but it consists largely of proper nouns rather than topical entries. There are no entries for “suffrage” or “anti-semitism,” or even “music,” “protest,” or “fashion,” though these are all arguably topics that should appear in the index of a book about The New School. In short, this is not a book for any type of in-depth research, but it does, through sheer cumulative effect, provide a sense of the scope and variety of The New School’s accomplishments. It also does something I appreciate, which is to offer up historical gems in reward for patience, and thus might be useful as a place for finding threads to research further. Reed hints in his introduction that there are many untapped archival resources related to The New School, and he provides a long list of the things he wanted to—but didn’t have time or space to—include in the book.

By far the most cohesive aspect of A Drama in Time, and one of the most illuminating, is the course descriptions scattered throughout. These provide a specific window into The New School’s politics and approach over the years. “Economics of Capitalism, 1932,” taught by co-founder Alvin Johnson, for example, could be a course description from 2020: “The destruction of handicraft and domestic production….Capitalism and colonial policy; capitalism and war…The evolution of credit….Tendency toward concentration, industrial and financial. Crises….Government control of capitalistic control of government. The survival power of capitalism.” It is not only the subjects covered in the courses that feel historic yet timeless, but also the people who teach them: Frank Lloyd Wright, Ralph Nader, Robert Frost, John Cage, Jane Jacobs, Hannah Arendt, the names themselves a testament to the cultural and intellectual importance of The New School, whose former students include Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, and Marlon Brando.

The stories and fragments within A Drama in Time are, in fact, also timeless. The New School emerged during war and political and social upheaval, and while Reed’s text is not methodical in enumerating the ways in which The New School pushed boundaries, encouraged protest, and supported independent thought, it captures some of the frenetic energy of activist art and the activists themselves, as well as briefly outlining the ways in which The New School pushed back against government censorship. One of the most cogent sections is about student response to blackface in the art of Shin Matsunaga. The incident from 1989 is relevant today as a way to discuss the tension between freedom of expression and racist images or words, and as a way to think about the power students have to shape the institutions they attend.

As a person who has spent over eight years of my life in college and various grad schools, I think about higher education a lot: what it means (personally, nationally, globally), how it has changed, and why we should care about it—or pay for it. I have experienced the disempowerment that comes from working at one university, among many, that has turned into a corporation more than an institution of learning. Therefore, the words of The New School co-founder Thorstein Veblen resonate: “The intrusion of business principles in the universities goes to weaken and retard the pursuit of learning, and therefore to defeat the ends for which a university is maintained.” A Drama in Time does its part to emphasize the rule-breaking, unconventional, and aspirational nature of The New School, and perhaps reminds us that one important function universities can fill is to battle complacency and the status quo, both inside and outside of the university walls.


J.D. Ho

J.D. Ho's work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Georgia Review, Missouri Review, Shenandoah, Ninth Letter, About Place, and other journals in addition to being listed in Best American Essays 2019. J.D.'s most recent essay has been nominated for a 2020 Pushcart Prize.

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