About

Precursors

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And closer to our own era we might consider the promise embodied by the London Consortium, the bold work of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado and the flourishing example today of Rojava University in Syria. All of these indicate that higher education might necessarily offer a space for experimental sociality and creative encounters with difference.

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To wit: Sappho’s moisopholon damos; the Hellenic akademis or oak groves hosting philosophers and rhapsodists (etymology: ‘stitchers of song’); the 11th to 15th century proliferation of North Indian viharas, such as Ellora and Nalanda, built around courtyards and gathering spaces cut into caves for wandering scholars, artists, monks, actors, logicians, writers, dancers and sculptors; the subterranean and possibly fanciful late-16 th century School of Atheism that sheltered Raleigh, Marlowe, Chapman, Roydon and Harriot); and rural Irish hedge schools. 

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We also look for inspiration to a range of other outrider schools from older, more civilised eras when, to quote Andrew Schelling and Anne Waldman, ‘subtle thinkers and skilled practitioners of the experimental arts seemed less at variance with the ruling powers.’ This means not only the lost British art schools of the postwar decades and the experimental Paris 8 University, but older, sometimes heretical groupings, both formal and impromptu; respectable and vagabond.

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In order to give bearings, it might be useful to cite the antecedent of Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina, which existed between 1933 and 1957.  This was arguably the 20th century’s most radical experiment in arts community, and the New School seeks to emulate for the digital era its emphasis on process in its work and its commitment to the life of the mind without safety net of disciplinary barrier.

Undergraduates today can’t know how it felt to belong to a state-funded institution whose low-pressure otherworldliness allowed for imagination and experimentation, diversity and discovery. The student experience didn’t need defining because it wasn’t for sale: it magically happened within a loosely idealistic, libertarian countercultural framework.

Malcolm Gaskill, London Review of Books (2020)