Alvin Johnson, Deliver Us from Dogma

If someone told you that students from the New School are very open-minded, that would not be surprising. Obviously, the University promotes or attracts the kind of student and professor who identifies with this free-thinking, characteristic; a trait born in the very founding of the institution and persisting throughout its history. As an archivist—not a student, alumnus, or faculty member—I had the recent opportunity to arrange and describe some of the university records and acquaint myself with the early founders of the New School for Social Research. I’m an outside observer one can say (in the spirit of social science research) sorting the documentary evidence from various individuals and departments to describe what happened in the past that has resulted in the present-day New School incarnation.

It seems appropriate to begin blogging about the person who “began” the New School: Alvin Saunders Johnson. Granted, Johnson was not the sole founder of this esteemed institution, but one of several scholars involved in the establishment of the New School for Social Research in 1919 (currently the name for the Graduate School). Johnson served as the first Director (1922-1945), leading the school in a “new” progressive approach to adult education.

Born near Homer, Nebraska in 1874, only seven years after statehood, he attended the University of Nebraska (A.B. in Classics; 1897) and Columbia University (Ph.D. in Economics; 1902) and taught at the University of Texas, University of Chicago, Columbia, and Cornell. His fellow colleagues, such as economist James Harvey Robinson and historian Charles Beard[1] left Columbia in response to the censorship and firing of professors for their political opinions. Feeling unable to freely express their viewpoints regarding the United States’ entry into the War, and influenced by ideas in educational reform supported by John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen[2], they instead founded a free, open, and progressive school for adults.

Radicalism, Conservatism or an Open Mind?

While the New School was established as a reaction to a specific event—the political climate surrounding World War I—Johnson continued to write throughout his career about the importance of maintaining an “open, progressive” place in higher education. He summarized these New School values in an op-ed piece for the New School Bulletin, October 15, 1951:

“Often we are asked what is the fundamental doctrine of the New School? Are we seeking to indoctrinate our students with radicalism, conservatism or what? We are not seeking to indoctrinate our students at all. We leave indoctrination to Stalin and the Devil. We love liberalism; we love democracy. These are infinite values; we should feel infinitely happy if we could feel that they are shared by all mankind. But they will not spread by any scheme of indoctrination. They can lodge firmly in a mind if it is an open mind. They will infallibly lodge in an open mind… The open mind the New School cherishes and cultivates is the mind that looks at each problem in its context, political, sociological, historical and seeks honestly a firm conclusion–fallible, of course, like all human conclusions, but firm enough for the immediate practical purpose…” [3]

When placed in the context of what Johnson and fellow scholars were rejecting—nationalism and censorship—his call for an “open mind” is logical, but not trivial. From my brief investigation into Johnson’s papers, he appears to be a key figure in the history of the New School through his unwavering support of academic freedom and promotion of adult education.

“Adult Education” is Life Itself

Exterior of 66 West 12th Street at night. circa 1940 – 1950. The New School Photograph Collection. New School Archives and Special Collections Digital Archive. Web. 11 Sep 2015.

Johnson was an advocate for an idea that is now taken for granted: life-long learning. It has transformed our educational system and society. But Johnson had to state a case for adult education, the reasons ranging from the fostering of new ideas, for the pleasure…and amateurism.[4] In Johnson’s Deliver Us from Dogma, a series of essays on adult education, he describes the idea of “adult education” in the way that a good lecture or discussion is, “life itself, not preparation for life. It is something one needs continuously.”[5]

Johnson’s writings regarding adult education may have been shaped by his own experience as a student and professor. His perspective on the state of education in the United States came from a first-hand account, having lived and worked in the Midwest, the South and East Coast, both rural and urban North America. In Dogma, he laments the squandering of college on the young, when “the world” needs continuous education, put so eloquently in his style:

“The college is severely blamed for the ephemeral character of its training. It was not so in earlier years…In the late seventies it often happened that a herd of long-horned cattle arrived at Kansas City with nothing on the bones but the hide. They had left the Texas Panhandle fat and sleek, but a thousand miles of drouth played havoc with their flesh. No one charged the emaciation to the quality of the Panhandle grass. Just so although the college may send out young men and women with minds well filled out and shapely, they often arrive at the destination of maturity in a terrible state of emaciation. ‘The world’ they pass through is intellectually drouthy. The good grass of the campus might have withered without increasing the final state of mental leanness. It is time to cease belaboring the colleges for their shortcomings, and turn attention to ‘the world’…(February 1929) [6]

Would Johnson luxuriate in the sheer amount of content created and shared today? Amateurism abounds (…and blogging). Would the world appear less “drouthy”? Has the good grass withered? Some would claim that the state of higher education is currently at a cross-roads. Possibly a crisis. Would the growth of the education sector satisfy his goals, or make him roll in his grave? The debate was never to reach the End of College, but to value free inquiry and new ideas–not exclusive to a liberal arts education.[7] Research investigating the development of adult education is aided by the records of Johnson, other professors, and the administration found in the New School Archives and Special Collections.

What Else Can Be Said About Alvin Johnson?

Headlines reproduced in course catalog in honor of Johnson's 75th birthday. ID NS030102_bull0717. New School (New York, N.Y.). New School Bulletin Vol. VII, No. 17. 26 Dec 1949. Records of the New School Publicity Office/Office of Public Information; New School Bulletins. New School Archives and Special Collections Digital Archive. Web. 13 Apr 2015.
Headlines reproduced in course catalog in honor of Johnson’s 75th birthday. New School (New York, N.Y.). New School Bulletin Vol. VII, No. 17. 26 Dec 1949. Records of the New School Publicity Office/Office of Public Information; New School Bulletins. New School Archives and Special Collections Digital Archive. Web. 13 Apr 2015.

Johnson has been honored for his work both in life and posthumously, although he has remained a less-well known figure. During his life, he was repeatedly honored by academics and intellectuals. He was recently featured in the documentary aired on Nebraska public television, marking his induction into the State’s Hall of Fame. What can be said that hasn’t already been said about Alvin Johnson?

Before the New School, Johnson joined the editorial board of The New Republic in 1919 and was later involved in the Ives-Quinn Act of 1945,[8] which was the first state law to prohibit discrimination in employment on the basis of race, creed, color, or national origin. After “retiring” from the New School, he went on to serve as president emeritus and continued to have a role for the rest of his life. Oh, and another major legacy from his tenure includes the creation of the University-in-Exile. This is blog worthy—in itself, and the New School Archives and Special Collections hold records and papers for some of the most important social science scholars of the 20th century, rescued from Nazi persecution in Germany.

Johnson’s papers are found at other institutions: the University of Nebraska and Yale University. His papers at Yale are lacking material on the development of the New School, the University in Exile, the École Libre des Hautes Études. Thankfully, the New School Archives and Special Collections has material regarding the administration and faculty, such as Arnold Brecht, Eric Hula, Kurt Riesler, Freida Wunderlich, Adolph Lowe, Hans Simon, Hans Staudinger, Hans Speier, and Hans Neisser, and many more.  Have a look at the material now available and open to the public, with more to come.

To Conclude…

The next time you take a class or contemplate learning something *new*, think of Johnson’s words:

“…we dogmatize not out of excess of self-confidence, but out of lack of it… outside of his field he is oppressed by fears…Therefore he dogmatizes intolerable, and to the ultimate defeat of his own intellectual purposes…There is a better way out. A dogma is only a symptom.” [9]

For Johnson, open-mindedness and adult education were the cure.


[1] Rutkoff, Peter M, and William B. Scott. New School: A History of the New School for Social Research. New York: Free Press, 1986. Print., p.5.

[2] Ibid, p.13-16.

[3] Johnson, Alvin S. Ideas Are High Explosives. Place of publication not identified: publisher not identified, 1962. Print., p.62-3.

[4] “A great age in the arts is always one in which not only professionalism, but amateurism flourishes. There is here a close relation, probably a necessary relation.”Ibid, p.42.

[5] Johnson, Alvin S, Mary L. Ely, and Morse A. Cartwright. Deliver Us from Dogma. New York: American Association for adult education, 1934. Internet resource, p.8-9.

[6] Ibid, p.15-16.

[7] Johnson wrote (March 1929): “Liberal college education is on the wane…They crowd into the schools of engineering, business, journalism, applied art, or into the pre-medical or pre-legal courses …They are likely to make of their college years, not an intellectual but a social experience. And the stock argument for putting social experience ahead of intellectual is that social competence is more important in the conduct of business today than are highbrow attainments… But society can not live on vocational fruits alone. It must have ideas. Society can not do without philosophy, an understanding of art and literature, mature judgment on political science, sociology, psychology. Nothing could be so horrible as a world of competent specialists with nothing in common but bridge, golf, and anti-Volstead recipes…” Ibid, p.23.

[8] Guide to the Alvin Saunders Johnson Papers, Yale University Library. Retrieved 13 Apr 2015.

[9] Johnson, Alvin S, Mary L. Ely, and Morse A. Cartwright. Deliver Us from Dogma. New York: The American Association for adult education, 1934, p.27.