The Human Relations Center

The Human Relations Center began in 1951 at the behest of Clara Mayer, the infamous right-hand woman of Alvin Johnson, the long-time director of the school. By 1951, Mayer was Vice President and Dean of the School of Philosophy and Liberal Arts of what was known informally known as the Adult Division (to distinguish it from the Graduate Faculty with its graduate degree programs). She apparently had a wide vision of learning; her approval of John Cage’s course on mushrooms in 1959, which he argued was really about close observation, stands as a clear example. When Mayer heard a presentation on “Modern Women’s Dilemma—What Direction Now?,” in 1950, she saw yet another educational opportunity.

In fall 1951, the speaker of that presentation, Alice Rice Cook, offered her first course at the New School called “Women in the Community: A Workshop in Human Relations.” Forty-three women enrolled. By 1955, 650 students were taking courses under the aegis of the Human Relations Center, most of them married white women who had gone to college, were over 40, and identified themselves as housewives. The purpose of the Center was ostensibly to make learning “social” rather than merely “intellectual.” The workshops strove to supply “the warmth and stimulation of personal contact,” and luncheon was as important as the course in the morning and the one in the afternoon.

The social aspect, though, covers a less sanguine purpose: assuaging women’s anxiety and depression. Surveys asked students to grade themselves on their relationships with questions such as “Is your voice usually pleasant and easily heard?” and “Do you make it easy for people to like you rather than driving them away?” Workshops and courses concentrated on building self-awareness and appraisal to increase confidence and enlarge opportunities. It reads now as a sad commentary on many women’s lives in the 1950s, in which a sign of the Center’s success was a husband’s “thank you for giving me back my wife!”

The need for social and psychological outlets for women then seems understandable enough. But why call it the Center for Human Relations?

There seem to be two developing fields of which this Center was a part. Institutes of Human Relations also appeared at other universities such as Harvard, Yale, MIT, and Michigan. These institutes were places of interdisciplinary social science research, geared to bringing together various disciplines to solve social problems (much like the founding goal of the New School). Most of these functioned as research institutes; some, like Yale, brought the social sciences into conversation with the medical sciences. And, like the Center for Human Relations, within in a couple of decades of their founding, they morph or disappear.

The other developing field at the time was Organizational Behavior and Management. This, too, came out of the social sciences, particularly sociology, but keyed to labor. Initially this strain of research emphasized the relation of individuals to organizations with an attention to communication. Its scope grew to look more broadly at individuals and social systems in relation to work, industry, and management. Now we know these fields as organizational behavior, management, and change, but the root was Human Relations.

There is a bit of each field in the Human Relations Center. Throughout the workshops and courses there is an interdisciplinary social science approach (if heavy on psychology) and a concern with succeeding in the public and work spheres. But luncheon seems far more crucial to the Center than to either of these fields. And, so far, I have found no emphasis on women in the other institutes or on practical applications of these ideas directly on individual lives (as opposed to institutional, policy, or research impact). The New School seems to have identified a need — mature women looking for purpose — and supplied it with its own brand of learning.

Student Daisy McNairy adds:

In 1966, Alice Rice Cook retired and Ruth Van Doren took over as Director. Van Doren “changed the character of the center from a leisure and volunteer activity orientation to a commitment to help women to find productive work outside of the home.” As the center’s mission turned more outward than inward, focusing less on self-betterment and more on practical job training and public life, the center found it fit to change their name. In 1971, The Human Relations Center became the Human Relations Work-Study Center. Yet the center was unwavering in their essential belief that human interactions and human relations were central to learning and the pursuit of profession. By 1972, there were over 3,000 enrolled in workshops, classes, and training programs. This was the height of the center’s popularity. But, by 1985, it appears that the relevance of the center was in question and in 1986 the name was changed once again to The Vera List Center for Adult Studies and again in 1992 to what it is known as today, The Vera List Center for Art and Politics. Throughout its forty year history, the Human Relations Center underwent several incarnations, although it always used real life as the basis for education and eventual action. It was porous and came alive with those who taught and learned there.

For more in the New School Archives, see the Human Relations Center records, 1961-1986.

Human Relations Center Records, NS020301. The New School Archives and Special Collections, The New School. New York, NY.