Thorstein Veblen


Thorstein Veblen’s educational philosophy and book The Higher Learning in America deeply influenced the unique character of the New School for Social Research in the first discussions about creating an adult education institution in 1918.

Veblen, the son of poor Norwegian farmers, was born in 1857 in Wisconsin. At age 17, he enrolled in Carleton College. Although he was offered a teaching position after graduation, the school soon closed and Veblen continued his education in philosophy at John Hopkins University. [1] He struggled to obtain an academic position after he earned his Ph.D. from Yale University. In 1899, he published his most known work, The Theory of the Leisure Class, which has remained influential because it focuses on consumption instead of production, unlike most other works of his time. Even after this book had brought some fame for him, his academic career remained “stormy,” with short periods of teaching in several institutions. [2] In 1917, Veblen moved to Washington D.C. to work as an analyst for the Woodrow Wilson administration. Finally, he moved to New York where he met Charles A. Beard, James Harvey Robinson, and John Dewey, the soon-to-be founders of the New School for Social Research. In 1919, the New School became his academic home as he was a member of the first core faculty. Veblen fit the new school not just because of his radical ideas about higher education but because he was an unconventional economist who combined sociology with economics, and who became the leader of the new institutional economics movement. Veblen was a socialist, but he didn’t believe in the labor movement; instead, he advocated for a revolution of the technocrats. According to him, the main problem of capitalism was the clash between owners, whose main concern is profit. In this pursuit, owners would even obscure the normal working of the industrial system for individual gain at the cost the technocrats who understood the operation of the system and worked for the general welfare of all workers. [3]

Veblen’s critique of higher education in America focused on universities. He believed that universities could not properly meet the dual expectations of research and education of undergraduate students at the same time. Universities had to turn into bureaucratic organizations in order to deal with the large number of young students, and faculty members busy with guiding their inexperienced students had no time to pursue knowledge. He found it disturbing that universities were comparable to factories due to businessmen who sat on their Boards of Trustees, a leadership that he believed seriously hindered free inquiry and scholarship. Accordingly, he suggested that universities should only focus on research and preparing graduate students, and the faculty should be a self-governing entity to retain its autonomy and freedom. [4] Ironically, these ideas of an independent and autonomous, guild-like faculty focusing primarily on research and only secondarily on teaching led to him being fired by Alvin Johnson in 1925. Johnson, who saw students also as customers, realized that Veblen’s efforts to drive away students who were flooding his lectures who he believed were mostly seeking entertainment not serious learning, were hurting the school which was dependent on tuition. [5]

Nevertheless, the influence of Veblen’s ideas can clearly be traced in the proposal and later mission statements of the New School for Social Research. They can be traced not only in the institutional structure and educational ideals of the school as it opened in 1919, but in the principle of political independence of the faculty that was re-stated several times in the coming decades. Another long-lasting contribution he made was his suggestion that American universities should open their doors to European scholars, who were turning away from the more politicized atmosphere of European academic institutions. [6] Four years after Veblen’s death in 1929, the University in Exile at the New School realized some of these ideals.


[1] Ritzer, George. Sociological Theory, 8th Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill. 2011. p.196.

[2] Ibid. p.197.

[3] Ibid. p.195.

[4] Rutkoff, Peter M., and William B. Scott. New School: a history of the New School for Social Research. New York: Free Press. 1986. p.14.

[5] Ibid. p.36.

[6] Ibid. p.16.


Thorstein Veblen, unknown photographer, undated. Source: