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New College: Addressing the Persistent Problems of Living

In 1932, in the midst of the most profound economic depression this country ever faced, Teachers College introduced the New College, an experimental college for teachers.

The driving force behind New College, Dr. Thomas Alexander, who had come to Teachers College in the early 1920s as an authority on European education, especially German education, saw the experiment as not one built on the liberal arts but rather on "the persistent problems of living." Alexander and his faculty-Florence Stratemeyer, Paul Limbert, Peter Sammartino, Winnifred Bain, Agnes Snyder, John Taylor (see page 15) and other distinguished colleagues were out to construct a new kind of progressive college that would develop a new breed of teacher. The new teacher's job was to lead in the regeneration of a failing society.

Although the curriculum was highly individualized and flexible, New College pioneered foreign study as mandatory for all students, required students to live for at least one summer on a Southern farm as part of a community experience, and mandated that they work toward a better social order by experiencing the challenge of the workplace.

While New College lasted only seven years, from 1932 to 1939, and many of its several hundred graduates, including the likes of the great Columbia and Chicago Bears quarterback, Sid Luckman, have passed away, TC Today is recalling the heady and rich days of a remarkable institution through the eyes of Mildred Larsen, who spent two years at the New College, and Richard Alexander, the son of Thomas Alexander.

Mildred Larsen, who is now 82, remembers her introduction to New College. "I'm a Brooklyn girl. I went to Erasmus Hall High School and graduated in 1937. At that time I decided to become a teacher. Instead of going through two or four years of a liberal arts program, and then going on to a graduate teacher education institution, I learned that Teachers College had what was called, 'New College,' which interested me. It was adventurous and experimental. The philosophy behind New College was learning through experience."

Richard Alexander, 84, recalled how his father's close relationship with the Teachers College administration provided an impetus for the new idea. "My dad wanted to start with freshmen, focusing on education, and he had discussed this with James Russell, who was the first dean, and then with Will Russell, who eventually took over. He convinced Will Russell (who was called "Uncle Will" by Richard Alexander) to let him start the New College program. Teacher education was his major interest, and he had some ideas he wanted to try out and one of them was the idea of having a foreign study component in an undergraduate degree. That was one of the major differences between New College and some of the programs going on at teachers colleges at the time."

The primary purpose of the period of foreign study was to acquaint students with another culture in order that they might better understand their own country. During the summer and fall semesters of their fourth college year, students were required to spend a period of about eight months to a year in a European country living close to its people, studying in its universities, and observing its customs and institutions.

While Larsen was unable to travel to France to study because of the impending war in Europe, her husband Victor, who had been an earlier New College student, spent a year in Mexico.

Richard Alexander, who attended New College and spent years in Germany along with his family and followed-up with foreign study at the University of Berlin in the early 1930s, called the overseas experience "a way to get young teachers to understand that it's a big world and that we aren't exactly the same."

Mary Daugherty Mix, whose 1968 TC dissertation, New College of Teachers College: A History, 1932-39, suggests that foreign study was unique to New College.

Both Larsen and Richard Alexander agree that the Depression brought a kind of grim reality to "the period in industry," which also distinguished New College. Every student was supposed to spend at least two months in the workplace whether waiting on tables in restaurants, volunteering, or in office or industrial jobs. As Mix writes, "for many [students] it provided not only the necessary work experiences but a means of staying in school as well."

"We joined the workforce," said Larsen, "as part of the curriculum and because of the Depression of the 1930s. As teachers we were supposed to know the conditions that the families and children were living in. I never reached this point because I only had two years at New College. But the period in industry, as it was called, where students went out and looked for a job in a factory or did something to earn money and experience the struggle that existed at that time, was an important cornerstone of New College." Larsen said her husband learned to design fabric patterns. "He did block printing of fabrics, and marketed them."

Richard Alexander called the period in industry important because it provided students with an understanding of a worker's life. "New College wanted teachers to get out and work with their hands and take a job someplace unrelated to teaching, so they knew what work was like, and how most people have to struggle in order to make a living."

The members of the faculty of New College were in general agreement that the college was a vehicle to build a new social order, but that building that social order needed to be done by individual communities rather than any national plan. As a result, during its first winter the New College planned for a summer orientation program in Canton, North Carolina, which served as a laboratory and a demonstration project for community rebuilding.

The New College Community, as it was called, was a 1,800-acre farm in western North Carolina on the east fork of the Pigeon River. The primary purpose of the first 60 to 70 students who arrived at the Community in June of 1933 was to study and to participate in weekly seminars in home economics, farm activities, the social sciences and psychology.

By 1937, faculty and students who had operated a nursery school for the "mountain" children, began to run a primary school and summer classes for older children. Two other sections of the Community offered practice teaching opportunities, High Valley Camp and Springdale School, which was organized as a residential school for junior high school students.

Larsen remembers her experience at the New College Community as exciting and liberating for an urban girl. "We ran a farm and had no professional help. We worked the fields and raised our own animals."

When New College closed for apparent financial problems (though there is wide disagreement about this), Larsen continued her pursuit of a bachelor's degree at Teachers College, changing her major from French to Early Childhood. Nevertheless, she was heartbroken. "I was a fish out of water. I was an undergraduate with graduate students. It was a strange environment for me. I was a teenager and all the others were already teachers in the field."

In 1954 Larsen accompanied her husband to Adelphi University, in Garden City, New York, where Thomas Alexander was renewing his vision of New College through Adelphi's New Teachers Education Program (ANTEP). Larsen received her master's degree from Teachers College, taught in the Garden City public schools, her husband Victor went on to teach biology and education at Adelphi, working with the elder Alexander.

Richard Alexander went on to receive his bachelor's and master's degrees from Teachers College and spent his academic career at Ball State University in Indiana as a professor of education.

After the demise of New College, Thomas Alexander spent the post-war years working under General Lucius Clay in the Education and Cultural Relations Division of the Office of Military Government for Germany. The major task of this branch was the rebuilding of a new system of German education.

In a letter to alumni of New College in the mid-1950s, Thomas Alexander wrote that "at a dinner in my home one night, William Russell said, 'Tom, the biggest mistake in my life was closing New College.'"

Russell's apology was a too late to save New College, but the experiment is alive in its impact on teacher education across the nation and in the lives of those who stood by the vision of Dr. Thomas Alexander.

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