An Interview with Christoph Cox, Eugene Lang College’s New Dean
Christoph Cox is a philosopher, scholar, critic, and curator of visual and sonic art who has curated numerous exhibitions across the United States. He has spent more than 25 years working in progressive liberal arts institutions and joined Eugene Lang College this August as Dean.
New School News recently spoke with Dean Cox about a variety of topics, including his excitement about joining Eugene Lang College, his thoughts about the future of liberal arts education, and the leaders and innovators who inspire him.
What attracted you to The New School and Eugene Lang College?
I’ve spent most of my academic career in colleges and universities dedicated to progressive liberal arts education. I was an undergrad at Brown University, which pioneered the open curriculum in the 1960s, and then went to grad school at the University of California, Santa Cruz, which has always been the experimental university in the UC system. For the past two decades, I taught at Hampshire College, founded by the other four schools in the Five College Consortium to be a laboratory for experiments in higher education. All these schools have deep commitments to interdisciplinarity; and, indeed, both my degrees are from interdisciplinary programs—Modern Culture and Media at Brown, History of Consciousness at UCSC. Hampshire has never had academic departments and, like UCSC when I was there, offers narrative evaluations instead of grades. Lang shares a lot of this history and educational philosophy, and so it’s a natural fit for me.
For me, as a philosopher who focuses on 20th- and 21st-century European thought, the New School for Social Research was always a beacon, as, more generally, has The New School, which was launched as an alternative educational institution and became a haven for progressive intellectuals from Europe. For many years, I knew Lang because I admired and followed the work of amazing faculty in cultural theory, art history, literature, and philosophy. The more I got to know about Lang as an institution, the more impressed I was with its commitment to so many things I care about: progressive pedagogy, social justice, interdisciplinarity, curricular experimentation, and more.
How have your past roles and experiences prepared you for your current role as Dean of Lang?
My educational and pedagogical background gives me a deep affinity with the mission and educational philosophy of Lang and The New School. I’ve always been an activist for justice and equity in education, from collective efforts to unionize grad student workers at UCSC in the 1990s to initiatives at Hampshire aimed at expanding access and inclusion, increasing student and faculty diversity, and fostering anti-racist pedagogy.
In 2019, Hampshire was plunged into an institutional crisis by a new president who underestimated the Hampshire community’s ability to creatively respond to fiscal and enrollment pressures. I was among a core group of faculty and staff who crafted an alternative plan for Hampshire and, along with student activists, built a broad-based coalition to support this vision. Less than six months later, the president resigned and Hampshire’s Board substantially adopted this alternative and hired a visionary new president who supported the coalition in leading a set of all-community sessions to collectively re-envision the college. I became dean of the Faculty to oversee and carry out the work of implementing this new vision at Hampshire, which today is rapidly rebuilding and thriving. In that role, I focused on building an innovative curriculum organized around urgent global challenges chosen by the community and collaborated with colleagues to define and advance antiracist pedagogy and expand expertise in restorative practices in the classroom and on campus. Throughout the Hampshire crisis and in my role as dean of Faculty, I worked with leadership at the other Five College institutions to develop and support all sorts of cross-school programs, initiatives, and events.
The issues that confronted Hampshire confront many small liberal arts colleges today, particularly relatively young, progressive institutions that are tuition dependent and committed to equity, inclusion, and social justice. Of course Lang is a different college with unique assets and challenges. But the lessons I learned in my leadership roles at Hampshire—about collaboration, transparency, bold experimentation and creativity, equity, and inclusion—are lessons I bring to my work at Lang.
Why do you think a liberal arts education is valuable in today’s world?
To my mind, a liberal arts education is more important than ever, providing the best possible preparation for navigating and thriving in an ever-changing world. Instead of zeroing in on a narrow specialty or training students for jobs that may not exist in a few years, a liberal arts education—particularly the kind of interdisciplinary and exploratory education we offer at Lang—expands the imagination and fosters the flexibility of mind, curiosity, creativity, and nimbleness that enables graduates not only to respond to a changing world but to envision it otherwise and to shape it.
The liberal arts are—or should be—all about liber, that is, liberty or freedom. Originally, the “liberal” in “liberal arts” referred to the liberty of “free men” whose class status freed them from manual labor and allowed them to pursue higher learning. Today, after the radical democratization of higher education in the 20th and 21st centuries, the “liberal” in “liberal arts” refers not to those who are already free but to those studies—“arts”—that enable a person to become free: to be liberated from ignorance, economic insecurity, prejudice, inequality, and convention. The liberal arts, then, are naturally allied with increased access, inclusion, and social justice.
A liberal arts education trains students to be critical, informed, and responsible citizens, people who are able to analyze and interpret texts, images, and sounds in sophisticated ways, who can determine truth and facts from fake news and “alternative facts,” connect scientific knowledge with social and political awareness, and have a broad understanding and appreciation for human diversity.
A good liberal arts education acknowledges that the complex problems we face require intellectual and creative resources drawn from across the curriculum—that, for example, challenging white supremacy requires the ability to debunk scientific claims about race, to develop philosophical arguments and statistical skills, and to launch artistic interventions. Students of the liberal arts know that addressing climate change requires not only an understanding of the physical and biological environment but also an understanding of environmental ethics, agriculture, economics, and human migration.
As I’ve suggested, a liberal arts education affirms and values difference. It provokes students to engage with different methodologies, practices, and modes of inquiry, differences between cultural traditions and ways of knowing and being, and differences in subject positions and standpoints. Indeed, I think that a truly liberal arts education foregrounds the positionality of inquirers and researchers in every field, allowing students to grasp how the production of knowledge in the sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts is shaped by race, class, gender, and other aspects of human identity.
In short, a good liberal arts education helps students not only develop the flexible intelligence that employers are looking for but also develop capacities and skills that enable graduates to become free and to increase the scope of freedom in the world.
Are there any leaders or artists from the past or present that you turn to for inspiration and whose words or work you think would inspire others?
I’m inspired by so many thinkers and artists that it’s difficult to pick out a few. One local hero of mine is the composer John Cage, who, throughout the 1950s, taught a course in “experimental composition” at The New School. Anyone could attend, whether or not they had any training in music. And Cage’s students became a who’s who of experimental art—conceptual artists, poets, filmmakers, sculptors, painters, and musicians. For Cage, an “experimental” action is one the outcome of which is unknown in advance. And he explored this idea in art, music, language, and pedagogy. Having been involved in experimental education for many years, I think Cage has lots to tell us about what it is to conduct an experiment and to be genuinely open to surprise and failure.
While I’m thinking about experimental music, another important inspiration for me is Pauline Oliveros, who was not only an amazing performer and improviser but a pioneer in what she called “deep listening,” a form of listening attuned not only to all actual sounds but also to all possible sounds, sounds that can only be imagined—or, since imagination is a visual word, “auralized.” One of the most amazing things about Oliveros—whom I was lucky enough to know—is that she would play with absolutely anyone who invited her, regardless of their background or genre. We have a lot to learn from Oliveros about listening, collaboration, experimentation, and an openness to the unexpected.
I could go on and on. But I’ll mention one more: the artist duo The Otolith Group, composed of Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar. Eshun began his career as a radical theorist of music and sound with wonderfully broad tastes. In the early 2000s, he and Sagar formed The Otolith Group and began to make films, compose audio pieces, stage performances and exhibitions, host talks and conferences, and so on. When I spoke with him a few years ago, he told me that he was surprised that more philosophers and theorists don’t become artists. That comment really struck me and inspired me: the idea that art can be a form of speculative and experimental philosophy. I’m deeply attracted to philosophers for whom thinking is a creative act and form of experimentation, and to artists who provoke conceptual thought through image, sound, movement, and other sensuous means.
What most excites you about living in New York City?
After I graduated from college, I spent a year in New York City working at The Strand, where I bought loads of books that I had too little time to read, or that I read on the subway with divided attention. That experience pretty much sent me to graduate school! Over the past few decades, my work as an art and music theorist, critic, and curator brought me to New York often, but generally for short stints—an event, exhibition, or interview. I’m really thrilled to be back in the city and to soak up its intensity and energy. So many of my good friends live here, and I’ve been spending evenings and weekends going to films, exhibitions, plays, and performances. I’ve become a bit obsessed with CitiBike and travel pretty much everywhere by bike, which allows me to experience far more of it than taking the subway. I feel really lucky to have such a wonderfully engaging job in such an inspiring place.
What books are on your bedside table right now? And which TV shows are you currently binging?
My friends and family take my TV recommendations with a grain of salt. My tastes aren’t always very highbrow, and I can get engrossed in shows that I have trouble defending to others. Like everyone else, it seems, I just finished House of the Dragon, which was ponderous and clunky, but that didn’t stop me from watching all ten hours of it. Because I adore Chicago, my home town, and loved Shameless, which also stars Jeremy Allen White, I also just watched The Bear, which, after an episode or two, I found really funny and thoughtful. The seventh episode is a pretty masterful piece of television. And, speaking of masterful TV, I really loved the British–Japanese series Giri/Haji, which is beautifully pensive and has one of the most gorgeous and experimental climaxes I’ve ever seen in a TV series.
I’m reading a few different books at the moment. One of them, Death By Landscape, is a very smart and wide-ranging set of reflections on life in the Anthropocene. It’s by Elvia Wilk, who drafted the book as her MA thesis in Liberal Studies at The New School. I’m also reading a book recommended by my colleague Mary Watson, A Third University is Possible, by la paperson, aka K. Wayne Yang). It’s a fascinating critique of the contemporary university that also engages in thoughtful speculation about what truly decolonized institutions might look like. Finally, I just started a novel given to me by another new colleague, Seth Cohen, a book called In the City of Pigs, which takes its title from Plato and is about an experimental music collective: right up my alley!