A Response to Rustow

Professor Lebbeus Woods December 6, 2011

Professor Stephen Rustow’s comment is highly articulate and thoroughly reasoned. He asks us to consider words and their meanings carefully, and also to be scrupulous and measured—-not demagogic or overly emotional—-in what we say or write. Then he unfortunately releases a fog of words that could have been condensed into a few precise sentences stating, for one, that we should not cling too tightly to principles. Rather, we should face the reality of Cooper’s financial situation and be flexible, bending our principles—-inherited or presumed—-as the contingencies of reality demand.

The only problem with his point of view is that, by definition, principles cannot be bent. A principle either holds or it is no longer a principle.

I do believe that The Cooper Union is founded on principles, established at the founding of the school. The key principle is that the school’s students should not be required to pay tuition as a requisite for studying and graduating. That’s it. That’s the principle. Never mind the equivocating that took place at the outset that required some “amateurs” to pay to attend classes—-that was never more than a side issue, one that was clarified when, at the turn of the 20th century, all tuition was eliminated.

Now, why is this principle important? Why is it worth carrying forward into our present time and beyond, whatever the sacrifices required?

The answer is not subject to debate, to re-evaluation, but is simply that the school is founded on a principle of meritocracy. Those people who have demonstrated the desire and ability to learn shall be admitted to a program of study, regardless of their ability to pay, or not pay, tuition. That’s it. That’s the principle. If it gets bent into some semblance of principle—-that a few who can pay should and will—-there is no principle. The principle arises from a belief in economic equality. Having halfway equality is like being halfway pregnant. Such a thing doesn’t exist.

In our present consumer society, it is very easy to accept economic inequality and the values that go with it. Peter Cooper lived in not only a different era, but also one in which the consequences of economic inequality in America were just beginning to become obvious. What made him a visionary was that he saw the future coming, didn’t like what he saw, and put his personal resources into making what he believed would be a better future. How many of us are willing to do that today?

The Cooper Union is a symbol of a better, more just, future. It must withstand the pressures to give up its principles, conforming to the mass psychology of consumerism, or the contingencies, the various crises, of the moment. It is truly a matter of life or death.

Lebbeus Woods
The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture
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