If You Won’t Teach Us, We’ll Do It Ourselves: The Free University of New York

As traditional models of university learning begin to wither, experiments like Free U are helping students define the new education paradigm.

Photo Credit: ZacharyABell.com

As student debt soars, adjuncts get bullied, and the value of a diploma plummets, a group of students that have formed the Free University of New York are standing up for students by sitting down and learning, in public.

The “Free U” kicked off it’s public seminars on May Day, when students at City University of New York wanted to participate in Occupy’s general strike, and their professors wanted to support them, leading to a compromise — holding the classes outside. While the Free U regularly holds organizing meetings, it held its first “Free University Week” from September 18-23 with over one hundred free classes in Madison Square Park each afternoon as a follow-up to Occupy’s one-year anniversary demonstrations on September 17.

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Clusters of scholars — mostly grad-school types with a smattering of the elderly — dotted the park on a cloudless Wednesday afternoon, with small signs propped up against trees to identify classes.

Rob Robinson, a homelessness activist and co-founder of Take Back the Land, beckoned wandering scholars to the flagpole for his seminar on “Transforming Land Relationships.” He began with a quote from Peter Marcuse, Professor Emeritus at Columbia University and offspring of the New Left’s venerated Herbert Marcuse: “Occupy to de-commodify.”

The esoteric phrase turned out to be symbolic of the afternoon, for two reasons. First, the Free U Week was intimately connected to Occupy. Most of the organizers — mainly graduate students from CUNY, NYU, Columbia, and The New School — were self-identified Occupiers. Most attendees had been referred by an Occupier. And the Free U was advertised as a (perhaps slightly back-handed) compliment to the “S17” anniversary protests, with the aim to “get out of one-day actions…and multiply with larger sections of the city than may come out to OWS gatherings,” according to an email by Zoltán Gluck, a Free U organizer.

Second, the phrase needed explaining. While some Lefties commit themselves to throwing their body at the machine, these academic activists consider education a form of direct action, and that the problems created by global financial capitalism demand some hunkering down in the library before any corporal propelling is useful.

Robinson, a middle-aged African-American man who had spent several years sleeping on cardboard, tempered the volume of his voice as he elaborated, “Housing and land as commodities doesn’t work for poor people.” Which is why, according to Robinson, Take Back the Land “occupies” the homes of residents like Catherine Lennon of Rochester, New York, to provide defense against evictions by big banks. In Lennon’s case, the activists moved Lennon back into her home after the initial eviction, and resolved to do so ad infinitum. This presented a real challenge to institutional power, and according to Robinson, threatened to bankrupt the city police departments if the government and bank did not negotiate.

As Robinson continued to “teach,” it became easier to understand how the Free U was attempting to transform education itself (not just the university structure) by dissolving the bifurcation of theory and practice. “You don’t fight single issues, you fight structures,” Robinson said. As Occupy begins to pull at stringy weeds like housing and the prison system, this focus on praxis (theory and practice informing one another) may allow the movement to grab closer to the roots.

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The growing sense among Occupiers that issues need to be untangled before hacked at is perhaps felt the strongest in campaigns against debt.

I wiggled into the ring of students huddled near the Civil War statue to get into earshot of Nick Mirzoeff, the NYU professor of Culture and Media and quotidian Occupy blogger, who was delivering the “Five Theses on Debt” as part of a workshop series from the Occupy-spawned group Strike Debt. Mirzoeff facilitated the discussion that explored the connections between the justice department, the government, and Wall Street that results in the “debt prison system.”

Sonya Kilgo, an African-American church activist and nonprofit laborer, leaned over to discharge her exasperation into my ear, “People are talking, but nothing’s being done! What is the actual plan?” Kilgo had dropped in on the debt debate as a passerby, but the sedentary nature of the seminar got her steaming. She burst out, “We knew what had to be done to get what we needed,” referring to her involvement in the civil rights movement as a young girl. “We fought for our rights. We didn’t sit down. Are you just going to sit around?”

The students responded to Kilgo’s abrasive enthusiasm with several action items. One suggested bringing back the concept of “Jubilee,” debt forgiveness every twenty-five years, “since everything in the Bible is true” (to which Kilgo chanted, “That’s right!”). Others brought up debt refusal campaigns, and even buying student debt at pennies on the dollar and forgiving it as a way to disgrace hounding debt collectors.  A young woman who had shared her personal student debt story of an accumulated $200,000 stood up, “One of the most powerful things we can do is what we did today, which is helping people get over the shame of debt.”

Sonya hummed a vehement “mmm hmm” in support of the young debtor, and after class prophesized, “If they continue having small meetings like this…they’ll start generating the passion of the people.”

The pow wow on debt, particularly the redefinition of debt responsibility, revealed some of the Free U’s less academic goals — like creating an educational space that is safe for everyone, intentionally “anti-oppressive, anti-racist, and anti-authoritarian” as it’s written in the Free University’s principles. This tenet has been central to many of Occupy’s offshoot initiatives, and it may help the Free U survive where its earlier iteration had failed in the late 1960s, due to the New Left’s characteristic splits between sexes and races.

The transition from debtor-guilt to debtor-indignation highlights another of the Free U’s prefigurative goals: to break from the valuations of society’s big institutions, and ultimately build student power. In this vein, Free U organizers took notes last week from CLASSE’s Philippe Lapointe, who negotiated with Quebec’s government during the province’s longest-ever student strike (which ended five weeks ago).

The tension in the CUNY system over the Pathways program, which alters the way curricula are delivered to undergraduates, makes the Free U’s power-building aims particularly poignant. In mid-September, administrators at Queensborough Community College responded harshly to the English Department’s rejection of a Pathways proposal to cut English composition course hours. The administration cancelled all composition courses, questioned all full-time faculty reappointments, and sent non-reappointment letters to all adjuncts.

When debt class let out, the Free U held a “general assembly” where it discussed organizing strategy. The Queensborough case was one of many reasons that “Student Unionism” was a popular topic.

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In its very concept, the Free U exposes the fantasy of the traditional university in the modern day — a financial sinkhole for students and a precarious employer for faculty.

It’s an oddity in modern politics. A multitude of mainstream initiatives belie a sentiment that the traditional university is kaput, including programs like the UN-affiliated tuition-free University of the People and the Gates Foundation-funded video-based Kahn Academy. For-profits have even found space for arbitrage. I graduated from college in the spring, but am currently enrolled in “Modern American Poetry” thanks to Coursera, one of these for-profit educational enterprises that provide online classrooms for partnering schools.

With the blaring signals from the for-profit and non-profit sectors that lecture-hall learning is obsolete, experiments like the Free University of New York are helping students define the new education paradigm. Even if the manifestation is as low-tech as cross-legged chats on the grass, students are voicing what principles they want in their education, and are declaring that, if need be, they can learn on their own.

Zachary A. Bell has contributed to the Daily Pennsylvanian, Campus Progress, Toward Freedom, Truthout and TheNation.com. He blogs at zacharyabell.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZacharyABell.