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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.

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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.”