Free School

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]

Over the course of the 1960s, inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, students began seeking and creating educational alternatives, new ways of being in and engaging with the world. Coming to critical awareness of social and political inequity, they sought to radicalize education, establishing hundreds of independent “free schools” across the United States.

The free school movement cannot be attributed to a single form, source, ideology or effort. Some sought to restructure the pre-existing educational system, while others chose to situate themselves outside of institutionalized education altogether, forming instead community learning initiatives, as Ron Miller put it in his 2002 Free Schools, Free People, “free from state control and the values of corporate capitalism.”[1] The soul of the free school movement, in 1968 and in 2008, is in the passion of each individual engaged in revolutionary education to live, learn and love in hopes that a more just, equal and free world is possible.

From the University of Chicago to Northwestern University and nearly every other college campus in Chicago, students responded to the conventional school model and reinvented education as a vehicle for social change. University of Chicago professor Marlene Dixon’s 1967 free summer school sessions titled The Local Capitalistic Power Structure and How to Beat It and Radical Changes Needed in the World, make clear that the curriculum of the free school could pose a threat to the dominant ideology’s very core. [2] When University of Chicago students banded together for the New University conference, proposing the formation of “an organization of radical scholars, students, and intellectuals, working to transform the universities and to use them in the movement for social change,” the intellectual and social elites’ place was threatened.[3] As students occupied buildings, organized teach-ins, protests and boycotts, education became more than just information gained in the classroom; it became the path by which the world was to be changed.

When discussing student participation in social movements of the 1960s, it is all too easy to lose oneself in a state of nostalgia for an era in which young people were highly politicized, all too tempting to fetishize dissent and civil disobedience as the apex of participatory democracy.  As a student activist in the 21st century, the relationship I share with my comrades of the 1960s is a complicated one, while I continuously attempt to balance my admiration for their organizational efforts and actions without resorting to mere impersonation.  What can I learn from the radical community’s past, while still taking into consideration the metamorphosis of American culture through the age of globalization?

What is shared between students of 1968 and today? The social conditions propelling calls for revolution are remarkably similar: a highly unpopular and politically motivated war, repression of civil liberties, excessive materialism, a neglect of human rights. As in the 1960s, some radical students today are beginning to band together to provide opportunities once again for free and democratic education.[4] When speaking to free school organizers of Chicago, I heard familiar themes re-emerging. Some attempt to make their own universities more democratic; others oppose conventional schooling altogether because of its connections to perpetuating social harm. Most free school classes, workshops and dialogues aim to be anti-capitalist, anti-hierarchical, anti-specialized and anti-competitive. Instead, free schools reclaim the ideals of education by embracing cooperation, community, mutual aid, responsibility, accountability, autonomy and liberation.

On a hot Chicago summer night, over a shared meal at the Weiser House, a house guest suggests that “if there is going to be any real change in society, it starts with education. The sort of education needed, however, is not the highly esoteric and impersonal information being taught in schools not detached from one’s own existence.” For the Weiser House organizers, for the recently relaunched SDS, for radically oriented students across the city, nation and world, the power structure must always be horizontal, with the acknowledgment that “no one person is an infinite repository of knowledge or blank canvas,” that knowledge is something to be shared and created by an actively participating, consensual and intentional community. This includes learning new languages, arts, cultures. It means removing the disciplinarian figure and allowing learning to be an organic occurrence. It means removing education from a closed room and engaging it within the context of a larger community. Fancy, a former Weiser House resident and free school and infoshop organizer, discussed her involvement with a class on war profiteers, which included a biking field-trip/protest to several corporations, such as Boeing, with financial gains from war-oriented business. For her, this is the free school in its essence: less a movement of words than a movement of action, a movement of solidarity with the oppressed. The free school exists to offer “another way to live outside of the industrial modern capitalistic man eat man” world of today. Free schools, then, are about “reclaiming lost power, lost cultural knowledge” that has been buried underneath a disabling consumer culture where agency has been deactivated for the majority of the American public. Those who come together continue the struggle between the institutionalized and the marginalized, between the complacent and the critical. They embraces the direct action and participation endorsed by radicals of the sixties. They too propose that education can be an intellectual and ethical space of infinite, world-changing possibilities. ◊


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