Freeing the University: Education Occupation on May Day

Pop quiz: what's the value of an American education? To some, it's a booming industry that preys on debt-crippled students. But to the educators, youth and workers who keep the system running, school increasingly seems like it's just not worth the struggle.

Pop quiz: what's the value of an American education? To some, it's a booming industry that preys on debt-crippled students. But to the educators, youth and workers who keep the system running, school increasingly seems like it's just not worth the struggle. This May Day, masses of working people-and students who are working to build a future for themselves-are converging in New York City to rethink education and test those ideas in the real world.

Everyone understands that merit and hard work should pay off somehow in the economy. But the narrowing and commercialization of education at every level, from preschool to postdoc, has drained people's academic aspirations and bank accounts.

On May 1, following the massive 1T Day rally against the "student debt bubble," the Free University of New York City will bring together various Occupy-inspired grassroots education experiments. Combined with other May Day-related Occupy demonstrations, the program of workshops and talks aims to put theories of "horizontal pedagogy" into practice by inviting regular folks to learn about and question the systems surrounding them: the economy, politics, and school itself.

The planned program, centered in Madison Square Park, will include:

over forty workshops, classes, and collective experiences during the five hour educational experiment. Attendees will be introduced to movements such as Take Back the Land, which has been occupying foreclosed housing; radical student organizing within the City University of New York (CUNY); and indigenous environmentalism. Other workshops focus on creating new ways of living, from permaculture to open access academic publishing, from nonviolent communication to immigration relief for survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

It's kind of an anti-university, seeking to break down the bureaucratic fortress of credits and degrees. The focus is on empowering both students and teachers, through educational work doesn't test book-smarts but expands critical thought and challenges expectations.

The Free University, together with parallel initiatives like Occupy University, Occupy CUNY (City University of New York) and Occupy Student Debt campaign, aim to democratize education in the tradition of old school union education programs and the pioneering RAND School of Social Science. The idea is to see workers as students, teachers as workers, and education as a public trust.

"University labor is often not seen as productive labor because of its frequently immaterial nature," said Free University organizer Rayya El Zein (also a CUNY student, as is the author). "The Free University is a form of strike. It is very much constructed with issues of labor in the academy at its center."

Truly non-hierarchical, democratic educational models can help level inequality by countering institutions that now operate as gatekeepers to privilege. In a correspondence with In These Times, El Zein said,

This iteration of the Free University largely calls attention to the structure of our universities, the way they are run and administered: reconsidering things like admissions, tuition, police presence on campuses, and representation in administrative structures like the boards of trustees.... We don't expect to be able to undo decades of racism and classism in university pedagogy in a few hours in Madison Square Park. However, we are hoping to draw the public's attention to the issues facing students and educators in our universities today.

So knowledge, once liberated, can serve as a tool for dismantling ivory towers. Still, tough questions face radical educators. Will institutional capacity be scaled up to reach the communities ill-served by regular schools and universities? How does the mission overturning narrow formal credentialing systems fit with the immediate needs of workers who want training for a new career, or professional educators whose livelihoods are still embedded in the educational establishment? Just as many workers face threats of severe retaliation if they strike, many students and teachers might feel they can't afford the risk of outright rebellion.

Occupy University, which plans to teach courses like "Occupied Algebra," and "Poetry and Political Feeling" on May Day, sees the upcoming Occupy education actions as a launchpad for a full-scale institution.

Organizers have been planning to establish a long-term program since last November. OccU member Joe Southton told In These Times, "We've been busy building this institution all winter, and we plan to be here for the long haul. We're hoping that many of the people who get involved with the May Day Free University will want to continue with similar initiatives in the long term." The next step is to engage more educators in their programs and reach out to the labor movement and nonunion worker organizations. Among their planned upcoming offerings is a Spanish-language course in "philosophy for workers."

Creating alternative institutions is one answer, yet radically reconstructing the educational structure from the inside remains a distant target. But May Day is a moment to step back and do what workplaces and classrooms don't often welcome: to think about reshaping the institutions we've been taught to obey. May 1 celebrates labor as well as the work of learning-and the growing wisdom of communities that politicians and employers strive to keep in ignorance. May Day doesn't just ask workers to halt the machine, but to reverse engineer it and finally fix what's broken.

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