FREE UNIVERSITY: an experiment in education and culture

Sun Dec 19 10, Viracocha, San Francisco

(Alan Kaufman)

—Opening remarks to the first meeting to establish a free university in San Francisco—

My friends, thank you for coming. I ask that you indulge these few remarks on what prompts me to call at this time for the establishment of a FREE UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO, for I have given much thought to this over the years, and that you show some patience and even compassion for any failings you may perceive in my reasons for such an undertaking. For what I am asking you to join in—the formation of a university that will make the highest level of education available, completely free, to any individual who wants it, regardless of color, creed, age, gender, nationality, religion or immigration status—a university free of money, taught for free to any who want it—is, at this crucial historical moment, a dream far too important to hold hostage to any particular person or personality-type. I ask that you run with this dream and realize it for the sake of yourselves and each other and this country and most of all for our young people, the poor and dispossessed, the undocumented and disenfranchised, the outcasts, the ones without a dream. In a world of unchecked greed and of exhausting religious and ideological divisions, let today’s effort to create a Free University stand as a way station to dreams for those who have no right to dream in a world like this.

I mean most especially our youth, though not only. I mean our seniors too. Are not children and seniors our most sacred human responsibility? And yet, in this day, it is they who lie on the sacrificial block of our social and economic order. It is they whom we have offered up in exchange for an illusion of security and comfort. And yet all around us we now watch as shadows grow to our very door, and we are faced with the awful realization that we have sacrificed both our human future and past—our children and seniors—in exchange for our very own destruction.

And nowhere has this exchange been more evident, at least to me, then in the Bay Area. Here, it stands out like an awful stain upon a great legacy. For in the matter of radical cultural initiative and progressive daring, the world looks to us. We have always been the laboratory of human advance and cultural revolutions and social compassion. And yet, in the last decades we have seen that the Bay Area, which gave us the Beats and Abstract Expressionism, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, The Summer of Love, The Black Panthers, City Lights Bookstore and luminaries like Kenneth Rexroth, Harvey Milk, Diane Di Prima, Diamond Dave and our very own Matt Gonzalez, has become, instead, the center of the dot com boom and bust and later the crowning tiara of the real estate bubble and collapse—a crown that the corpse of our economy still wears.

And today our Bay Area is the epicenter of a world technocracy run out of Silicon Valley, where initiatives are launched to render our most sacred cultural artifacts such as books obsolete. Where they work too to devise programs that hold our youth spellbound before screens from morning to night, addicted to games and apps that reinforce their use with each click, a form of technological Crack. In Silicon Valley they work to replace those employments that give life meaning, substance and reward with brand new software. In a system predicated upon obsolescence and profit, they have caused our economy to shift into an ephemeral service orientation which now requires the worker not only to give of his time and life’s energy at triple the former pace and at a lower wage but insists that one do so with artificial enthusiasm. This cynically fostered system, engineered for the benefit of corporate profits alone, demands that we smile gratefully as our very soul is crushed.

But nothing astonishes me more then what we are doing to our youth. In some sense, youth anywhere belong to us, the human family, no less then our own children. We have a profound responsibility both to protect and defend them and to set an example to them of how to be, how to live and of when to stand up against all odds for what is right, what is good, and to fight for those things.

And yet, for decades now most of us have stood by idly and even to some extent participated in the corporate profit-driven culture in which, for the sake of an illusion of freedom and prosperity we have permitted our own youth to be brainwashed and bankrupted even as they are channeled by the privatized educational system into fifty stories-high slave labor work camps of air-conditioned glass and steel for corporate Capitalist profit-making.

I do not have answers to most of the questions or objections you may raise here today.

What I possess is the certainty that the purpose of education is not to turn the student into a better consumer and profit-earner but to help him to discover the wealth of human culture upon whose shoulders he or she stands. What I have is a passionate determination to see the restoration of humanity—warm, literate, democratic—to vibrant human life. And in order to achieve this aim we must take hold of the very hub of our culture, which is education, and create a brand new kind of institution, one whose existence makes no sense in the current social order, one that stands in direct defiance of the privatized profit-oriented social engineering centers that pass for universities today.

Where does one house this Free University, you may ask? It is here, in you, in each of us. You are the Free University. We are the Free University. Where-ever we stand, that is where it exists. One hears so much these days about the hopeless selfishness of youth. Let me tell you a brief anecdote. When I went on strike against the Academy of Art University in 2004, because a teacher and two students were thrown out due to something they wrote in class or taught, many of my students were already in debt for up to as much as $90,000 to $100,000.  I watched one student, sustaining herself on Ramen Noodle Cups, waste away before my eyes until one day I pulled her aside, numbed and fatigued, and said: ‘Forget about this week’s assignments. Here is your assignment: take this $50 and buy yourself some fresh food and eat meals this week.” When I next saw her, her eyes were bright, but very soon, under the heel of her crushing tuition, her eyes went dull again.

During the strike, I invited Matt Gonzalez, who is here with us today, and several authors, to my classroom, where I conducted freedom of speech protest seminars. When the school refused to permit Matt and the others to enter the building, I went to my classroom and said to the students: “I intend to hold this class on the sidewalk, as they won’t allow our honored guests onto the premises. I understand how much most of you have riding on your educations and so cannot in good conscience ask you to risk all that for the sake of my protest. But I intend to teach this class today out in the street. There will be no consequence for failure to attend. Those who wish to join me outside are welcome.”

When I left the building every student in that classroom followed me out, despite the risk. Matt and the writers spoke to them. And after, we went to North Beach, to City Lights Bookstore to continue with our Freedom Class. That is what education should be: a long, ongoing class in human freedom. So much for the purported selfishness and lack of idealism among youth. I don’t believe it! Those who displayed no courage or ideals were not the students but rather the adult faculty, the instructors. Not a single instructor at the Academy of Art joined our protest, which soon spread to almost the entire student body. Not a single teacher joined us!

Let me tell you another story. During World War Two, a famous specialist in child education named Janusz Korczak—a man renowned in his profession throughout the world—voluntarily entered the Warsaw Ghetto to administer and teach at the Jewish orphanage and school. In the shadow of the death-camp deportations and systematic starvation of the Jews, this non-Jewish teacher and thinker happened to be walking in the ghetto streets one day when he saw an SS man beating a Jewish child to death and threw his own body on top of the child to deflect the SS man’s blows. Later, when finally the orphans in Korczak’s care were assigned for deportation to Auschwitz, and though world leaders petitioned for and received permission for him to escape to the free West, Korczak refused to abandon his charges. He boarded the freight trains with them to Auschwitz and at their head, holding their hands, he entered with them into the gas chambers and died with them. That is the example of what I, the son of a Holocaust survivor, understand to be an educator’s responsibility to his or her charges. And so I do not believe that the creation of a Free University under our current conditions is impossible or predicated upon money.

In 2004, when I stood on the sidewalk with my students, we were a dispossessed educational module with only streets to house us. What held us together that afternoon were not walls but love of learning, pride in our actions, principles of freedom, comradeship in the quest for knowledge. From time to time I run into these students who tell me that it was the best class they ever took. And from these encounters, I came away with a vision whose time had not yet come. The idea of a Free University.

Now, the time has come.

The social order is in disintegration. The divide between rich and poor is an abyss. The corporation controls our entire existence. Unemployment and unease are widespread. The liberal arts are disappearing, displaced by studies guaranteed to generate the highest income.  The universities funnel students into money-making programs rather then humanity-building curriculum, and when those nonetheless don’t pan out and the student is left in massive debt, then conditions have been laid for a revolutionary change of the most profound kind.

This is a crucial step towards that revolutionary change. If we decide here today to be a Free University, then already it exists. And our student body will exist because we do. Where we will teach is not the first question, nor even what we will teach but rather, that we will teach. That is the question at hand. For if we decide in the highest altruistic spirit of education that we will teach, regardless of obstacles, then we give birth to a dream that will pass on to the generations of the future. For now, with only our hearts and minds and bodies to create the dream, let us dedicate ourselves to the regeneration of our humanity through the gift of knowledge freely given to others.

And so I ask you to answer today one basic question: are we or are we not, from this moment forth, members of a Free University comprised of anyone who would wish to join us? I propose that the only requirement for membership in this enterprise is a desire to teach and/or a desire to learn. And nothing more. And that we will impart what we know to any who want it.

Thank you.

Alan Kaufman

December 19, 2010

San Francisco

You can follow along on the facebook group page, where over 200 people have already joined our efforts. We have also just set up a website that will shrotly serve as the FUSF hub, so you should subscribe there as well, if you’re interested in supporting this endeavor. It truly is open to all who, as Alan said, have a desire to teach and/or to learn.

The next and second meeting of FUSF is set for Sunday, January 9 at 1pm at Viracocha.