Reworking/Rethinking the University

Two Conferences at the University of Minnesota, April 11-13th, 2008; April 24-26, 2009

Free Universities

Here is another presentation from the Conference – Kathleen McConnell’s “Classes in Advanced Fantasy: A Brief History of The Free University.”

To see a contemporary free university in action, check out the Twin Cities Experimental College – offering 35 classes this summer, starting next week.

June 12, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Response to “Classes in Advanced Fantasy: A Brief History of The Free University.”

    A very interesting, wonderfully concise paper!

    I wonder what this topic can tell us about the way in which freedom is theorized/practiced, particularly in the context of the Vietnam War, the post WWII class deal and the class and race status of most of the original free schoolers…and the way that this is re-articulated in this paper in the neoliberal context.

    The polls of relevance/irrelevance, demanding/undemanding, make the most sense to me not in the context of education per se, but in relation to the world we want.

    -Are these educational spaces themselves, the world we want, the good life?
    -Do these educational spaces create a relational infrastructure through which we can realize community or through which currents for social change can spring forth or be tapped?
    -Do these educational spaces train us to build the world we want or figure out what that means or connect us with our fellow organizers?
    -Do these educational spaces allow ourselves to articulate ourselves as individuals and as people?

    The demand for non-demanding or demanding irrelevance in education, it seems to me, have more to do with a rejection of a particular work/reproduction-system, and as such create a kind of present no-place, rather than the real task of building and living out the world that we want.

    It is the relation between education and the world we want that to me provides the ideal criteria for any particular educational space. Are we coming here to have a good time? Are we coming here to gain a skill that will allow us to have a better quality of life, individually or collectively? Are we coming here to gain a sense of self and self-confidence? Are we coming here to meet others or to connect with people who make us believe, again, that another world is possible? Do we come here to find others to bring into our movement? Are we coming here because we are required by law, or because otherwise we will be at the mercy of the workplace?

    While obviously our goals don’t have to be singular, any particular ven diagram will have a different feel, and should be judged by different standards. As such I demand relevance and irrelevance, demanding and non-demanding education! Of course why demand education at all?

    While many important social change movements have had more or less connected educational arms, education is rarely the most effective way to make social change. Again, the relation to the alternative—the workplace or prison—its existence as a highly valuable commodity, and its idealized setting as in the heart of a relatively strong community, are key factors in making education attractive.

    However, this analysis treats education as equivalent to the work-relation, as a functional full time thing, again disconnecting it from the world we want. Making education political, it seems to me, is to put it in the context of living as a whole—like we see among much of the working class—as opposed to viewing it as a work-site with its own rules of struggle. The work-site itself is that which must be abolished.

    The struggle for me then, is to see the University as a commons, and to articulate it as such for students and for the larger community. To challenge workers in Universities of all sorts to see themselves as tenders of this commons, which among other things means valuing non-knowledge produces as knowledge producers.

    If we are to see academics as being forced from a state-based ruling class model to commodity producers in a global market, be it research, legitimation, or degrees, the commoning process will be attained by commonizing these commodities and figuring out how to do this—a deepening in seriousness of the internet for example, an attack on capitalism and other forms of oppression, and a recognition of and vitalization, in value and joy, of the knowledge produced by all people at all times. An exploding of walls, a supporting and building of social movements, a reclamation of value and control across society, are what I see as important pieces of building a fragile, educational part of the world we want.


    Comment by David Boehnke | June 12, 2008

  2. David – I greatly appreciate your response to my paper and enjoyed reading your thoughts. If I understand, you’re suggesting a re-structuring of educational institutions that would soften the current distinctions we have for formal and informal schooling. Education may not be an effective vehicle for social change, but I believe it is valuable one because of how it _differs_ from the other institutions you mentioned. Again, I would defend the formality and institutionality of school for no other reason than it provides us a unique space in which to fulfill our social obligations – and define those obligations. This is where the analogy between school/the workplace, and education/labor falls apart for me. If we can only ever perceive those obligations as a form of labor, then I believe we will continue to use neoliberal logics to understand those obligations. I am suggesting that we begin to think of education in other terms and re-appropriate the existing institution.

    Comment by Kathleen McConnell | June 18, 2008

  3. Hey Kathleen! This is a great paper. I really get a lot of that tension in my own classroom: The consumerist view that students should get what they want, no more, no less vs. the view that students are members of a community with a set of social obligations beyond the financial ones. Even at a small liberal arts college, this larger neoliberal attitude is in full swing, perhaps even moreso, because we are private.

    On the other hand, the school’s mission statement provides some cover, by asserting the fact that we are not a “neutral” institution, we have a set of “values” (Particularly, a committment to peace-building, dialogue, respect, etc.). My experience in general across academia is that there is increasing pressure to focus on the “delivery of course content” than on the discussion of things like ethics, justice, peace, community, etc.

    It’s an interesting mess. On the surface, the consumer approach has the appearance of honoring and respecting the dignity of the student as an individual. But deep down, I do not see how a student can actually “empower” themselves without engaging in this process through community. Whether you are talking about “critical thinking” or “problem solving” or “following your conscience,” it’s hard for me to imagine that these things happen through bought-and-paid-for interactions with outcomes clearly articulated in advance and without the complexities posed by a diverse and equally empowered community.

    Thanks for giving me occasion to reflect on things. Like you, I don’t think that all is lost. Most teachers don’t see themselves as “course content applications”… and most students have great ideas about what they want… but don’t always know how to get there (especially when you are dealing with first generation students, like I was, and like the students I teach), so they revert to the approaches that they are most comfortable with (customer service and media spectatorship). But my experience has been that many students do alter their relationship to their own education. (That’s what happened to me. That’s what I see my best students do by the time they graduate.)

    Are you going to the conference this year? I am thinking of putting a proposal together… but as you know… I have a lot of stuff on my plate.

    Comment by Davin Heckman | December 16, 2008

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