Free/libre/open university: the new direct action

Last night was the debrief for the fabulous May Day Free University of New York. Everyone had clearly had a great time and wanted there to be more such events. It was also the beginning of a realization that a free/libre/open university can be a new form of direct action in the crisis of neo-liberal education.

Horizontal Pedagogy Workshop at Free U. May Day

In the software movement, distinctions between free, libre and open source have become standard. “Free” implies here freedom of use and not necessarily free of charge. “Libre,” the French for “free” is used to imply without cost. “Open” means that the source code is available to all, so that they can hack it to their own ends.

The Free University was an amalgam of free/libre and open. It was free in that anyone could attend or participate and there was an open call to offer classes. It was free because no supervision over content or method of engagement was practiced. It was free of charge to attendees. Costs were incurred nonetheless, ranging from web hosting to paper for signs and the food that was provided, defrayed by the Occupy movement and all those who donated funds to the May Day appeal. Yesterday, organizers announced that a “how to do a Free University” kit was being made to be posted online, so it was open in that sense.

The University did require a great deal of donated time, labor and expertise. For  some of those who are exploited members of what is becoming known as the New Academic Majority–adjuncts, staff, contingent labor and graduate students–there was some ambivalence about being asked for yet more free labor. People recalled that the original Free University had collapsed in disputes over money and a contingent from Occupy University cautioned over the difficulties they had had in organizing.

Yet hundreds turned out on May Day, over sixty classes and events were held, and afterwards the mostly grad student organizers  clearly felt that their contribution was worthwhile.The question might be not so much how to sustain the Free University but why has the desire for such a project become so powerful within and without the Occupy movement?

Education has become a vast source of revenue but also a mass generator of debt. As a result, as one organizer put it yesterday, in events like the Free University, education is a form of direct action. In the outsourced “high talent service industry” (to quote NYU President John Sexton) that education has become, any free/libre/open provision creates a dual power system. It is being sustained for the time being on dual purposed donated time and resources because the very size of the edu-factory means it cannot be duplicated. At this first stage of the new direct action education, it is most important to sustain the actions.

Let’s review briefly how recent changes in education have produced this strong sense of need from K-12 to PhD.

Recent education “reform” at K-12 level has extensively benefited private corporations, such as the UK-based Pearson. The company has £2.5 bn of revenues in education and turns a handy £493 million profit on them, up 9% in a recession. Recently, there were controversies over a Pearson-designed English and Math grade-school standardized tests for 8th graders that contained unanswerable questions. While these questions were invalidated, it’s harder to measure the unsettling effect caused and these days, test scores are critical for students and teachers alike. Most recently, trainee teachers have refused to submit to a Pearson evaluation forcing them to edit hours of teaching down to ten minutes, skills that have nothing whatsoever to do with education.

At higher education level, the difficulties in the Cal State system with simultaneously rising tuition and decreasing places are exemplary of the new bottlenecks in gaining even employment-driven qualifications. In a desperate move, students have begun a hunger strike in support of their call for a tuition freeze. The devil is in the details. One striker

a sophomore majoring in deaf studies, said she is taking only one required class this semester because she was unable to enroll in any others.

While this might seem like a marginal field, the reporter did not mention that Cal State Northridge, where the student is enrolled, is the U. S. center for A.S.L. and Deaf Studies. Interpreters and Deaf culture literate administrators have made mainstreaming of Deaf students and workers possible. If you can’t take Deaf Studies at more than a course a semester even at CSN, the field will wither, closing avenues of access, employment and opportunity for Deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing people alike.

For people who make it through higher education with advanced degrees, hoping for a career in teaching, even the pool of adjunct teaching is now drying up, leaving very few options.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported today that over 30,000 PhD graduates are now claiming food stamps, while nearly 300,000 do so with Master’s degrees. Need we add once again that there is now one trillion dollars in student debt?

In short, the tuition-driven, privatized and outsourced model of higher education is as broken as the neo-liberal economics on which it is based. Perhaps the desire for the Free University is the first sign of a widespread rejection of both concepts. In any event, let a thousand Free/libre/open universities bloom!