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The University of Toronto’s advertising slogan—“Great Minds for Your Great Future”— follows students as they walk through campus, popping up on signposts, buildings, and internet terminals. Rushing past the “my future” logo on their way to class, most students don’t consider the overt marketing campaign that the institution employs, perhaps because like other effective slogans, it makes the consumer feel good. By evoking the school’s prestigious image, U of T becomes the gatekeeper to the brand of person you want to be, the brand of future you desire.

Analogous to pharmaceutical companies pushing their latest lifestyle drug, universities across the country work hard to plug their educational brand. Competition among universities for enrollment is transforming their admissions departments into marketing departments. The rampant growth of consumer culture has, inevitably, infused education. Students shop around for schools, bargain for marks, hire people to write their essays and watch their shared campus spaces turn into corporate funded commons. Luckily, schooling alternatives exist for those unwilling to settle for an increasingly objectified learning experience.

Free schools promote a personal, proactive approach to learning, encouraging students to self-direct their study and take ownership over their education. The traditional teacher-student hierarchy is disrupted in these non-authoritarian schools, where teachers facilitate learning rather than “teach at” students.  Resisting the institutional precepts of formal schools, free schools are communities that encourage the sharing of information, knowledge and skills in a collaborative manner. Because they are often grassroots, community-driven initiatives operating as a collective of individuals, the schools are also “free” from corporate invasion.

Free schools emphasize free speech and open learning. The “free” here denotes a freedom of expression, rather than free tuition. However, some free schools are also free of cost. An established example of free schooling is England’s Summerhill School, which has educated elementary and high school aged students since 1921. Its 100 plus students and staff draft the school’s laws in democratically-run meetings. Classes are optional, in hopes that students are motivated to learn. Low class attendance is rare once students become accustomed to their educational ownership. North America is also home to several free schools, whose common goals include: allowing students to pursue their individual interests through practical projects and field trips, building a strong sense of community among students and teachers, and relaxing rigorous testing and obsession over performance standards in favour of empowering students to become responsible for their own learning.

There’s a rich tradition of free schooling in Toronto. North America’s largest co-operative residence, Rochdale College, operated as a free university on U of T’s campus from 1968 to 1975 (see sidebar—Rochdale College : A Hippie Haven). Two decades later, another project sprouted in Canada’s largest city, known as the Toronto Free School. Originating from an infoshop called “Who’s Emma,” this school gained popularity in the late 1990s and eventually evolved into the Anarchist Free University—the current option for free schooling in Toronto.

Classes at Anarchist U span from the practical to the highly esoteric. Last term’s course offerings included: Judo for Gentle People, Conversational Spanish, Radical Perspectives on Mass Media, and Secret History of the World (a politics class on conspiracy theory). Searching in Toronto, it’s certainly tough to find free martial arts or language classes. University courses devoted to radical thought are equally rare. Beyond the diverse course calendar, the learning atmosphere at Anarchist U is perhaps its most compelling feature. The humanities classes are akin to graduate seminars elsewhere, with intimate, heightened discussion and devoted participants who in turn enable the school’s social appeal. Classes often last beyond their scheduled times as enthusiastic attendees get caught up in discussion. Some classes continue meeting elsewhere even after the term ends.

Hearing about this empowering alternative to education, we decided to attend a day-long workshop entitled “Gramsci Is Dead.” The event’s name was inspired by Queen’s University Professor of Sociology Richard Day’s book of the same title. Upon arrival we joined the thirty or so gathered at the downtown Toronto space and introduced ourselves at our turn. The schedule featured speakers who facilitated discussion by exploring anarchism from various starting points. The class required no background in politics—speakers presented preparatory information first, and discussion gradually built with each presentation, culminating in Day’s talk on advanced anarchistic theory.

The workshop was structured to create an accessible classroom where all students were prepared to take part. We noticed that some came with little familiarity with the subject matter, but after hearing the introductory seminars, they were eager to contribute to the dialogue. Many others were academics, artists, and grassroots practitioners whose thoughtful and diverse input stimulated the day’s programme. At midday, everybody broke for a yummy homemade vegan meal and had opportunities to chat with presenters in small groups while eating. After lunch, a few volunteers led the group into more advanced topics. The strength of the learning experience was its cooperative nature—participants learned from each other—in both small groups and in the larger group discussion. Cooperation extended into the day’s mechanics; the event largely facilitated itself due to the participants’ willingness to wash their own dishes, make their own coffee and tea, assist with childcare and help tidy and stack chairs at the end of the day.

Students who attend Anarchist U come with the free school philosophy of solely pursuing an interest, rather than for a degree or other recognition of knowledge. They resist the consumer-driven mentality sweeping traditional schools, where students vie for exam hints and quick solutions to get to the next step, with their ultimate goal being an exit out—their graduation.  At Anarchist U, the students are all about learning itself.  Without the pressure of exams and marks, students can relax and savour their learning moments. They can also help direct the class and raise their own topic inquiries. As Erik “Possum” Stewart, a facilitator and student at the school, puts it: “I don’t like to learn on someone else’s agenda.” University students often get disassociated from their passive-learning lectures, where enrolment can number in the hundreds. Many may operate best without the rigidity of set course content. A viable alternative then, is student-centered learning in an open setting.

Courses at Anarchist U are open for all to teach. Anyone can attend the monthly meetings and propose a course by submitting a detailed outline. Revisions may be suggested if a course is not accepted by group consensus. The consensus model is used for all operational and course development decision-making at Anarchist U, and it is a methodology that works. The process seeks to meet everyone’s needs, but the collective admits that they still have not come to a consensus on what consensus really is. Their ongoing discussion demonstrates the flexible and approachable nature of the university—its development is, happily, a work in progress. Over the three years that Anarchist U has offered classes, their consensus decision-making process has run smoothly. Stewart remembers only one major struggle the collective encountered with a course proposal that had sexist and eugenicist undertones. The collective, striving to achieve consensus, suggested course revisions which the presenter refused, so consensus was not achieved. In addition to the university’s operations, consensus is central to the proceedings of individual classes. Facilitators encourage students to decide how their class will evolve.

The classes then run autonomously, and grow into a micro community. They are free to operate on their own; Anarchist U simply provides the space and internet promotion. Here, there is somewhat of a disconnect. For example, students can’t contact an ombudsperson to mediate disputes. There’s no recourse process for resolving problems such as classes running off track due to disruptors. The lack of an authoritative body results in little or no written assignments, which many learners do benefit from. The separation from a larger body also means no diploma, and consequently lower attendance rates as students do not feel attached to the school. But, operating autonomously infuses classes with a freedom unknown in academia. Flexible course outlines and small class sizes encourage intimate learning. There are no campus ads to compete with intellectual activity, and classroom clocks do not halt it—after a course ends it sometimes moves to a pub or someone’s living room. One student at Anarchist U told us that her brother still meets with a class that he led over two years ago. From facilitation to friendship, the social scene strengthens Anarchist U.

Like other universities, Anarchist U offers a variety of social opportunities to coalesce the diverse student body. Their autumn Anti-Frosh Picnic is a school-wide community building event. In response to the rankist structure of a traditional orientation week, the picnic is open for all to attend and is organized cooperatively. Weekend long learning retreats and pub nights also nurture a cohesive school community. We spoke to former U of T students who claimed that they met more friends in just a few Anarchist U classes than during their years spent in undergrad lecture halls. The strong sense of association among students at Anarchist U emanates from their similar inclination towards progressive thought.

Free schools resist the trend at Canadian universities to mass produce graduates. Todd Parsons spoke to us about his experiences teaching at both mainstream and free universities. In his classes at U of T, he encounters a chorus of students whose sing-song refrain “is this on the exam?” puts his pedagogical ideals out of tune. The classroom conductor laments that these U of T students are looking for a quick study guide “because they need the credit from my class to get the piece of paper.” Instead of enjoying the educational experience, his students are disengaged, shrewdly seeking the quickest route out of the system.

At Anarchist U, students are the system. They have the exciting opportunity to guide the school’s direction and even to teach classes,  rather than haggling for the simplest way to navigate their course of required study. The spontaneity of the class structure complements their role as an active learner, allowing them to self-direct their learning experiences. Parsons is impressed with the kind of student that attends Anarchist U. “If only my students at U of T were like the people who come to the Anarchist U courses,” he says. “They bring their own readings, they challenge you, they engage in a way I’ve never seen in undergraduate courses.” Self-directed learning results in more than just educational opportunity.

Free schools embody the ultimate evolution of democracy. Functioning as the educational equivalent of a direct democracy, they encourage students to self-direct their learning and thus to own their learning experiences. By practicing an alternative pedagogy, free schools promote truly engaged citizenship, succeeding where traditional institutions flounder.

by Tess Duitschaever and Kiva Bottero

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