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(en) Canada, Toronto, alt. media, Anarchist Free University follow-up

From Dan Clore <clore@columbia-center.org>
Date Sat, 21 Feb 2004 09:46:28 +0100 (CET)


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The Eyeopener Online - Different school of thought The Anarchist Free University
offers students a free alternative to traditional academic institutions.
Just before 7 p.m. on a Thursday evening, a small group of students begins
to gather in the tiny front room of Uprising Books on Kensington Avenue. They
shuffle quietly out of their winter coats and into the small space that seems to
shrink as each body claims a seat. These are students of the Anarchist Free University.
In a soft-spoken Hungarian accent, Jozsef Hadarits addresses
his Frontiers of Knowledge class, introducing the text they
will be discussing: Heisenberg's Recognitions, The end of
the scientific world view.

"Okay, to start, who was Heisenberg?" Hadarits asks.

This sentence kicks off a dialogue that ends up flowing
seamlessly throughout the entire two-hour class. As the
discussion bounces around the room -- gathering momentum at
some points and slowing to a quiet pause at others --
different thoughts and ideas are presented, questioned,
contested and explored. It is difficult to distinguish the
students in the class from the facilitator. This is one of
the fundamental differences between AnarchistU and other
institutions.

There are no teachers, assignments or tests at the Anarchist
Free University and you can't earn credits or a degree.
Instead, classes are run by a facilitator who organizes the
course content and moderates the discussion.

Hadarits, 39, earned his PhD in history before moving to
Toronto from Hungary two years ago. He says he enjoys
facilitating at AnarchistU because it allows him to explore
a wide range of topics in an open setting.

"It's rather like guiding discussion, compared to
traditional teaching in schools. It's more about personal
opinions and comparing different views, and less about final
truths and objective knowledge that you need to acquire just
to pass the exam," he says.

AnarchistU first started holding classes last fall in
various locations around Toronto.

"It started with a group of interested and dedicated
left-leaning, activist-oriented individuals who got together
and decided that there's a place in Toronto for an
alternative form of education," says Chris Smith, one of the
school's facilitators and co-founders. He says the idea was
to create a school for people who are interested in learning
outside of a typical university setting.

"The education system in Canada really does alienate and
marginalize a high faction of very, very bright and highly
intelligent kids who, for one reason or another, refuse to
conform to traditional methods of education," he says.

Smith, 25, is currently working towards a master's degree in
cultural communications, a joint program between Ryerson and
York University. He recognizes a paradox in his situation:
He has spent many years attending traditional universities
-- he earned his undergraduate degree from Trent University
before moving on to Ryerson and York -- and is now
facilitating classes at a school that rejects many of the
ideas these institutions embody in their teaching methods
and in their operation. However, this paradox gives Smith a
broader perspective on education, he says.

"Conventional institutional academic life for me has been
good, if only as a site of resistance; as something to rub
up against and refute and reject," he says. "I've come to
realize that I'm going to be involved with these systems and
institutions in order to inspire change."

Although AnarchistU is founded on different principles than
those at Ryerson and York, Smith says there are still some
parallels between the school he facilitates at, and the
schools he attends as a student.

"In some respects, we have borrowed the structure of the
traditional university," he says, such as the September to
April, two-semester school year. "We have selectively
retained some elements, adamantly rejected other elements."

These rejected elements include an emphasis on test scores
and GPAs, the typical hierarchical set-up found in most
universities and, of course, the tuition fees.

But although AnarchistU does not charge tuition, the word
"free" in their name is not solely a reference to cost.

Erik Stewart, a 36-year-old student and co-founder of
AnarchistU explains, "the reason we call it a free school is
that a traditional free school is an institution where
students are self-directed," he says.

He mentions examples like Summerhill School in Dresden and
The Modern School at Stelton in New Jersey. Both schools
were founded with the aim of providing a self-governing,
community-based learning environment.

This is also what AnarchistU aims to offer its students.

"We try to encourage a positive, nurturing and open learning
environment," says Smith.

However, these are not words that are commonly associated
with the stereotypical notions of anarchy.

"[The word anarchy] conjures up images of black-clad kids at
protests, throwing bricks at police," Smith says.

He acknowledges that having such a heavy and ambiguous word
in their name could mislead, or even dissuade potential
students from learning more about the school. However, Smith
says one of their mandates is to raise awareness about the
theoretical side of anarchy, while dispelling myths and
stereotypes that overshadow the ideas behind the word.

"It's part of our agenda to normalize and defamiliarize
people's biases about anarchy," he says.

But anarchy can be a difficult term to define, says Stewart.
"Even within this school," he says, "there are different
definitions of anarchy."

But Smith and Stewart say decentralized organization,
consensus decision-making and a non-hierarchical structure
in the classroom are three ideas rooted in anarchist thought
that have influenced the structure of the school.

At AnarchistU's general meeting, about 12 people gather in a
large room on the third floor of This Ain't the Rosedale
Library bookstore on Church Street. Students, facilitators
and organizers casually sit on wooden park benches arranged
in a circle. Here, all decisions are made by consensus and
there is no central figure in charge.

AnarchistU's physical structure mimics its decentralized
administrative structure. Classes are held in spaces, like
this one, above bookstores, in community centres and in
people's living rooms throughout Toronto: Wherever free
space is available where people can get together to discuss
ideas. Courses offered include Radical Perspectives on
Sexuality, Chaos Theory, and The Situationist International
and the Contemporary Capitalist Cityscape.

At this month's meeting on Feb. 15, AnarchistU student Chris
Bowen, 22, presented his proposal for a course he wants to
facilitate next semester about the history of elites.
Courses are selected based on these presentations and, like
all decisions, accepted or rejected on a consensus basis.

Bowen has been a student at the Anarchist Free University
since January. So far, he says, he has loved the experience.

"Going to a traditional university didn't appeal to me at
all, but I still love learning and education. I found this,
and it just seems to fit with me," he says. "The whole idea
of just learning for the sake of learning is what I love."

This is one of the ideas AnarchistU strives to stay true to.

"We're taking away those elements of school that take away
from learning," Smith says.

After less than a full school year, the school is already
generating significant interest. Smith says that a growing
number of people are looking to get involved as students,
facilitators, or even as founders of their own university.

"I want people to see that they can do this if they really
want to," Smith says. "All it really takes is the dedication
and commitment of a few people."

Smith is hoping the momentum the school has picked up so far
will continue to carry it forward.

"We're hoping to shift responsibilities and watch it take on
a life of its own, without us holding it up," he says.
By: Alison Northcott


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