2003-09-11 00:00:00

Under the trees at Anarchist U

Rating: NNNNN

Strangely enough, I'm at orientation. The campus, for today, is the valley in Trinity Bellwoods Park, and the itinerary mostly involves lounging and eating veggie dogs. I'm sitting in the shade with Luis, soon to be one of my professors. "There will always be people who are interested in this kind of spirit," he states serenely as we watch a nearby game of soccer. "A spirit that's non-hierarchical and about community instead of profit." He's not talking about the game - though he could be, since it's played with no apparent teams or rules, only the refreshingly simple love of movement across a field. He's referring to the spirit he teaches in, which stands in bold opposition to the "school spirit" touted at most universities.

Conventional school spirit drives people to tag a rival college with graffiti declaring that its level of sucking or rocking has a direct inverse relationship to their college's level of sucking or rocking. "It's easy to see what that's tied up with," says Luis with a nod. "It's preparing people for nationalism."

No one's pulling rank here, though. Within 10 minutes of my arrival, someone suggests I teach a course next term. If I'd been at U of T he probably would have just painted me orange. But this is the Anarchist Free University. The campus is portable, soon to spread across community centres and bookstores. There is no registrar's office, only http://anarchistu.org. And, as the cover of the class schedule says, we are all students and we are all teachers.

Upon reflection, I realize that this holds true almost universally; school is generally the one holdout. Egerton Ryerson once said of learning, "It is as necessary as the light - it should be as common as water, and as free as air." It's hard to argue with that. Schools toss a wrench into the picture by saying one type of learning is more valuable than others, thereby convincing people to pay (in autonomy or money) for knowledge. I suppose next they'll be expecting us to pay for bottled water.

But there is one thing universities can theoretically get you: a degree, to get the job to make the money you need to pay for the degree you got to get the job. Anarchist U has no illusions of replacing the bigger schools in this way, but it does promise to deliver "teachers as resources rather than authoritarian figures."

Most classes still have proposed weekly schedules. A lack of power structures doesn't mean the total absence of structure, just a relaxing of it. Course requirements for the class on the Russian Revolution are to be figured out collectively in the first class. For Radical Perspectives On Sexuality there is a nominal fee for course materials, but the course Web page states that "no one should be dissuaded from taking a course because they can't afford the materials."

Other courses offered in the fall term are Art And Collaborative Approaches, Experimental Literature, Forecasting The Future and Politics Through The Media. There is no syllabus on anarchism - the school is about fostering a community of seekers, not imparting ideology. But regardless of what classes they choose, students will experience anarchy. At most universities, students can look forward to scads of security keeping them out when they want to say their piece to the bankers on the board of governors. At the Anarchist U, decision-makers are as accessible as picking up a phone, or looking in a mirror.

It's a refreshing way of doing things, considering that the 30-some students and facilitators already involved range from high school kids to professors or MA students. Luis himself has a degree in semiotics from U of T. "It was really interesting," he says, "but it's also something you can pick up on your own."

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