Revolution 101

Pub date January 11, 2011

CAREERS AND ED Of course, you could just stop paying for school all together. Instead of putting their hopes for the future of education behind state reinvestment in university systems, a group of SF radical intellectuals are seeking to revamp the definition of learning by introducing the Free University of San Francisco. The nascent institution holds its first teach-in Feb. 5-6.

“Education is revolution,” says the incubator of the Free University, writer and poet Alan Kaufman. This ain’t Kaufman’s first rodeo. In 2004, while an instructor at SF’s Academy of Art University, he organized a student walk-out to protest the school’s violations of free speech rights. Employed through a temporary contract with the academy, Kaufman was not hired back the next term.

For him, it was a wake-up call that the current university system was teaching for the wrong reasons, not the least of which was the hefty price tag for classes that left his pupils in poverty. One student, he said in a recent phone interview with SFBG, had been “starving before my eyes, surviving on Ramen Noodle Cups” — all she could afford on top of tuition fees. He gave her $60 for food. But it wasn’t enough. Something had to be done.

When asked what he thinks the point of education is, Kaufman barely hesitates. “Liberation, freedom.” The current trends of privatization in public colleges, coupled with soaring school fees that far outpace students’ budgets, is symptomatic of a system that, as he prettily puts it, “funnels hearts and minds into narrowing corridors of survival. Creating profits for the university — that is the end game.”

He’s not the only person who thinks so. Kaufman and other Free University supporters have organized a teach-in next month that will feature college-level lectures from leading Bay Area artists and intellectuals, including Beat poet and SF poet laureate Diane Did Prima, former president of the Board of Supervisors Matt Gonzalez, and Pirate Cat Radio’s Diamond Dave Whitaker. The courses are no-credit, but the event is a symbol that the current educational system isn’t fulfilling some basic student needs. Instructors will teach on subjects that range from 19th-century poetry to natural geography.

Eventually Kaufman he envisions an “actual mobile university” capable of bringing the possibility of a college education to places where such a thing might be considered unattainable. And it wouldn’t just be beneficial to students. Guest faculty could experience “a kind of cleansing,” a temporary return to their original ideal of academia.

Of course, there are a few — ahem — challenges involved in starting a school that has no tuition, teacher salaries, or even monetary donors (Kaufman says the Free University will accept gifts in the form of books or other resources, but no cash). University supporters have decided to eschew accreditation for now, and true to Kaufman’s nomadic vision of the school, no location for classes has been set. First the teach-in, Kaufman says, and based on feedback, the consensus-based, hierarchy-free project will take it from there. The idea of the Free University, it would seem, is the thing for now.

It’s been done before. In the wake of the French Revolution, France established its Grandes Écoles system, a 250-school system that remains for the large part, tuition-free. The East Bay Free Skool is one outlet in the Bay that offers skill training, gratis. So for all the pie-in-the-sky idealism involved, perhaps the true test of the Free University of San Francisco won’t be its creation at all — crazy things have happened, haven’t they? Instead, it may be the extent that humanist students can steel a harsh economic climate that tends to reward monetarily-driven educations.

So why would a student chuck their pursuit of an accredited degree to participate in an uncertain radicalization of education? “Would it have practical application in a corporatized universe? Good question!” Kaufman chuckles. He launches into a torrid Marxist prediction: that our patently unfair education system cannot stand. “The system must be changed. When the pain is bad enough, people start to change.” *


Feb. 5–6, 9 a.m.–5 p.m., free


998 Valencia, SF

(415) 374-7048