No Grades, No Masters
- News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
"No grades, No masters"
By Rebecca Lerner
Inside the cozy, olive-green living room of an Aurora Street home, on a
recent cold and rainy night 17 friends and strangers munched on a
potluck dinner of squash soup, nacho chips and guacamole. Old-time music
played softly in the background. A thirty-something man with a bushy
beard and a bandana sat on the hardwood floor with his legs crossed. A
19-year-old woman, stylishly dressed, perched on a couch.
The event, billed as a "pep rally," was part social meet-and-greet, part
brainstorming session for a revolutionary community project called the
"Ithaca is full of people with amazing talents and amazing knowledge,"
said Dirk Trachy, one of the Freeskool's founders. "All of us have
things we can teach each other."
The Freeskool is an informal network of courses taught by anyone, for
anyone, about almost anything, held almost anywhere, for free. It's
built on the idea that people have a natural urge to teach and learn
together, and that that simple desire is enough to create a valuable
educational experience -- no teacher certification or diploma needed.
In other words, the Freeskool is built on a kind of wiki mentality, a
grassroots model of collectivism that operates outside of the state-run
and for-profit institutions.
This semester, the third since the Freeskool's inception in March,
courses include a radical history reading group, a home beer-making
workshop, a writing class, laughter yoga sessions and social detox, and
a men's anti-sexist discussion group. (Calendars with dates and times
can be found in a variety of locations, including GreenStar, the ABC
Cafe, the Tompkins County Public Library, and online at:
"The Freeskool is inherently against compulsory education," said Biz
Miller, a co-founder. "It's pro the happiness of learning. It's against
trying to crush that in people. I think a lot of [conventional] school
does that, crushes what you're really interested in."
The intentional misspelling of "school" is a reference to an ideological
alliance with counterculture values; the prefix "free" indicates both
the absence of a monetary exchange and the power dynamic between
teachers and students, the aim of which is egalitarianism.
The Freeskool motto is "No grades, no masters," a play on the historical
anarchist slogan, "No gods, no masters."
"It's sort of an ingrained thing when you're in [traditional] school,
that you have to respect the teacher," said Miller, who is a certified
elementary school teacher. "They're just in a position of authority,
instead of a position of equality, which is what the Freeskool has.
"In the Freeskool, it's not like there has to be a transfer of knowledge
from the master to the student. Someone can be called a facilitator
instead of teacher -- they don't have to be the one who has the
knowledge. The knowledge can be built by the group.
"It's about learning through experience and learning through interacting
with other people. You can expect a certain casual atmosphere," Miller said.
At a class called Anarchy and Spirituality, which meets in the basement
of the Unitarian Universalist Church on Buffalo Street on Sunday
afternoons, a teacher who goes by the name Meghan Veracious is sprawled
out on a couch, her head propped up on an arm. The class, which numbers
three students, is preparing to read "The Earth Path" by Starhawk. But
first, Veracious wants to get a consensus on that plan. There are other
options, including Eckhart Tolle's "A New Earth: Awakening To Your
Life's Purpose" and Derrick Jensen's "A Language Older Than Words." The
class is at the very beginning of its semester, and the structure still
needs to be worked out.
"There's no set format," Veracious says. "Each class is different. We're
creating it as we go."
The students, who are also sitting on cushy sofas, say they want to open
the session by "checking in," which means sharing their feelings on how
life is going at the moment, along with any suggestions or concerns they
may have about how the next two hours should proceed.
A conflict arises when one student proposes skipping around between
chunks of each book, as the others find that approach too unfocused.
"It just doesn't feel good to me. I think I'd rather be in the space of
a book . . . dive into it," Veracious says.
Yet because the class is committed to an anti-authoritarian model,
Veracious declines to impose a curriculum. Instead, a class discussion
ensues. Each person has a chance to express their views as the others
listen silently, occasionally gesturing their approval or disapproval
with hand signals. Thumbs-up indicates agreement, thumbs-down is
vehement opposition, and thumbs-sideways means more talking is needed.
The skipping around proponent concedes, saying, "My learning is
different from y'all's, but I can respect that . . . I'm comfortable
with going at the pace you all are comfortable with."
A middle-aged man with a bald pate leans back with his hands clasped
over his stomach.
An hour passes before the conversation finally shifts to philosophy and
spirituality. A flaw in the consensus model is its potential to be
prohibitively tedious, especially with larger class sizes. The Anarchy
and Spirituality students, however, seem to think it's worth the delay.
"You're going to the class because you want to learn something, and
you're actually going to get more out of it because of that. No one's
forcing you to do it," said Miller, who did not attend the class.
The Freeskool is expanding in popularity, thanks both to word-of-mouth
and fliers advertising the calendar around the city. At the pep rally,
several participants, such as barrista Casie Ryan, said they came on a whim.
"I'm interested in getting involved more in what the community has to
offer me, and this seemed like a positive outlet," she said.
Organizers plan to add more classes before next semester, which begins
in February. Possible offerings include windowsill gardening, women's
health, carving and wilderness survival.
Thus far, classes have been adults-only, but the Freeskool may offer
classes for children in the future.
"The Freeskool is just what people put into it," said Ryan lover-Owens,
a black-clad twenty-something who modeled the social detox class on a
similar group he created at Antioch College. "I'm really excited --
there are so many things I want to learn, it's crazy."
Freeskools exist in Olympia, Washington, Santa Cruz, California, and
Portland, Oregon. Freeskools can be traced back to the anarchist Modern
School, stated by Francisco Ferrer in Spain in the early 1900s.
The Ithaca Freeskool has roots in Santa Cruz, where Trachy took a "trash
orchestra" class on how to make music with objects foraged from the
garbage. Inspired, Trachy worked with Clover-Owens, his roommate, and
Miller, a friend, to bring the Freeskool to Ithaca. It began this winter
as an e-mail listserv and caught on from there, growing into a Web site
and print calendar funded by organizers' pocket change and occasional
benefits, such as a pep rally type event at the ABC Café this spring.
The organizers insist that they take a hands-off approach to the nuts
and bolts of the Freeskool, acting only as calendar-makers and course
screeners. They are careful to separate their own political views from
that of the Freeskool itself, which they consider to be more or less
"All the teachers teach very different things and have very different
ideologies," Clover-Owens said. "Just the idea that learning is fun and
that it should just be a community process -- that's all that really
unifies it. We're not really much of an organization."
While anyone can teach, regardless of qualifications, the Freeskool does
have a few prohibitions in the form of ethical guidelines. It explicitly
disallows classes that promote racism, sexism or homophobia, and any
other agenda deemed hostile to the social justice mission.
"We aren't really into the idea of business owners having classes to
advance their business," Miller said.
The project seems uniquely at home in Ithaca, a city with two
universities and a multitude of progressively minded intellectuals.
The broad-based support here for local, sustainable goods also bodes
well for the Freeskool, which can be thought of as a kind of educational
thrift shop, cycling information through the community.
The key advantage of a populist enterprise like the Freeskool is that
someone like Tim Brown, a primitive skills expert with no formal teacher
training, can lead a class on storytelling, which he hopes to do.
"Storytelling is forgotten, and it's such a human experience, and to not
have the skills, or to be raised in a culture that doesn't honor the
skills and honor the art of it, it's just such a loss," Brown said. "It
works an imaginative part of your mind that's vital to humans."
But there are downsides to such an open-ended, takes-all-kinds approach
to education: most notably, the lack of quality control.
Without standards for teaching or controls in place to maintain the
integrity of subject matter, there is the potential for truth to be
compromised. Accuracy is not guaranteed. Wikipedia, for example, an
Internet-based encyclopedia that operates out of the same collectivist
ideals, has had trouble with false entries written by the ill-informed
and just plain mischievous.
Miller said the Freeskool has not yet encountered any problems, but said
organizers have regular meetings and would, if problems arose, work to
come to a consensus on how to proceed.
Trachy is optimistic.
"Freeskool is kind of an idea to help bust people out of social
isolation and cliquishness," he said. "It's very kindergarten, a
common-sense sort of thing. People help each other learn."
My collected fiction: _The Unspeakable and Others_
Lord Weÿrdgliffe & Necronomicon Page:
News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
Skipper: Professor, will you tell these people who is
in charge on this island?
Professor: Why, no one.
Skipper: No one?
Thurston Howell III: No one? Good heavens, this is anarchy!
-- _Gilligan's Island_, episode #6, "President Gilligan"