Ithaca Free School

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Marginally Connected Thoughts

A little ex tempore squib I worked up for the newsgroup. I post it here lightly edited for anyone who reads this and isn't on the list.

By the way, let me know if you want to be on the list or know someone else who wants to be. It's open to all.

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Since a lot of the immediate school protocol is taken care of on the weblog and face-to-face, I thought it might be interesting to use this forum to talk about aims, ideas, and theories of this project. Hopefully this will be thought provoking and useful even to those who are barred by schedules, disinclinations, or geography from actually participating in school classes.
A few things to discuss are social divisions, organizational practice & aims of service. I'm going to feel free to write informally here, since I am just trying to communicate some of the things I have been thinking about and to stimulate some discussion on them.
Social divisions. Our society thrives on divide and conquer. These binaries are encoded into our lives from the beginning and we live them out every day in how we live and interact with people. The ones that are the most obvious in my life are rich/poor, liberal/conservative, old/young, town/gown, black/white, male/female, gay/straight, educated/uneducated, parent/childless, married/single, employed/unemployed. That's just off the top of my head, I am sure there are more. These divisions are used to make sure that people cannot combine their power effectively. We see glaring evidence of this in the current rhetoric of America as split between Jesusland and the United States of Canada. Well, I am convinced that political action has to happen in the field of the social, and that means that social forms that are coercive, exploitative or in some other way recapitulate the logic of the dominant order have to be examined and changed. What does this have to do with school? I think that interest in learning crosses these dividing lines, and consequently permits people to see what they have in common. We're also so much locked into our own social routines, whether they are work, the bar, our little group of friends, or our families, that we rarely meet new people and thus fail to make the kinds of deep social connections out of which the possibility of meaningful action can grow. I know this isn't necessarily the most lucid treatment of the problem, but as I said I'm just trying to get some ideas out there.
Organizational practice. By keeping everything open to the public and non-centralized, I hope that eventually the school will be perceived as the province of no one in particular and open to everyone in general. As the idea evolves we may have to think about different ways of distributing news of classes, schedule changes, and so forth. Rather than an institution, the aim is a new kind of social logic that makes connecting people easier. Eventually, then, the ideal would be a constant roster of classes, announced and open to anyone interested, as well as possibly a "Wants" list, kind of like carpool boards or something like that... wherein one could advertise one's interest in a group (which only means two or more people) interested in whatever subject. My wants list right now is Pound, the Transcendalists, Dante, Das Kapital, and on and on. Getting to this point is difficult if only because our participation is so limited that the organization is necessarily centralized. But I am trying to imagine what a fully realized non-centralized and non-authoritarian structure would look like in practice -- and want to help other people imagine it too.
Aims of service. This connects with division, above. Who do we want to reach out to? This project started in some ways by realizing that those of us not in school still have plenty of learning to do, that this idea of alienated learning time between the ages of 5 and either 18 or 22 depending on your financial ability, after which you will know everything you need to know, is bogus. Christopher and I started first with the aim of reading all of Shakespeare, and then subsequently to read various ancient writers, of whom I was almost totally ignorant either in the original or in translation, since Greek and Latin are effectively not taught in this country. So, this longwinded apostrophe aside, the point was that plenty of people not in school are still interested in learning. I want to set up a program where working people, parents, children, homeschoolers, unschoolers, public schoolers, anyone interested and underserved, can participate. If nothing else it may help remind people that they are not only their jobs or their responsibilities. And apart from culture as political awareness or self improvement there is also the idea of a more refined leisure. There is no reason why people can't have fun studying, say, geometry, or Chaucer (I'll excuse those who beg off on geometry, but it is actually kind of fun, and I speak as a lifetime mathphobe). The fact is that people have learned that these things are boring, usually because they were inflicted on them in school, and so the very mention of them is a turnoff. The social form in which events take place is much more important, especially in early life, than what is nominally being taught. In public schools one is learning primarily punctuality, obedience, servility, alienation of interest from pursuits -- and only secondarily whatever the subject of the course is. I'd like people to be able to say, "Oh, what should we do tonight? There's a Free School class..." the same way that one elects to go to a movie, or the bar.
Well, these ideas are much easier for me to talk out then to try to get down in writing, but I wanted to put some things in circulation and get some feedback.

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