Ithaca Free School

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

IFS: A Primer

Herewith, an article I banged together on the free school for the next issue of Fluffy & Spiky. More half-baked social-political-educational ranting. Any feedback is welcomed.



Ithaca Free School: A Primer

“We hope it will not be unconsidered, that we finde no open tract, or constant manuduction in this Labyrinth; but are oft-times fain to wander in the America and untravelled parts of Truth....”
–Pseudodoxia Epidemica, Sir Thomas Browne

The Ithaca Free School has been holding classes since December of 2004. From the first we committed to hold classes in private homes and public places which would be free of charge and open to anyone with an interest in the subject matter. Through the winter our course offerings and attendance have steadily grown. We now have twelve classes as well as a weekly potlatch. As the weather improves I hope that we will develop more classes and meet more new people who wish to study with us.

I have often thought of writing a document to explain the intentions behind the school, its philosophy and its long-term goals. The task has stymied me again and again because I could not seem to limit the scope of what I have to say on the subject. I have therefore settled on a simple scheme: to consider, in turn, each of the terms that make up the name, Ithaca Free School. Each one of these words represents part of what the undertaking has meant for me.

One more thing: another reason I held off on writing a document of this kind is that I have not wanted to appear to be the voice of the school. I hope that you will therefore keep in mind that the contents of this essay represent my own opinions and not necessarily those of any other school participants.


Ithaca is where I live. If you are reading this, you probably live here too. Therefore it is the ground on which we stand and the place from which we start. Even if you see yourself as a transient here, it is nonetheless where you are for now. This is the place where we labor, love, play, sleep, and dream. It may be where our children are born; it may be where we die. It is where we see, or fail to see, other people every day.

My thinking about political action has led me to believe that the best work that I can do is in the realm of the social. The realm of the social is, by and large, local. If you cherish radical ideals but fail to enact them in your daily life, then what are they but words? More specifically, if you can critique the means by which this society promotes division between people in order to guard its own power, but fail to combat those divisions as they arise in your own daily life and business, what is the use of your politics?

The Roman maximum Divide et impera cited by Machiavelli has been a guiding principle of empires for thousands of years. Divide and conquer is not only a method for triumphing over external foes but also for controlling the domestic population. If each is separate from each and everyone carries on their business in isolation and solitude, then our formal rights of assembly don’t amount to a hill of beans. We have no political power as people because we fail to organize ourselves, and we furthermore fail to recognize that this impoverishment of our social lives is part of the political logic of our society. More particularly, it is the logic of even a nominally liberal town like Ithaca. The binaries of male & female, gay & straight, rich & poor, right & left, black & white, old & young, town & gown, and so forth, are encoded into our lives from early on and condition how we live and interact with people every day. Therefore, if we wish to have a hope of real political change we have to devise new social forms that do not recapitulate the divisive logic of the dominant order.

What does all this have to do with school? I think that an interest in learning has the ability to cross these dividing lines and allow people to see what they have in common. It also creates a new social network which may be a way to break people out of their rigid social routines of work, family, and closed cliques of friends. We are usually so caught up in these social concerns 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.

Apart from these general considerations, Ithaca is itself a unique place for an experiment in education and community. From the league of the Haudenosaunee and Sullivan’s campaign to the burned-over district and Joseph Smith, all the materials for a study of the recent history of this continent are close to hand. Between Cornell, Ithaca College, and the other local institutions the area is already dedicated to education. The town is full of people with a passion for learning, who can potentially share their knowledge with those eager to learn, and thereby make a social connection as well. Hopefully, with so many people of diverse achievements and specialities, participants in the Free School may “procure, as often as shall be needful, the helpful experiences of hunters, fowlers, fisherman, shepherds, gardeners, apothecaries; and in the other sciences, architects, engineers, mariners, anatomists; who doubtless would be ready... to favor such a hopeful seminary.”

There are so many interesting things going on in this town, and to my knowledge there is very little synthesis of these trends into a unified community of unorthodox learning. The Free School would ideally offer such a synthesis.Free

The talk of developing communities above leads me to the question of what communities are, and how they can be made to grow. In my view it is not enough that we merely live alongside one another. Insofar as it is possible we must seek to develop bonds of kinship, commitment, and affection.

In his book The Gift, Marcel Mauss discusses the idea of a gift as a fact which organizes around itself a social unity of generosity, obligation, and reciprocity. As against exchange economies, where one’s obligation begins and ends with money paid for goods and services, or services and goods rendered for money, the gift received is also an obligation to return a gift. An economic fact is therefore a social fact, and economic life becomes an integral part of social life

If you do something for free, you do it out of love and conviction. You strike against the prevailing logic of greed which organizes this society. You also inaugurate a form of the gift economy which promotes different kinds of exchange. If therefore you make a gift of your knowledge, knowledge may be given to you. And what better way to build a local economy and community than with local connections, commitments, and voluntary obligations?

As I observed above, Ithaca is already a center of education. But by and large it is an education for those who can pay. To say free means that we do not base the right of people to learn upon their financial standing. It is my hope that the school will be able to serve as diverse a population as possible, including those who are currently underserved by existing educational institutions. Our students currently include homeschoolers, full-time workers, single parents, and self-employed people. I would love to see more people who are unable to attend other kinds of schools whether for financial or scheduling reasons join our classes. Not only does this involve many people in education that they would otherwise not have the chance to enjoy, it also promotes connections across those dividing lines that I discussed above.

Finally, free means not only without cost, but without compulsion from above. We have thus far maintained a decentralized learning structure and a decentralized organization. We’d like to see whether or not one can learn difficult subjects without teachers, using only the knowledge of the members of the group to determine both the direction of study and the pedagogical method. Whether these sorts of organizational structures are practicable is uncertain, but we will not know unless we try.

By keeping all of our courses and meetings free, non-centralized and open to the public, I hope that eventually the school will be perceived as the common property of everyone who participates in it. Rather than an institution, we aim to develop a new kind of social logic that makes connecting people easier. Eventually, then, the ideal would be a constant roster of classes, initiated by someone, announced to everyone, and open to anyone. We are trying to imagine what a fully realized non-centralized and non-authoritarian structure would look like in practice; and we want to help other people imagine it too


Education is always radical; it goes to the root. When we educate people, even ourselves, we are always making or remaking them. The question is, toward what end? For those of us who have passed through the mills of compulsory primary and secondary education, the answer would appear to be: social conditioning. As we all recall, or choose to forget, school consists primarily of getting young people used to boredom, routines, and obedience, so they will be ready for jobs which consist of boredom, routines and obedience. The social form of education, or of anything else, is at least as important as the content of a course. If you accustom people not to seek to understand why they are learning what they are learning, then you are conditioning them to be obedient listeners. Education is therefore a training ground for the sorts of workers employers want, and the sorts of citizens governments want. As Aldous Huxley wrote in Brave New World Revisited, “children are nowhere taught, in any systematic way, to distinguish true from false, or meaningful from meaningless, statements. Why is this so? Because their elders, even in the democratic countries, do not want them to be given this kind of education.”

We are always, then, educating for or towards. Current educational practice educates towards the finished project of a worker ready for a life of alienated labor. What, then, can we say that our educational project is for or towards? I for one see education as the means by which to imagine a new culture and a new civilization. We are mired in a dark time full of lies. Education can help people to perceive when they are being lied to and what the reasons are for the deceptions. It can also form part of a long-term project for the development of a culture grounded in sustainability, generosity, and compassion rather than waste, greed and war.

Is it not possible to assert that we are educating toward the fulfillment of a person’s greatest potential as a human being? If people seek to learn, it means that they have not given up the desire to be more than they are. Likewise, a culture which seeks to learn is still looking for a better way. The country at large seems largely self-satisfied, despite the mounting political, military, and ecological catastrophes If we are ever to imagine different ways of living and organizing they must be through education. We have to think through these problems, find what is useful in our culture for the current struggle, and use what we have to fulfill the old Wobbly motto and build the new world in the shell of the old.


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