On Occupy’s ‘Free University’

by Charles C. W. Cooke

I have just returned from the May Day festivities in Madison Square Park, having attended a tediously earnest “Free University” class on “Horizontal Pedagogy,” and am struck by something that hadn’t really occurred to me the last time I wandered into an Occupy franchise — namely that the OWS brigade does not just wish to have others pay for their education, but wishes in parallel to establish a system of higher learning that essentially reduces teaching to therapy. Their own attempt at a university is a guide to what one could expect. Enroll, and be treated to classes on “(Meta-)Physical Therapy,” “Trauma and the Sociological Imagination,” “Latina Women,” “Nkrumah’s Consciencism and Senghor’s Negritude,” “Indegenous Wisdom,” the “Fiction of Men and Woman,” “Decolonizing the current environmental movement,” “Jacobinism and Black Jacobinism,” a tutorial on “What your doctor doesn’t know about food,” along with a “Protest Songwriting Workshop,” “Free yoga,” several poetry readings, a “Self-altering Democratizing Space,” and a “Radical recess area.” The only classic work I saw at the entire protest was George Orwell’s 1984, which was, without a trace of irony, placed under a flag emblazoned with a clenched first.

I am not sure quite what I expected. Perhaps I’d anticipated hearing stories about brilliant poor children who cannot go to the universities of their choice, or being told that America was falling behind in the world because student debt was crippling its finest minds, or maybe hearing older graduates describe the parlous state of their finances in this horrible recession. Instead, those who took part in the conversation at the same time as I did seemed hooked on a single, bizarre question, best distilled as, “Is the fact that some people possess differing levels of knowledge from others an unacceptable symptom of inequality?”

#more#This was not, as I initially assumed, a means of arguing that the educated are effectively disenfranchised, but instead the overture to an asinine debate about whether the very act of one man imparting knowledge to another is sufficiently hierarchical to be undesirable. One man even described the “traditional” means of conveying information to another as “intellectual violence.” His audience lapped it up; the consensus being that education would work better if we just shared our experiences with one another and valued each contribution equally. A woman who claimed to be a “radical teacher” added that each person should be free to absorb the facts that best fit his “narrative” without outside interference. This approach, it need not be affirmed, is the path not only to the establishment of 2 + 2 = 5 as a “truth” that stands on equal footing to 2 + 2 = 4, but to the labeling of anyone who has the temerity to disagree as a bigot.

To her immense credit, one girl — a student in her early twenties — kept pushing back at this idea. “I want to go to college to learn things,” she said. “I want to be taught by people who know more than me. That’s the point!” But she was alone, at least among the vocal. “Who are you to decide who knows more than someone else? Who are you to decide what is right and wrong?” came the replies. Well, she answered, “I’m a physics major. My teacher does know more than me.” At this there was a moment of welcome silence — and then she blanched at all the attention her apostasy was inviting and asked the mediator to change the topic, which he did.

The rebellion having been crushed in the name of “open dialogue,” a second theme reared its head — this one more heartening. After a brief conversation about class sizes, there was a general agreement that the overwhelming bureaucracy in education, the fetishization of standardized testing, and the insistence upon a national curriculum and one-size-fits-all approach to learning were all Bad Things. This is all well and good as far as it went, but the Occupiers seemed wholly incapable of making the logical link between those very real ills and their very real enablers — which are the Department of Education and the teachers’ unions. “Even the high schools have become a business,” a teacher said, indignantly. Actually, they have not become anything of the sort. The public schools are hamstrung by centralized regulation and a mindset that holds that more money and regulation is the answer to each and every problem. And bad teachers are kept in their positions by a system that puts their ability to teach at the bottom of the list of Things To Worry About. One man, who said he worked in a school, complained that there were “30 administrators for every teacher” and grumbled that the “idea that the teacher is the most important person in the school is a lie.” He has a point, but at whose feet does the blame for that lie fall? He described himself as a “progressive” — he might well invest in a mirror.

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