My growing ennui with university started concidentially with the beginning of my tenure as Editor In Chief of The Varsity. Of course, I used to go to class, but I don’t do that anymore. I also used to hand in assignments, know my T.A.s’ first names, and buy the course books more than 48 hours before a final exam. I’ve been at U of T for (god, can it be?) five years now, with one credit to go in a seemingly endless journey towards graduation. But when finishing school at the absolute worst time to graduate in recent history, what does my degree mean as an experience and of itself?
As number 993863574, a cog among 60,000—U of T’s looming fear of individualism has created a discontent in students once qualified by novelist David Foster Wallace as a “stomach-level sadness.” Student apathy is of course the hot-button on every admin’s lips, from UTSU execs (welcome, President Hudson), to registrar talking heads, to David Naylor himself. But what are we so damn apathetic about? “Obviously, many of our experiences in a regular school setting are experiences of hierarchy and submission to authority,” reflects visual artist Luis Jacob, a Semiotics graduate and founder of the Anarchist Free University. “One basic idea around the Free University is that ‘we are all students, we are all teachers,’ which means that we all have something to learn from one another, and we each have something to offer to others. The Free University runs according to anarchist ideas of equality and mutuality, as well as offering courses whose content deals with anarchist ideas of history.”
In response to his activist work with both the Anarchist Collective in 1998 (who met at an “Active Resistance” gathering that summer), and legendary “Who’s Emma” bookstore in Kensington Market, Jacob (alongside other community members) helped found an education system in which everyone could teach each other about issues of political agency and power. Instead of sinking hundreds into textbooks, and trying to learn in Con Hall classes crammed well into the thousands, Jacob’s university is free, open to the public, and discussion-based, with no recommended reading, grades, or assignments. Anyone can attend a lecture at Anarchist U, with 10-week courses taught by regular Torontonians, as opposed to tenure-track professors.
We’ve all heard the stories about friends at liberal arts colleges on the East Coast, studying what they want to study, in pass/fail environments with less pressure than the average undergrad here faces just by checking out a book at Robarts Library. But what Jacob’s model offers is an opposition within the superstructure itself. He came out of U of T and created a university of its own accord. Could AFU be a model to restructure the experience of learning for learning’s sake?
At the Toronto Free Gallery at Bloor and Lansdowne, a crowd of 20 gathers for the second instalment of Christian Whitall’s course, “Money Is All Around Us.” Making notes about the evils of consumerism on a laminated calendar taped to the wall, Whitall tries to facilitate a discussion about the nature of cash as an economic good. “What good is money except for doing lines of cocaine with rolled up dollar bills?” muses one greying pupil in a denim button-up shirt. A radical in tattered loafers interrupts to explain the transition of money from gold to dollars (“’Cause money doesn’t have to just be one thing…it can be like, loads of shit”), but stops halfway when he realizes he can’t articulate what he’s thinking. Thirty minutes later he rudely interrupts another speaker to continue his point.
Though the crowd of community members ranges from the baby-faced and shy, to the elderly and extroverted, I could’ve held the same sort of anti-capital convo while patrolling a Phish concert. Whitall wants us to identify why consumer objects hold power and status for capital gain, and what it is about society that requires any product to regulate itself, but the class seems stuck on the fact that inmates use cigarettes to barter sexual favours in the prison system. While I’m all for learning on equal footing, this lecture represents the worst of any university tutorial: uninformed, nonsensical, and a waste of time. It’s like that idiotic guy in your Contemporary Fiction class took over your entire lecture—and what’s worse, no one’s cutting him off. Is this really a model of progressive education?
Jacob warns me, “Anarchism is based on participation. Nothing happens if you don’t get involved; on the other hand, if you get deeply involved, it becomes a deeply meaningful thing for you. This applies in a collective project like the Free University, as it does in a regular school like U of T.” “My experiences at U of T were fairly normal. But what stands out as most memorable for me were those classes where my fellow students and I organized reading groups to help us get through the material we were studying in class. These groups led to a much deeper understanding of what we were reading, as well as profound friendships with people who otherwise would have been simply ‘classmates.’”
Any administrator will tell you that U of T can’t afford the small seminar classes that are liberal arts colleges’ bread and butter. And if self-directed exploration won’t get you into grad school, what’s the point? What U of T students must do is learn how to teach each other—regardless of GPAs, job prospects, or professor recommendations. For my first three years of university, I helped program free Friday films as part of the Cinema Studies’ Course Student Union. It was there that I got my real film education, discussing Hitchcockian shot scales and the novelty of Michael Hanneke narration with my friends. Through my peers enthusiasm and knowledge of film, I found myself wanting to learn more. I felt involved. I felt committed. And more importantly, I showed up, got involved, and learned—just as I’ve done after two years of editing The Varsity.
U of T as a hegemonic system doesn’t have get under your skin. We’re here to learn, but we’re also here for those necessary life experiences that don’t qualify under a bell curve. The ideal university allows for big dreams and qualitative education. It allows for space and rupture, to allow the individual to figure the framework to govern their own lives, just as effectively as the institution itself.