posted 2012-10-05 23:09:45

Free University Returns to Madison Square Park

A sign created during Free University in Madison Square Park. Photo by Jenady Garshofsky
Radical thought carries the education movement foward

By Jenady Garshofsky, Editor-in-Chief

Students sitting on a park bench attentively listened to a lecture on the history of anarchism, simultaneously a small group of people mounted themselves in various yoga positions next to the Admiral David Farragut monument. From Sep. 18 to 22, students participated in scheduled workshops and lectures inside Madison Square Park for “Free University,” an educational strike aimed at creating free education in public places without the high costs and the sanctioned curriculum associated with higher education.


Organizers from CUNY schools and the Graduate Center scheduled over 160 workshops and lectures during the five-day period for students, faculty and the community. Most scheduled events focused largely on radical ideas and theories. According to Free University’s mission statement, their collective education experiment aims “to intentionally and conscientiously create educational spaces that are anti-oppressive, anti-racist, and anti-authoritarian.” Free University also actively challenged the definition of what it means to be an educator and student, asserting that participating in the education system is to “be a cooperative enterprise working for a new form of education.”


“Free University has been trying to provide an education movement here, a place to gather and reflect as well as also offer visions for how we can make a strong student and education movement in the city,” said Conor Tomas Reed, a student and educator at CUNY, and a member of the Free University coordinating team.


Free University also worked as a platform to criticize decisions affecting education at CUNY, such as the recent tuition hikes, and the embattled Pathways initiative, which homogenizes general education requirements at CUNY. “I think that the future of CUNY is definitely one that is being actively contested right now. We saw that with Queensborough Community College’s English department being threatened,” Reed said, referring to a recent email QCC administrators sent threatening the effective disbandment of the QCC English department over their unwillingness to accept Pathways.


Mariya Abramenko, a sophomore at John Jay College, mentioned that Free University was an example of how education can be free. “Colleges shouldn’t charge this much for school. It’s so easy for classes to be set up and for people to teach each other,” Abramenko said. “It is possible to teach and learn without paying thousands of dollars.”


Free University returned to Madison Square Park after a successful trial last May, when over 2,000 participants attended dozens of classes during a five-hour- span. The second time around, the five day education experiment started the morning after Occupy Wall Street’s one-year anniversary, to continue direct action and exist in solidarity with striking teachers in Chicago, students in Quebec, union workers at Hot & Crusty, and other struggles occurring nationally and globally.


Becky Fullan, a 30-year-old studying at the Graduate Center, manned the care station located at the south end of the park. The care station served as an open space for people to relax between lectures, draw, write or just exist in a safe space. “I think [Free Uuniversity] is back because it’s not a single event. It’s a way of envisioning and imagining how education can work.”


Some classes included: Class Struggle, Socialism and Revolution led by the Workers World Party, Screen Printing with Occupy Wall Street Screen Print Coop, STRIKE DEBT: Five Theses on Debt led, On Disasters and Encampments, Feminist Theory, and Cop Watch training led by People’s Justice.


Michael Parker, a member of the Free University outreach and press group talked positively about the future of Free University. “Last year was successful. That is the reason why we decided to expand the event and expand the Free University model.” Parker hoped people would participate in events and create an interest to help with future events.


At the start of Free University, Madison Square Park was barricaded, but it was later revealed that the NYPD barricades were installed for an event across the street at the 40/40 club where President Barack Obama was scheduled to attend a fund raising event with Jay-Z and Beyonce. Information tables were banned from within the park, and so was the use of chalk, but otherwise Reed said that the park staff and police have been “very amicable.”

Free University was not permitted and organizers did not contact the police ahead of time. Reed felt that organizers did “not need to seek legitimacy from authorities and police,” in order to hold free radical education in the park. Reed also added that one of the messages that Free University was trying to convey was that people can transform their own public spaces and “create their own legitimacy.”


“The work that the community is doing around free radical education is something that is not a danger or a threat. Its really a wonderful contribution that the city should welcome,” Reed said.