Can Free Schools Work?

By Gary Moffatt

Most of the material on Rochdale College is from an article I prepared for Alternate Society in 1971, which took material from previous articles by Brian Johnson, Steve Grant, Eric LeBourdais and Dennis Westley. Most of the U.S. material is from Kirkpatrick Sale’s book on the SDS.

A free school movement usually emerges when a ‘protest movement finds itself unable to change the policies of the state by such state-sanctioned procedures as protesting and lobbying. There was one in the mid-to-late sixties when we found ourselves unable to halt the war in Vietnam (or Canadian complicity therein) — attempts were made to get some sort of free school off the ground in virtually every major North American city and many smaller ones as well. I would estimate that those which got off the ground at all had an average lifespan of three years. Now that we are unable to stop Reagan’s arms escalation there seems to be another round of interest in free schools; I know of groups starting up a free school in Ottawa and a free university in Toronto (the distinction seems to be that a “free school” is run for and hopefully by young people still in the school system while a “free university” involves people of all ages and is not seen primarily as an alternative or supplement to attendance at a traditional school.) Before starting on another round of alternative education projects, it might be helpful to try to understand why few of the last round’s projects achieved long term success.

The concept of universities managed by the students and/or teachers therein is by no means novel; in the middle ages universities were run by guilds of masters or students (the students could fine a teacher for such offences as lecturing overtime, as well as deciding who would teach, if their guild was in control.) Such a system was suited to the needs of the only employer of university graduates, the Church, whose needs were met if the graduates could discourse learnedly about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Neither the humanities nor the sciences encompassed a large body of information, and as late as the 17th century it was possible for one individual, such as Francis Bacon, to possess a reasonably good understanding of every field of human knowledge.

However, the needs of the industrial revolution called for a more highly disciplined population; just as workers were herded from their cottage industries to work in factories, so were universities redesigned to services the needs of an elitist ruling class with the money and leisure to consume an education. It was this education which gave a relatively small number of people the necessary arrogance and sense of superiority to rule not only their own countries but colonial empires as well. Since experiencing discipline was considered a prerequisite to acquiring the credentials to mete it out to others, schools and universities had to be made into unpleasant places where students would learn to obey. Control was taken from the hands of the teachers and students and placed in that of administrators chosen by directors, most of whom owed their directorships to success in the business world.

By the 20th century automation was reducing the necessary amount of human toil, and allowing those who rebelled against exploitation of labour to leave the system came to be seen as a less expensive alternative to coercing them into participation. So a handful of free school experiments came to be tolerated; these schools removed some of the more disruptive and rebellious students from the system and made it easier to control the rest. The most famous of these experiments was Britain’s Summerhill, whose headmaster A.S. Neill wrote books and articles popularizing the revolutionary concept that students should have the option of attending or not attending classes; most would eventually start attending when they got bored doing nothing, and in any case producing well-adjusted young people is more important than cramming knowledge into them. Students also voted on living conditions at Summerhill, though they do not seem to have had much direct control over the content of the courses taught. Both primary and secondary level education was offered. Soon Neill’s writings were widely discussed among those dissatisfied with the school system, a variety of similar experiments were launched. But Summerhill collapsed shortly after Neill’s departure for the big open classroom in the sky, and most of the experiments modelled after it proved even more short-lived.

In Canada, for instance, we had Everdale Place, which evolved from a free school to a university with its own industries, and a free school run by the Society of Friends as part of their alternative community in Argenta BC. Argenta’s free school lasted about twenty years before succumbing to a failure to reach consensus between the students and the older community members over alcohol, drugs and premarital sex policies, compounded by tension between idealistic (and underpaid) teachers and students from upper middle class backgrounds who wished to retain many privileges they had enjoyed at home that were incompatible with the Argenta environment. Everdale lasted about half this time, and in its heyday provided copy for an excellent progressive education quarterly entitled This Magazine Is About Schools (when the Marxist viewpoint became dominant it changed its title to This Magazine and became just another leftist periodical.)

The free university movement was inspired more by events in the USA than in Europe. Students for a Democratic Society was founded in 1962, growing out of the perception that fundamental social changes is needed before such ideals as peace and black civil rights can be fulled. Discussion groups quickly formed on the major campuses; in the spring of 1964 a number of Berkeleyites created a New School, with courses such as “American History and the Growth of Empire,” “Dream Politics and the Cold War,” and “Problems of the City in Contemporary America.” The Free Speech Movement combined a successful sit-in with spontaneous seminars on a variety of topics, and by 1965 the idea of alternative, rather than merely reformed, universities began to be taken seriously. SDSers hammered out a concept of a “free educational atmosphere” whose features would include open admission, “relevant” courses, unrestricted curricula, community service and radical development. Local chapters were to set up their own universities and establish a communications net. Some of the schools offered only a handful of courses, others dozens; topics included Marx and Freud, a Radical Approach to Science, Ethics and Revolution, Life in Mainland China Today and Neighbourhood Organization and Nonviolence. Most schools asked no or token fees; almost anyone could teach and there were no restrictions on subject matter (a minority of places did discourage rightwing or pro-Establishment courses.) Film making, contemporary literature and “street poetry,” body movement and Karate, hippie culture and the student revolt, Zen Basketball, Paper Airplanes and People were among the courses advertised. The free universities encouraged students to take responsibility for their own needs and education, and stimulated potential radical organizers. By 1970 some 500 were estimated to be functioning, some already co-opted by existing universities or special interest groups although the majority retained the idea of resisting established institutions to the end.

Typical was the one organized by SDSers at the University of Pennsylvania on a $300 budget in 1966; starting out with a handful of courses on social change, within month it had dozen of courses and over a thousand members including college students, dropouts, community people and Leary disciples. Under the impetus of the free school, students began organizing projects in Philadelphia neighbourhoods, putting pressure on the university itself for educational reform, and researching the university’s complicity in the governmental war machine through its chemical and biological warfare research centre on the campus. Within a year, however, the university had lost its focus on political change as the original SDSers graduated, increasing influence fell to unradical university faculty members, the number of courses increased and the SDS connection was severed to be replaced by a broad-spectrum steering committee with disparate political views. By 1968 only 15% of the courses were political and the university promised to run courses of its own along similar lines if the student government took over. With the original radicalism gone there was little resistance to this liberal swallow-up.

Other free universities suffered similar fates, with liberal administrators using their rhetoric, analysis and sometimes manpower to co-opt their programs and establish elitist forms of “experimental” colleges inside of, although quarantined from, the existing educational system. Liberal student organizations sae depoliticized free universities as agents of reform within the university system, and in 1968 the Ford Foundation gave a $305,000 grant for this purpose. The SDS began to sour on the free universities in early 1967 because they were taking activists away from the existing campuses, and the organization’s ultimate adoption of violent revolutionary rhetoric terminated its empathy with this form of social reform.

Nonetheless, the free universities helped inspire such alternative institutions as the underground papers, Liberation News Service, Newsreel and the Movement Speakers Bureau, research organizations like the African Research Group, North American Congress on Latin America and the Pacific Research Institute; various theatre groups like the Bread and Puppet Theatre and the San Francisco Mime Troupe; local community-organizing groups in various cities; new political groupings like the National Conference for New Politics, the Peace and Freedom Party, and the early Black Panther group in Lowndes County; professional organizations such as the Medical Committee for human Rights, Healthpax, and the New University Conference.

A variation in the standard cycle of the rise and fall of free universities occurred in Toronto, where an 18-storey highrise was built to house that city’s experiment. In 1936, four theology students at the University of Toronto had begun the Campus Co-operative Residence Inc., designed to offer cheap alternatives to the university’s residences. Owned by its members, the Co-op had by 1959 acquired four houses and rented a fifth. At this point, it hired as its general manager 19-year-old Howard Adelman, who by skillful manipulation of money bought up several houses in the university area and began seeking backing to build a high-rise residence. By the mid-sixties the co-op houses were sponsoring seminars and guest speakers on a number of free university oriented topics. To many of the members, building a highrise where large numbers of people who shared an interest in free universities could live and work together seemed a logical extension of the principle of student-controlled residences and curricula. Some members of the Student Union for Peace Action ( Canada’s version of the SDS) weren’t so sure; they feared that potential student radicals would be diverted into a struggle to maintain the community as an end in itself. Doubtless some of the liberal politicians who initially supported Rochdale hoped this would happen; for instance, Ontario’s housing Minister helped the project get a loan from the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation and became a director for one of the subsidiaries of the company that developed the highrise, Revenue Properties. It was decided to name the college Rochdale, after the Lancashire town where 28 weavers had in 1844 opened the co-operative grocery store that formed the basis of the now world-wide co-operative movement. This carried an implication that Rochdale would be self-governing, and in 1969 Co-op College gave Rochdale self-governing powers, along with the responsibility of meeting mortgage payments for which Co-op, as Rochdale’s legal owners, was theoretically responsible.

To get the money to build Rochdale Co-op College had to deal with the state, and the state never gave it a fair deal. The CMHC loan covered only 90% of the cost of building Rochdale; to cover the other 10% Co-op was forced to artificially inflate the value of the land it had assembled on the busy midtown corner of Bloor and Huron in order to inflate the CMHC mortgage. By refusing to grant Rochdale the status of an educational institution, the federal government cheated it not only of the 10% grant which such institutions normally receive to cover the part of the construction cost not included in CMHC loans but also of important tax rebates; the municipal government also refused Rochdale tax exemption is an educational institution. These set-backs, coupled with an unexpected increase in the capital costs due to a five-month construction delay (the fault of Alscott Construction Co., then a partly-held subsidiary of Revenue Properties) broke the project’s shoestring budget.

The regular payments on the CMHC mortgage were set at an unrealistically high level which assumed that rooms too small for more than a single person would be rented as doubles and failed to take into account heavy maintenance costs. In 1970 CMHC discovered through a study that even with full occupancy (unlikely in a building inhabited largely by young people) the mortgage payment could not be met; it then issued an eviction notice.

These financial problems were largely responsible for the other difficulties that plagued Rochdale. For instance, the need for rent income forced it to open in the fall of 1968 while construction was still going on, and university students busy with the busy work their degree courses entailed could not cope with dirt, noise and disorganization. Many of them left after the first month, and their abandoned space was quickly filled by crashers and freeloaders attracted by the building’s wide open access. This discouraged many of the original enthusiasts whom Rochdale had hoped to use as resource people such as poet-publisher Dennis Lee, novelist Matt Cohen, Science Fiction writer-anthologist Judy Merril, members of the short-lived School for Social Theory and Mel Watkins, who was president of the Rochdale governing council before Ottawa invited him to join a task force on foreign ownership. Their departure reduced Rochdale’s ability to function as a free university. At about this time Toronto police drove the youthful hippie-bohemian population from Yorkville Avenue, which the city had decided to convert to expensive stores, and many decided Rochdale would be a good place to resume hanging around. Resentment over being asked to pay large amounts of rent for inferior housing (the four elevators frequently broke down) led a growing number of tenants to resist rent payment. Many of those who came to Rochdale did not know how to handle the freedom, and responsibility, to provide their own tidy environment and co-operation. Bikers and drug dealers soon came.

There were still a number of people at Rochdale seriously determined to uphold its original mandate of providing a free university; in the spring of 1969 they established a strong-arm security force to evict undesirable tenants and crashers, and also acknowledged the need to meet the problems of the youth culture Rochdale had attracted, rather than the student culture it had hoped to attract, by opening Flo’s Parlour and Health Clinic, which dispensed quick care to both residents and on-residents with health problems. It helped many young and poor people who were reluctant to attend regular clinics because of the condescending or insulting attitude of their staffs. Volunteer physicians were to be in attendance several nights a week, with the rest of the staffing done by volunteers whose qualifications as advertised in the Rochdale Daily were to include such things as “a cool head in a crisis, some medical knowledge and experience; knowledge of drugs and freaking; not too straight in thinking” and so forth. Since these two measures were somewhat contradictory—nonresidents with health problems had trouble getting by the security force at the entrance to attend the clinic—another free clinic for non-residents was established (and staffed to some extent by Rochdalers) on nearby Dupont Street. The security force was known to attack outside drug dealers with fists and massive dogs while tolerating dealing by residents; this led to numerous police raids which might have found a total of about 20 pounds of marijuana, and similarly unimpressive figures for other drugs. Although it was never proved that more drugs were used at Rochdale than in administration-controlled student highrises, Rochdale’s image as a “hippie haven” and “shoppers drug mart” persisted, fanned by all three Toronto daily papers which saw in Rochdale a gold mine for finding or inventing sensationalist news copy.

When Rochdale was first started, it was envisualized that there would be a number of structured seminars differing from those of a regular university only in that the students would do the structuring and be motivated by a desire for knowledge rather than a degree. Although some such courses were always available (during one month in 1971, for instance, courses were advertised in judo, offset printing and contemporary Marxism) there was a greater tendency for the residents to acquire their knowledge by meetings with those interested in sharing their ideas than in regular seminars. Rochdalers started such projects as attracted their own interests and made them available to anyone who wished to come to learn, with the college supplying the facilities through which residents could structure their own learning program—community lounges on each floor, a library and space for various projects. These included the afore-mentioned Free Youth Clinic (Rochdale guaranteed its rent when it moved to Dupont Street and added a free store on the initiative of the 14th floor commune), Coach House Press which was supported by the college while establishing a high-quality book and art printing business, Theatre Passe Muraille, ceramics and writers workshops, the Nishnawbe Institute for Indian Studies, a library, film-makers co-op, hydroponics project, vegetarian restaurant, classic film cinema, pottery kiln, photography facilities, leathercrafts, woodworking, a loom and musical instrument maker etc. Some of these projects moved out of Rochdale after using the college to bring together enough people to function independently, others remained until the eviction. There were a number or special events including a visit by, poet Allen Ginsberg and a three-week Festival of Underground Theatre. It should also be mentioned that residents of certain floors, discouraged by problems creating a real sense of identity or community among 850 people, turned their own floor wings into separate co-operatives with a shared entrance and (after initial opposition by Rochdale college) block rental fees. Some of these communes maintained a conspicuous identity; for instance the 14 floor operated the Dupont St. free store, helped organize a food co-op and initiated or supported several other social projects and concerts; the sixteenth floor housed a music commune with instruction in piano and guitar available. Many of these projects survived the mass eviction of Rochdale’s tenants in 1973-4 (the building became a senior citizens home) to function independently, at least for a time.

Several other highrise student residences were built in Canada at about the same time, some of them by the same company Revenue Properties, but the only other one that was controlled by its members rather than an outside administration was Pestalozzi College in Ottawa. It avoided many of the disruptions that had plagued Rochdale and remained a self-managed student residence with resources for a variety of courses to share skills and ideas. However, it collapsed at about the same time as Rochdale for the same basic reason, inability to meet unreasonably high mortgage payments, and became just another administration-controlled highrise primarily for students. All education facilities were removed, since more money could be made from renting their space to extra residents.

The free schools and universities which waxed and waned in the sixties were largely a by-product of that decade’s protest movement, which went through four stages:(1) a liberal phase which sought to make society workable by reforming particular problems such as the arms race and absence of black civil rights (a majority of people in the movement never got beyond this stage, and many still participate in-single-issue protest movements) (2) a radical stage when such groups as SDS and SUPA came to see that only basic social change can make specific reforms possible (3) a feminist phase when some of the radicals challenged the male hierarchy of their own movements and formulated new ethics for interpersonal relationships (4) a disintegrative phase when divisions between those in each of the first three phases were compounded by successful Establishment attempts to buy off the liberals. (For instance in Canada the Company of Young Canadians was formed to separate those who merely wanted to be in socially relevant projects from the radicals in SUPA who saw the need for basic social change; when SUPA collapsed the CYC was disbanded.) To buy off the student movement which had spawned alternative education projects the power structure did not need to halt its war in Vietnam or make more than token concessions to the blacks; all it needed to do was to appear willing to remedy some of the more popular criticism hovelled at the school system. At the elementary level, “open classrooms” where each student could progress at his or her individual learning speed were discussed and in a few cases implemented. Secondary school students were given more choice of courses, less onerous disciplinary regulations and more freedom to choose their physical appearance. The universities, as we have seen, fiddled with various concepts of self-directed study courses borrowed from the free universities but modified to maintain control by the administration. Once the protest movement subsided and the free universities were disbanded or co-opted, most of these reforms were rescinded.

The free universities lasted only as long as their founders, mainly students and/or refugees from the universities, saw themselves as university students and remained within the age group when one generally goes to university. They largely failed to transmit their concerns outside their own age group ( though they did reach non-university students of similar age) and when they “outgrew” university there was no one to whom the torch could be passed, other than administrative liberal who were only happy to take control and purge the universities of their radical content. Attempts by secondary school students to establish free schools generally had even shorter lifespans, partly because they were also very much a peer group activity and partly because they lacked the organizing skills of their university counterparts. What did survive were some of the primary level private schools whose sponsoring parents have some degree of sympathy with the ideals of free schools so long as it is the parents rather than the children themselves who do the major share of curriculum planning. Limited to a handful of children from families, these schools are tolerated because they cannot change the direction of the System.

So here we are in the mid-80s with basically the same situation we had in the early 60s, when George Grant (then of McMaster) complained that “the progressive hope in American education was gradually emptied of all content except means to technological regulation and expansion,” while C.W. Gonick of the University of Manitoba suggested that boards of governors consisting of prominent businessmen are not the basic problem; replacing them with faculty members would be to little avail so long as the main purpose of the university is “to train people to serve the economy rather than to foster learning, creativity and scholarship.” The schools continue to instill virtues associated with holding a salaried job—tidiness, punctuality, obedience etc.—rather than the self-reliance and creativity that will be needed by the increasing proportion of graduates who can’t find or won’t want such jobs. The schools also ignore the new needs automation and cybernation have created; since the nature of one’s work can be expected to change every few years anyway, what is most needed is the ability to think creatively and innovatively. This cannot be instilled into one person by another; it can only be developed by providing an environment for learning which encourages free thought and expression. Free schools are much more capable of providing such an environment than the tradition-enmeshed, bureaucracy- ridden school system. So the need is still present and the time may be ripe for another attempt to fill this need.

However, new approaches must be considered if the alternative education experiments of the 80s are to avoid repeating the mistakes and early demise of their 60s predecessors. Most of the 60s projects were designed to meet the needs of one particular peer or interest group; for long term survival (assuming that this is a goal) the project must transcend the needs of individual segments of society; particularly when, as is especially true in the case of high school or college students, this segment is likely to be a short-lived one. The oppression faced by children, students, sweatshop workers, battered housewives, prisoners, the unemployed etc. may wear different masks, but it is all part of the same exploitive system. We must therefore work to create a sense of community among the various social elements working for a better society. It is doubtful that we can do this using such words as “school” and “university,” which to many of the people we are trying to reach have negative connotations implying structures that have been set up to thwart rather than encourage the learning experiences we are trying to facilitate.

Once it abandoned its preconception that it would be primarily serving university students by providing them with structured seminars, Rochdale was able to start serving the community it actually had attracted by creating health clinics, craft facilities etc. to meet their needs. Rochdale was moving towards the creation and servicing of an alternative community when CMHC pulled its plug, though its identification in public consciousness with drugs and “hippie” lifestyles limited its appeal largely to young adults. This unfortunate public image was a result of trying to concentrate everything in one physical space; besides creating unsolvable financial problems, this concentration gave the enemies of self-managed lifestyles an all-too-visible target to destroy. In many days Detroit Open City, which operated for a shorter period at about the same time, was a more attractive model; hare a variety of co-operative and self-managed businesses, services and study groups was spread over an urban area and linked by a community switchboard. The basic problem that killed this project was over-centralized control in the hands of one charismatic leader and its accompanying resentment. Many of the projects started by Open City survival the demise of the central switchboard, but eventually withered because they were deprived of the support Open City had provided.

I would therefore propose that those of us concerned with creating an alternative society begin by networking the various cities or rural areas we live in through a community switchboard (i.e. a regularly staffed telephone where people can call to get information about services they need, special events etc.) This would ideally be reinforced by a periodical and/or people’s yellow pages, but in an ideal situation new activities would be generated so quickly that no printed publication could cover them all. This switchboard (or whatever other networking mechanism is adopted) must itself be a community project, run by people representing a broad spectrum of the alternative enterprises happening in that area who can extend the networking through and beyond their own projects. Besides net-working existing services, social change groups, study groups and so on, the switchboard could create additional ones by plugging people with similar interests into one another. Anyone wishing to start a group or project could use the switchboard to find out who else is interested, and switchboard members could use the network to try to start groups to fill whatever needs they perceive the alternative community to be lacking. All that is needed is enough money to acquire a business telephone, a space to house it and enough serious commitment to keep the line open during regular hours (if a larger space is available, the switchboard could be combined with some other needed facility such as a reading room or a free stores.) I believe that this model would require little more energy than setting up a more narrowly defined free school or university, and yield far greater returns.

Originally published in Network, Vol 3, No 3, April 1985

For more information about Gary Moffatt see the articles about him in Connexipedia and on the Freedonia website.