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October 30, 2011 at 12:50am

Secret School is Everywhere

Pssst…. hi Secret Schoolers. Sorry for my silence. I’ve been scouting some amazing Secret School lecture series, panel discussions, and blogs that are related to our current economic and political climate and artists/activists that are responding to it. Here is my working list. Make the city your school:

Ok, so this is not more than a curated laundry list, I know. I’ve been trying to figure out what goes next on this blog. I would like to talk about the possibility of free universal education as still a viable alternative to the university system. What are the problems with The New School setting up its own teach-ins loosely affiliated with OWS, but not at Zuccotti Park? What does it mean for New School faculty (including myself) to flirt with ideas of establishing a nomadic, free, and somehow accredited university? What are the precedents of other Free Universities (such as the Copenhagen Free School), and why have they lasted only a few years before closing? What is the future of Cooper Union, whose founder believed that it should always be “free as air and water?”

October 6, 2011 at 11:32pm

Economics 101

I was recently reminded of a Secret School experiment that Daniel Martin (NYU Economics PhD candidate) and I organized where we created a small labor-based economy and let it run for a few hours to see what would happen. We were curious about the behavior of these temporary markets and wanted to know if they would suffer from some of the same issues as markets in the real world (emergence of black markets, corruption, arbitrage, flooding of markets) or the same kind of abstractions (hedge funds, fiat currency, deregulated financiers), or perhaps alternatives to the model would occur (barter, gift economies).

First, we created all of the elements necessary for the economy to run on its own: consumption goods, a production process, and currency. For goods, we stocked the bar full of beer and cookies that people could only get if they earned money. For our currency, we made hundreds of bags of dirt, each one of which potentially held a gold Obama coin. For production, we established a model factory where people traded their drawings and shapes cut out of cardboard for bags of dirt. Once someone earned a bag of dirt, they could use it to buy goods, go to the central bank and sift out the dirt in the hopes of finding an Obama coin, or keep the dirt as… dirt.

By the end of the night, we were out of raw materials to make into sale-able objects, all of the dirt had been sifted out, our central banker (Fernando Leibovici) had quit, the empty bags of dirt had been turned into a fiat currency (backed by nothing), our factory boss had changed the wage system, catalyzing a group of computer scientists to create a system of arbitrage by stockpiling beers and bribing new-comers to the economy, some Haitians kept threatening all participants in the economy, everything went to hell, but the prices of cookies and beer (adjusted by Chris Tonetti, shop boss) ended at an equilibrium.

I asked Jesse Perla, factory boss, to reflect on what happened:


1. What did you expect to happen?  I thought things would start off fairly stable as the economists and others figured out how the system worked, then everything would fall apart.  I thought there likely would be some fundamental flaw in how things were setup that people would exploit causing great insanity.  I thought that the other possibility was that things would be fairly boring: people would do a little work to get a beer at a normal frequency and that is about it.

2. What were you wondering might happen?  I wondered if it was possible to reach some kind of an “equilibrium” fairly quickly.  Part of this question is based around the quantity of alcohol that people wanted to consume (see later).  The question in my mind was if the system would be relatively stable, and no one would disturb shit on their own, and that I would have to introduce some insanity to see how things happened.  This is an interesting question in economics:  Whether these kinds of systems are inherently stable on their own and how they respond to external nuttiness.

3. What happened?  The system worked out fairly well.  Things were fairly stable as there was a ramp-up in drinking, people arrived, and the money was circulated.  I am not sure if things would have remained stable without my intervention, but everything seemed fairly smooth until I started messing with wages.  Then all hell broke loose, but amazingly the prices of beer and cookies correctly responded to the changes in wages fairly quickly and things reached a new equilibrium rapidly.

4. What surprised you?  That things worked for 3 hours.  I was pretty sure everything would fall apart.

"Do People Understand and Correctly React to Prices"

1. What were you wondering might happen?  I thought that people would be a little confused at first, but fairly quickly everyone would understand the wage and beer prices and track them.

2. What were you wondering might happen?  I was wondering if there would be an effect that people would work harder as wages increased.  Even if the prices raised proportionally.

3. What happened?  It seemed that people responded to higher wages at first, but that people adjusted to the new price level quickly.  Most people “got” the different wages and prices fairly quickly, though many didn’t keep track of the changing wages while they were doing work.  Eventually, people would track the wage changes as they worked.

4. What surprised you?  The Haitians.  I thought that everyone would get the idea of prices, but they didn’t.  It was a completely different world-view where everyone here who grew up in a liberal democracy got it, but they were completely confused and frequently infuriated as prices changed.

"Would Non-Official Markets and Trading Spontaneously Pop Up"

1. What were you wondering might happen?  I was pretty sure that some kinds of spontaneous trading would occur, but wasn’t sure what or how.  I also thought that somehow they would find a way to bring down the system.

2. What were you wondering might happen?  If the possibility of arbitrage would spur spontaneous trading or if it would happen due to the impatience of drinkers.  I was also interested in whether a single person of group would end up as a “bank” lending out beers and buying work independently of me as the factory owner.

3. What happened? I am not entirely sure, but it seemed that there were a lot of trading going on.  A group of CS guys seemed to be in the middle watching prices and looking for arbitrage opportunities. I also tried to spur some other markets by adding a beer as part of the “work” necessary to get a wage.  My idea was to see if people would adapt to this and how long it would take.  It wasn’t very long, and I believe that some people were making a killing selling beer for work.

4. What surprised you?  The level of stealing in the economy.

"Level of Alcohol Consumption and Quality of Work"

1. What were you wondering might happen?  Thought that people would get a little lazy as time went on.

2. What were you wondering might happen?  Wasn’t sure if people would drink a lot more than normal or if the fact that they had to work for beer would cut down on consumption.

3. What happened?  People got wasted.  They seemed to enjoy doing the work.
There were some people who were just doing the minimum possible to get a sequence of beers, but they were the minority.

4. What surprised you?  The level of drunken troublemaking was very high.  And the quality of work was also very high.

"Economists vs. Others"

1. What were you wondering might happen?  Thought that the economists might understand the arbitrage opportunities more than others.

2. What were you wondering might happen?  Was wondering whether the artsy types would get fleeced by scheming mathies.

3. What happened?  The CS guys were the hedge funds and the economists became criminals stealing beer.

4. What surprised you?  That people would bother to sit in the middle, watch prices, and try to make major profits.

I also asked Francis Hwang, one of the “CS guys” to comment:

1. What were your first reactions to the scene? First reactions were that it was fun. We got there fairly early and we had a chance to accumulate assets before other people got there which ended up being really advantageous.

2. Did it feel like a real economy? Yeah, in a few ways. I liked the way that you could make various tradeoffs depending on what you wanted vs what others wanted. For one thing, I don’t drink shitty beer, so I kept on trying to trade up to nicer beer. Meanwhile my friends Alex and David were fine with shitty beer, and end up stockpiling quite a bit of it actually.

3. How did you react/change the economy? By the middle of the event, Alex & David had a lot of canned beer and, if I remember correctly, there were a lot of things where you had to start out with one can of beer. So basically they would loan out a can of beer to other people to get them started, for some sort of interest.

4. How could we change the model in order to learn more about the way that the economy works/the way that people make decisions? I think the trickiest thing was that there were a handful of people setting prices for things, and then the rest of us were reacting to how those prices moved. It would’ve been cool if prices changed more dynamically in response to other events. For example, if people could set up their own prices for canned beer, and then you could surprise people by releasing another 24-pack of canned beer, flooding the market. etc, etc.

5. How can you see this type of “game” being applied to learn/subvert/steal/etc? I think it was a pretty good intro to trading mechanics—that’s the sort of thing that’s hard to understand until you’ve done it with a lot of different people. As to whether you could use those simulations for other sorts of learning, hard to say.

Finally, I ask Daniel Martin some questions on economic experiments and economics education:

1. Do they run these types of experiments in Economics classes? My impression is that only a small number of instructors use experiments to teach economics, but they have put together some great resources to help others do the same: (online) and (offline).  One of the most memorable classes I have ever taken featured a simple market (of just 8 students), where the “invisible hand” moved the market price to where supply equalled demand.       

2. How else do you learn about the economy? We primarily learn and teach by explaining how simple (and not so simple) models of the economy deliver strong predictions about how policy changes will impact the “real” economy.

3. How do these methods of learning about the economy affect policy makers? It leads us to believe that markets function as well as the ones in our models. On the other hand, learning through experiments often illustrates that while economic theory does surprisingly well at predicting behavior in many settings, there are important and systematic deviations from theory that might be explained by emotional factors, misperception, confusion, and unmodelled power dynamics.

October 1, 2011 at 11:32am

Relearning Civics: #occupywallstreet

I’ve been following the events of Occupy Wall Street as much as I can over the last couple of weeks by visiting whenever I have a moment, bringing my students down, and monitoring media coverage on all sides. I’m the first to admit that I approached the movement with a healthy bit of skepticism at the beginning. On my first visit, the group had dwindled to about 200 people, mostly white college kids, and lacked a clear focus. Nevertheless, I was drawn by this strange curiosity to continue visiting, asking questions, witnessing their development.

What I’ve seen happen over the last two weeks has been a dramatic shift in diversity and an articulation of clear grievances that are being addressed through daily struggle. The lack of a cause or “demands” that many (including myself) saw as a huge weakness has actually opened the process to so many different people, rather than closing it to a niche group of activists, as protests often do. Moreover, Occupy Wall Street has been my classroom lately, a place where I can observe the practical applications of different versions of facilitation, organization, and democracy and see which ones work and how.

Needless to say, I’m now won over by what I’ve seen in the way that people have been genuinely engaged in learning, standing up for the disenfranchised, and cooperating. It’s in stark contrast to other “community projects” that actually only seek to further corporatize public space and expand the terrain for marketing opportunities.

A notable example of their process for direct democracy is their General Assembly, a meeting open to anyone twice a day in which ideas are hashed out, shot down, and occasionally agreed upon. I’ve also been closely observing their non-hierarchical structure and how they are able to implement ideas, delegate tasks, and most importantly, stay non-hierarchical. Lastly, I’ve been really interested in their efforts in balancing plurality with solidarity, totality with difference.

What I’d love to see more of is not just demands that the government enforce regulations on financiers, prosecute the major players of the last financial crisis, reform campaign financing and the power of lobbyists, and change in legislation to give less power to corporations and close tax loopholes (in my wildest dreams, I know), but I’d also love to see a demand to the people of the United States and beyond that this not be just a blip in the landscape of your civic engagement, but that this change your daily behavior. Stay informed, ask questions, attend community board meetings, VOTE, live within your means (I should say this as I have $60,000 in student loans), and be entrepreneurial!

This last demand might seem funny at first because it ostensibly means folding to this large neo-liberal capitalist machine, but it’s not at all. It’s the empowerment of the mom-and-pop shop that we have lost through being dependent on chains, franchises, universities, corporations, and other institutions to give us jobs. As Caroline advocates in the last post, we need to start becoming our own job creators and re-imagine what it means to be an entrepreneur. In addition, we need to get serious and stop patronizing these huge corporations. Again, I know this is part of the neo-liberal rhetoric, but we need to fight on all fronts!

I recently started an LLC with a collaborator, and I want to tell you that it is disturbingly easy. Here are the steps for filing in New York State: (a note before we get started- An LLC maybe not be right for you. Maybe you are interested in forming a non-profit or a worker’s co-op. You can find out about these options through Solidarity NYC)

Now making your LLC sustainable is something entirely different (that I am still figuring out), but it’s also the interesting part of creating your livelihood in this way. How can you enact your philosophy and sustain empathetic relationships with the world? How can you do so at a human scale and reject our society’s expectation for ever increasing growth and subordination of other people’s livelihoods?

In the creative community, there is a resistance towards businesses. It is understandable, as humans yielding to the capitalist imperative are responsible for polluting our air and water, stripping our natural resources, killing off an flora and fauna, selling our privacy, commercializing our social interactions and public spaces, privatizing the very DNA of our food. So, it is of the utmost importance to take back not just our legislative ability to regulate these entities (#occupywallstreet!), but to also take back our ability to be our own bosses and also kind, generous individuals that are interested in improving our common resources for all.


September 27, 2011 at 7:25pm

Be your own boss!

Posted by the amazing Agent Caroline “Transparency” Woolard. Thanks Caroline!

I co-founded 2 barter initiatives in 2009/2010 that became my part time jobs in 2011 (we just received $120,000 in grant money!). I also now teach 2 undergraduate courses at Parsons, but I don’t have a masters degree and I went to a college that was tuition-free. How did this happen?


1. I know what I want and I work towards it.

2. I do A LOT of research before I ask for help.

3. I reach out to people who can mentor me.

4. I show up on time and work my ass off.

5. I demand respect (perhaps because I grew up with privilege).

6. I refuse to go into Debt for school.

7. My policy: be nice to everyone.

  • 1. SELF AWARENESS: There’s not too much I can say about this, except that you need to have clear intentions in order to pursue your dreams. Here’s two questions that help: What does success look like for you? What can you not, not do? (a.k.a. What MUST you do?) Meditate, go on long walks, try things out, talk to people who have careers that you think you want, whatever you need to do to be more self-aware and clear about your goals. Some people say reading this book helps: but I’ve never read it.
  • 2. RESEARCH: I’m all about doing online research to find mentors in your field of interest. Mentors are great because they share your enthusiasm but have more information and connections in the real world than you do. Most of these people have personal websites, or you can find their email at the school or business where they work. Luckily, the Internet exists, so you can introduce yourself to potential mentors without waiting in line after a lecture and/or socializing at a party! This helps me because I’m a good writer (my mom taught me that) BUT I’m not comfortable schmoozing or promoting myself at parties. I’m also a woman who doesn’t conform to a lot of norms for “serious professionals”: I don’t do my hair, paint my nails, wear girl-y shoes/clothes, shave my body, or wear make-up. Basically, I think it’s best for people to learn about what I’ve done (and how it related to their past work and research) without seeing what I look like. If they respond to my initial email, perhaps we will meet in person, but then they already know that we share common interests and/or goals, so it’s about WORK and not what I look like.
  • 3. REACHING OUT:See above. Also, learn to write really well, in many different styles! How can you do this? Trade time with an editor, writer, or other proof-reader on, or find a friend who will help you improve your writing skills. When you write an email to a potential mentor, use “affinity jargon.” I use the term “affinity jargon” to describe the language or style of writing your mentor uses. Find an aspect of this style or “jargon” that resonates with you, and use that style/jargon when writing to your potential mentor. For example, when I wrote an email to Lewis Hyde, I opened with poetry because he loves poetry. After catching their attention by communicated in a style that they understand, your job is to demonstrate your research and connection to their work. Once they understand that you know who they are and respect them, you should demonstrate your value to them. What have you done that they might care about? What are you about to do that you’d like advice about? Make a clear connection between what they do and who you are.
  • 4. RIGOR: Take yourself seriously. No one cares about your work more than you, so do a good job. You can’t say “it was my client’s fault” that it looks so bad. It’s up to you to make your work as great as it can be, and to present your best work online (or in an attached .pdf in your email) in a way that people you reach out to will understand. If you work hard, and continue to take risks despite all odds, you are rigorous.
  • 5. PRIVILEDGE: I went to a private high school and I’m white. Yes, my dad grew up without running water and was the first person in his family of tobacco farmers to go to college, but he became a doctor and that upbringing means that I’m considered “polite, reliable, confident, well spoken, well-rounded, energetic, pulled-together, with a good resume, references, and a high GPA” because I was taught upper-class manners and “standard” English, had expensive dental work, health care, and vacations as a teenager, was able to focus on my studies without having to support myself or my family, was told I could do anything, and grew up with connections to people with money. I volunteer for the grassroots economic justice group SolidarityNYC, and they help me have hard conversations about inequity. Cheyenna Weber gave me this book Classified for more information about class priviledge, and it me realize that “discrimination erases individual identity by assuming that everyone in the group is the same and deserves to be treated the same…privilege erases group identity by assuming that everyone in the group is a unique and special individual, that their uniqueness entitles them to preferential treatment.” (p/ 8 So although I do work hard, figuring out how to interact with wealthy people and to demand respect is very much related to the way I grew up. If you didn’t grow up that way, you should remember (and remind anyone who discriminates) that you too deserve to be treated as a unique individual, and that no dream is too big for you. On top of that, you might consider finding a class-ally (like me) who can talk to you about unspoken codes of conduct.
  • 6. NO DEBT: Do NOT pay more than $10,000 max. for school. If your parents are thinking of giving you any money at all, use it to get a mortgage on a building or apt. near the school you think you want to go to, and spend the next few years living with students at that school who pay rent towards that mortgage until you own a house and have tons of connections at that school. Cooper Union is free and many masters programs will pay you. Also, live with lots of people so that your rent is low and you can buy food in bulk.
  • 7. BE NICE! Here’s a list of opportunities I have, and how I got them. Most of this has to do with operating form a place of generosity around everyone I know, connecting people, remembering what they need, and assuming their best intentions if/when they are flaky. When it becomes clear that you operate from a place of generosity, people will be more generous to you.
  • 1. I’m teaching a class to undergraduates at Parsons. Pascale Gatzen told her Dean to consider the class. I met Pascale at Mildred’s Lane, an alternative school/residency in Honesdale, PA. At Mildred’s Lane, she heard about Trade School and OurGoods, two independent barter initiatives I’d been working on. I’d been doing them as a volunteer for 10-50 hours a week with 2 main collaborators (see #4) and others for 2 years, and reading tons of books about barter on my own at the same time. I went to Mildred’s Lane because I met the director, Morgan Puett, at a residency I went to straight out of school (Oxbow in Saugatuck, MI). I got to go to Oxbow because I applied (and worked my ass off on the application) and because my college, Cooper Union, sends students there. I got to go to Cooper Union because I applied (and worked my ass off on the application) and went to an art residency in high school called Ox-Bow (in Napa, CA) where I developed a portfolio and because I went to a private high school where I learned how to write well. My mom is also a feminist historian and helped me learn to write more than anyone.

source: Parsons/Pascale/Morgan/Ox-bow/Cooper Union/Oxbow/Wheeler/mom+dad

  • 2. I’m co-teaching another class to undergrads at Parsons. Eve Mosher invited me to co-teach when her co-teacher had to leave the job at the last minute. I know Eve Mosher because I used to work for an artist named Natalie Jeremijenko when I got out of college. Natalie taught me a lot of things about being collaborative and the unhappy speed of a “famous” career. I met Natalie because I told my high school art teacher that I was graduating from college and needed a job, and she told her husband who taught at RISD, and he happened to be walking with Natalie one day and remembered to mention it to her. She then went to my senior show in college and we worked out a deal where I worked for her on a stipend that was paid through NYU (hello, library card!). I’d recommend working for a collaborative artist because I’m still friends with a lot of the people that she worked with, and it wasn’t an isolated studio practice.

source: Parsons/Eve/Natalie/Bruce/Sue

  • 3. I’m working on, a barter network for creative people. I got to do this because I applied for a grant to support this idea (while working the night-shift at an art studio where I could do whatever I wanted as long as I stayed awake) and got $5,000 to begin the project. I then asked the hardest working people I knew from college (Louise Ma and Rich Watts) to work on OurGoods with me, and the people who gave me the grant introduced me to Jen Abrams, someone who had a similar idea. Rather than reject her similar idea, I brought her on the team, and she brings 10 years of grant writing experience to the group. She is 40 and we write grants together, so I’ve learned a lot from her. Now, we’ve written over 30 grants together, and just got $100,000 to make our part-time jobs for our 5 person team! This is a good example of writing grants, not having connections. It’s still all about writing well though.

source: OurGoods/The Field/grant

  • 4. is in a project room at Creative Time. This is because the curator is friends with another group in the show, Temporary Services, and they suggested he include us. I met them because I’ve researched their work for a long time, and suggested that Oxbow in MI invite them to be guest artists one year. When they did, I applied to go back to Oxbow, and I got in and was able to hang out with them. They are great artists, and so inspiring:

source: Creative Time/Nato/Temporary Services/Oxbow/research

  • 5. I pay $250 each month for rent in a 12’ x 30’ studio in a live-work industrial space. This is because three years ago, Chrstine Wang (someone I went to school with but didn’t know well) said “we should organize a studio space together…and my parents can loan us $35,000 to do it!” Why did she trust me? Word on the street: I was reliable. Why did I trust her? I’m an optimist, and she had the people and the money to pull off a huge project. Christine brought a bunch of friends who had attended a residency called Skowhegan together to build out the space, and we divided an 8,000 square foot space up into 30 small spaces by building walls, doing the electrical, putting in sinks, etc. For the first two years, we gave everyone who built out the space a reduction in rent, but we didn’t pay ourselves to run the LLC and the space on a daily basis. My rent was $550. After two years of organizing (finding new tenants, collecting 30 checks to pay rent, filing taxes, responding to issues on the spot, etc.) Christine got burnt out and left for grad school. We realized that the people who took a risk (me, Christine, Colin) should get paid! Now my rent is only $250 a month, and I get $25/hr for each hour I spend working on the space. Now we also buy our food in bulk from an organic distributor, which lowers costs and helps us share everything in the kitchen. It’s a BIG commitment to know that my name is on the lease for 3 more years (5 total), and that I can’t leave NY until then, but we keep rent pretty low for a bunch of artists and I met Huong and so many other great people through the space! It’s also how I met my boyfriend of 2 years…

source: Studio/Colin/Christine/Cooper Union

September 25, 2011 at 7:42pm

Hacking the Library

I was talking to some friends last night about Punky Brewster and how it is hard to find still images of her classic 80’s show online, but very easy to get ones of her posing in swimwear as an adult. This got us thinking about the internet as this amazing repository of crazy contemporary stuff, but still a clunky purveyor of old and crazy stuff. 

I really love libraries and have made an effort to have access to almost every one in New York. I was very happy to hear that NYC libraries will not get their funding cut, but to know that they were at risk is a sad affair. Let’s patronize our libraries more. The more they get used, the more of an argument they will have to get adequate funding. Here’s how to get the most out of libraries:


  • Public Library: Hopefully you have never had difficulty getting access to a public library. This is everyone’s right and hopefully this is something that will never change. Consider donating your old books and other materials to the library.
  • University Libraries: Depending on where you live, these sometimes require ID’s. Usually if you take a class, even continuing studies, you have access to the library. Often, you can also pay a small fee for access and limited book-borrowing super powers. Also, many universities are part of consortia so their students can access many different libraries.
  • Museum Libraries: If you don’t have a museum ID, this can often be granted on special request if you are working on specific research. This is often worth it to see some of the special things/rarities in these archives. Be prepared to wear white gloves and have libraries watch you like hawks!
  • Archives: There are all different sorts of archives related to specific interests like Asian American history, zines, fashion. Usually if you are very polite and respectful of the objects, you can get amazing access to these kinds of things. Sometimes they charge small fees or ask for a request for access.

Besides housing amazing literary treasures, free internet, and keeping us warm on frigid days, what else can we do at libraries?



The following tips were submitted by one of our Secret Student Agents. Thanks and keep them coming!

This system assumes you have, at some point, attended a fancy university—or at least dipped your toes in one. The system also assumes you’re a renegade creative, particularly a designer. Lastly, this system is centric to New York City. However, adapt as needed.

Tools for Success:

  • Student ID card of the university you attended
  • Great, portable music
  • Lightweight laptop
  • Starbucks Gold Card

Where Do We Go From Here:

  • Your campus is dynamic. Your study centers are Starbucks. Your lecture halls and classrooms are the MoMA, AIGA talks, the New Museum, bookshops, and for the humdrum art history lesson, the Met (once you’re done, you can have a cocktail at the Rooftop Garden).
  • Your professors are mostly inanimate. Works of art, wall text, videos, books, journals, websites. Occasionally, you will be graced a live lecturer—make sure to attend good talks.
  • Your Student ID card comes with perks. Free or discounted admission to institutions including the MoMA, cheap eats, and of course, access to your university (taking advantage of this is covered in the post “Attending lectures at fancy universities”).
  • Your Starbucks Gold Card provides. In using Starbucks locations for extended study sessions, your Gold Card will accommodate with free refills on coffee and tea. Having a perpetually-filled cup on your table not only ensures that you’re not thirsty or tired, but that you are, in fact, a Starbucks patron.
  • New York is rife with occasional workshops and events. Currently, the BMW Guggenheim Lab explores new interdisciplinary ideas for city life. Museums offer workshops around the clock. Attend them.
  • Have a flexible job. This education is full-time.
  • Enjoy being alone in the company of others. Chances are, this education is a solo endeavor. Work and study surrounded with people—it keeps a sense of energy and work ethic active. People watching is a good way to take a mental break. Starbucks locations are conducive to this.

Things to Consider:

  • A successful education, in this system, is ultimately determined by your desire, ethic, and motivation. This can be wildly successful.
  • Textbook education. Read up and digest. At the end of the day, you should know some American history.
  • The occasional part-time liberal arts courses are good supplements. If feasible.


Free as in “Free Beer” and “Free School”

While walking my dog, I ran into a neighbor today— a very nice Puerto Rican woman with a pomeranian. She told me about her daughter who is applying for art schools, many of which she admitted that they couldn’t possibly afford. I thought about how I paid for my education in part with some loans that don’t even exist for students anymore due to our government’s deregulatory economic policies, wasteful spending on war, and corporate irresponsibility! Oof. I hate to think that because of that, this lady’s daughter won’t be able to go to the school that she wants to attend.

While watching the wonderful The Yes Men Fix the World, I was reminded about an ongoing debate about whether college should be free but optional, particularly those that are state-run, public universities. Some might argue that this would dilute the quality of the schools, but the University of California system, which was nearly free until the recent economic downturn, is a fine example of exemplary schools that integrate community colleges with four-year programs.

I’d love to have this topic publicly debated.

Until then, I wanted to offer a short list of ways that other people are questioning our existing modes of education and have turned their critical perspective into new practices, resources, and systems for learning:

Before diving into any self-directed educational path, it’s important to know what you need, what you want, and what just feels plain good to you when it comes to learning. The Edupunk Guide is great for asking good questions and putting these commitments to yourself down on paper before you forget them!

Remember that “Free School” doesn’t just mean that the class is free, but also that you feel liberated in learning whatever it is you need to learn.

September 24, 2011 at 12:32am

Attending lectures at fancy universities

When I first moved to New York, there was not yet a Platform for Pedagogy or Nonsense List for fun events and lectures. However, there was a very nice university nearby that my husband attended. I found out that they had open wifi access throughout the campus, lectures that were free to the public, a library that was fairly cheap to access, and generally relaxed security. I started sitting in on large lecture hall classes that I found out about through their online registrar and even buying the books for the classes from their book store. In the end, I enrolled as a student there for a year, but this always struck me as an amazing way to have access to an ivy league education (for what that is worth to you) for little or nothing.

There were of course drawbacks to this system:

  • I could never let my guard down enough to socialize with the other students lest I be discover. This is a huge disadvantage as I found that learning is a very social process for me. It hindered me from really enjoying the lectures.
  • Although I attended large lectures where there were always empty seats, I didn’t feel totally comfortable not compensating the professor for their labor. So, I ended up buying their books, promoting their research, and taking classes with them later. Finally, contribute to overall good energy of and appropriate participation in the class. As a teacher, I would take a secret student that is engaged with the material over a sleeping, paying student any day.
  • This system still privileges universities as the site for a “proper” education, thereby perpetuating the hegemony of these institutions. This is a general problem in education and it’s important to always be critical about it.

If you want to try this strategy:

Do your research. Go to the school and scope out the security and the other students there. See if you can blend. See what you have legitimate access to (events, lectures, etc), and have a good reason to crash a course.

Don’t be rude. Respect the teacher and students there. Don’t be late and don’t go to small classes where it will be obvious that you are just popping in.