By Alison Northcott
Just before 7 p.m. on a Thursday evening, a small group of students begins to gather in the tiny front room of Uprising Books on Kensington Avenue. They shuffle quietly out of their winter coats and into the small space that seems to shrink as each body claims a seat. These are students of the Anarchist Free University.
In a soft-spoken Hungarian accent, Jozsef Hadarits addresses his Frontiers of Knowledge class, introducing the text they will be discussing: Heisenberg’s Recognitions, The end of scientific world view.
“Okay, to start, who was Heisenberg?” Hadarits asks.
This sentence kicks off a dialogue that ends up flowing seamlessly throughout the entire two-hour class. As the discussion bounces around the room — gathering momentum at some points and slowing to a quiet pause at others — different thoughts and ideas are presented, questioned, contested and explored. It is difficult to distinguish the students in the class from the facilitator. This is one of the fundamental differences between AnarchistU and other institutions.
There are no teachers, assignments or tests at the Anarchist Free University and you can’t earn credits or a degree. Instead, classes are run by a facilitator who organizes the course content and moderates the discussion.
Hadarits, 39, earned his PhD in history before moving to Toronto from Hungary two years ago. He says he enjoys facilitating at AnarchistU because it allows him to explore a wide range of topics in an open setting.
“It’s rather like guiding discussion, compared to traditional teaching in schools. It’s more about personal opinions and comparing different views, and less about final truths and objective knowledge that you need to acquire just to pass the exam,” he says.
AnarchistU first started holding classes last fall in various locations around Toronto.
“It started with a group of interested and dedicated left-leaning, activist-oriented individuals who got together and decided that there’s a place in Toronto for an alternative from of education,” says Chris Smith, one of the school’s facilitators and co-founders. He says the idea to create a school for people who are interested in leaning outside of a typical university setting.
“The education system in Canada really does alienate and marginalize a high fraction of very, very bright and highly intelligent kids who, for one reason or another, refuse to conform to traditional methods of education,” he says.
Smith, 25, is currently working towards a master’s degree in cultural communications, a joint program between Ryerson and York University. He recognizes a paradox in his situation: he has spent many years attending traditional universities — he earned his undergraduate degree from Trent University before moving on to Ryerson and York — and is now facilitating classes at a school that rejects many of the ideas that these institutions embody in their teaching methods and in their operation. However, this paradox gives Smith a broader perspective on education, he says.
“Conventional institutional academic life for me has been good, if only as a site of resistance; as something to rub up against and refute and reject,” he says. “I’ve come to realize that I’m going to be involved with these systems and institutions in order to inspire change.”
Although AnarchistU is founded on different principles than those at Ryerson and York, Smith says there are still some parallels between the school he facilitates at, and the schools he attends as a student.
“In some respects, we have borrowed the structure of the traditional university,” he says, such as the September to April, two-semester school year. “We have selectively retained some elements…and adamantly rejected other elements.”
These rejected elements include an emphasis on test scores and GPAs, hierarchical set-up found in most universities and, of course, the tuition fees.
But although AnarchistU does not charge tuition, the word “free” in their name is not solely a reference to cost.
Erik Steward, a 36-year-old student and co-founder of AnarchistU explains, “the reason we call it a free school is that a traditional free school is an institution where students are self-directed,” he says.
He mentions examples like Summerhill School in Dresden and The Modern School at Stelton in New Jersey. Both schools were founded with the aim of providing a self-governing, community-based learning environment.
This is also what AnarchistU aims to offer its students.
“We try to encourage a positive, nurturing and open learning environment,” says Smith.
However, these are not words that are commonly associated with the stereotypical notions of anarchy.
“[The word anarchy] conjures up images of black-clad kids at protests, throwing bricks at police,” Smith says.
He acknowledges that having such a heavy and ambiguous word in their name could mislead, or even dissuade potential students from learning more about the school. However, Smith says one of their mandates is to raise awareness about the theoretical side of anarchy, while dispelling myths and stereotypes that overshadow the ideas behind the word.
“It’s part of our agenda to normalize and defamiliarize people’s biases about anarchy,” he says.
But anarchy can be a difficult term to define, says Stewart. “Even within this school,” he says, “there are different definitions of anarchy.”
But Smith and Stewart say decentralized organization, consensus decision-making and a non-hierarchical structure in the classroom are three ideas rooted in anarchist thought that have influenced the structure of the school.
At AnarchistU’s general meeting, about 12 people gather in a large room on the third floor of This Ain’t the Rosedale Library bookstore on Church Street. Students, facilitators and organizers casually sit on wooden park benches arranged in a circle. Here, all decisions are made by consensus and there is no central figure in charge.
AnarchistU’s physical structure mimics its decentralized administrative structure. Classes are held in spaces, like this one, above bookstores, in community centres and in people’s living rooms throughout Toronto: wherever free space is available where people can get together to discuss ideas. Courses offered include Radical Perspectives on Sexuality, Chaos Theory, and The Situationist International and the Contemporary Capitalist Cityscape.
At this month’s meeting on Feb. 15, AnarchistU student Chris Bowen, 22, presented his proposal for a course he wants to facilitate next semester about the history of elites. Courses are selected based on these presentations and, like all decisions, accepted or rejected on a consensus basis.
Bowen has been a student at the Anarchist Free University since January. So far, he says, he ahs loved the experience.
“Going to a traditional university didn’t appeal to me at all, but I still love learning and education. I found this, and it just seems to fit with me,” he says. “The whole idea of just learning for the sake of learning is what I love.”
This is one of the ideas AnarchistU strives to stay true to.
“We’re taking away those elements of school that take away from learning,” Smith says.
After less than a full school year, the school is already generating significant interest. Smith says that a growing number of people are looking to get involved as students, facilitators, or even as founders of their own university.
“I want people to see that they can do this if they really want to,” Smith says. “All it really takes is the dedication and commitment of a few people.”
Smith is hoping the momentum the school has picked up so far will continue to carry it forward.
“We’re hoping to shift responsibilities and watch it take on a life of its own, without us holding it up,” he says.