The Free University Brighton Launch
Red Diamond Dragon Club
My god I love Brighton. I think it when I’m walking down the crowded streets of the North Laine where it feels like being in a festival not a city; I think it when I’m staring out my window over the station and the whole city and I’m thinking it all belongs to me; I thought it on the bus to work this morning over and over again although to be honest this time I was probably still just a little bit drunk from the Free University Brighton launch at The Blind Tiger Club last night.
Brighton prides itself on being radical and subversive. You can tell this because everyone smokes. All right I exaggerate, but a hell of a lot of people smoke; and while smoking has always had a subversive status – this is why it’s ‘cool’ – in recent years, particularly following the ban, it’s become more of a political act. The act of smoking for many people is kind of a fingers-up to the establishment. We know what it does now, we know it’s bad for us, we can’t escape that, but we do it anyway and why? Because it’s our right. It’s my body and as an intelligent adult it ought to be my decision. That being said, pretty soon I’m going to give it up and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to start. As a ‘political act’ it’s fairly arbitrary; and as long as people want to smoke I support their right to make that decision.
I use the example of smoking to illustrate a particular element I’ve found in Brighton; the Brighton that wants to do things differently, to think differently, independently. So the spirit of the Free University Brighton, whose launch I attended on Wednesday, felt very much in tune with this lefty, lefty city. What follows is my notes from the launch, quoted as directly as possible from the speakers and (for this part at least) I’ve tried not to interfere with my own thoughts.
The evening kicked off at about 7.30 with this quotation from the French philosopher, Jacques Rancière, also cited on the FUB website:
The government does not owe the people education for the simple reason that one does not owe the people what it can take for itself. And education is like liberty: it is not given, it is taken.
During this time, said FUB founder Ali Ghanimi, when the government is ‘pitting people against each other’, the intention of the FUB is to bring people together in a spirit of sharing and generosity, to do just that: to reclaim education from the ‘establishment’ and return it to the community, to those who want it. The project is entirely community driven; classes are given by volunteers sharing their knowledge and skills for free.
The first speaker was Caroline Lucas. For those not familiar with the name, she is the MP for Brighton Pavilion, former leader of the Green Party, and the person I want to be when I grow up. As a politician I admire her because she seems singularly honest and straight-talking in a profession that doesn’t exactly resonate such qualities; further to this her policies seem clear-sighted and transparent. Last but certainly not least, she is a charismatic figure; the importance of which especially in politics should not be underestimated.
Lucas proposed that it is always seen as subversive when you do something for free. To do so when all around us is preoccupied with making money is seen as inherently suspicious. This is what makes the Free University project so exciting to. She spoke of the need to rethink education, and to fight the Coalition government’s ‘savage cuts’. As university fees get ever higher and universities become increasingly privatised, pressured to turn a profit like any other business, Lucas proposed that the Free University project is a ‘radical alternative’ to education that has become a ‘commodity’. What about the role of Universities in serving a public good – existing not because education is ‘worth’ something, as in (in a very literal and simplified manner of speaking) we buy our degrees like another accessory, like the suit we wear to an interview to secure the job; but because education is good in itself.
In this sense, the FUB is a challenge to the utilitarian view of education.
Following Caroline Lucas in theme as well as order of speaking was Bob Brecher, a lecturer at the University of Brighton. Brecher spoke about the nature of education as serving two purposes, the first being to make the world a better place and to renew culture; the second being to ‘keep people stupid and in line’. I’m not entirely sure that he qualified that second statement, but he contined on to compare universities today to ‘second-rate businesses’, giving as an example the University of Sussex, which recently hired a Vice Chancellor for the very purpose of making money. Recently, he said, a new position as Professor of Philosophy required applicants to suggest ways in which the department could make money, and to show an entrepreneurial spirit. You don’t have to know terribly much about philosophy and those who practise it to recognise the terrible absurdity of such a requirement.
What makes a free university so exciting, Brecher said, is that by being free, it is totally independent of the establishment and returned to the hands of the students. Very much a ‘power to the people’ thing, a free university is, he said, a challenge to the neoliberal order; a socialist movement; even a communist, in the proper sense.
(Like I said, it is a very lefty town.)
After Brecher, Martin Levy spoke about the free university movement that began in the ‘60s. I had no idea that it had been going on since then (in fact, this was probably the first time I had ever heard of such a project) and the prospect of potentially living in a kind of ‘new sixties’ was obviously exciting to me, as a person who imagines I would probably have fit in pretty well with the era, and also who was on my third cider by this point. Anyway. Like Lucas and Brecher, Levy claimed that conventional education is ‘timid’ and ‘utilitarian’. Again he spoke of Uni Sussex’s Vice Chancellor. The Vice Chancellor, he said, is not thinking about ‘the highest and the best’; he’s thinking about statistical, bureaucratic concerns. His claim for universities is that they should be subversive, and I can see what he means. After all, creativity, and that ‘renewal of culture’ Brecher spoke of, are born out of challenging the rules and a spirit of questioning; not meekly doing just what one is told. In order to thrive, to do what they should be doing, Brecher proposed, universities must be free of authority and not a part of the ‘organised system’.
He spoke of the Anti University of London in the sixties, where there were no examinations and the importance of fun in learning was emphasised. He also reminded us that university education does not necessarily confer any special quality by applauding the ranks of the self-taught, whose members include George Bernard Shaw, the Beats, and Trotsky.
But most importantly – he closed with these words – kindness trumps knowledge.
I think that’s a good sentiment, but probably a topic for another day.
Other speakers followed, including the poet John O’Donaghue, who if I’m correct in assuming that the ‘open house’ of one of his poems refers to the pub, made a very good and accurate reference to the pub my friend Daisy works in, which I know to be a den of all sorts of illicit, kahlua-induced lovin’. But to be honest, that was the high point for me, that reference. I had expected only three speakers and by this point my attention was wandering, and I wanted a fag. Kerry Davis, also from the UoB, and who (I believe) works in community knowledge exchange projects – in other words – connecting people through shared spaces and sharing resources, particularly those who wouldn’t necessarily normally have access to the kind of education offered by universities, had some very good things to say, but my notes I’m sorry to say are sketchy at best.
Finally were a pair of student speakers from the ‘Occupy Sussex’ movement, who I have to be completely honest failed to convince me at all. I’ve never been entirely certain what this (Sussex-specific, to be clear) movement was about; I’m not sure that it’s proponents do either; and they didn’t enlighten me.
I was extremely pleased to be attending this event. Education is perhaps the one thing I’m more passionate about than any other; and I found many of my own views reflected in what the speakers had to say. Even at the ‘monolithic’ and (according to a couple of the speakers here) ‘conventional’ University of Sussex, there was a strong feeling of dissent about our current system of education. In particular the emphasis on measurable achievements, and that for professors, who are required to produce a certain number of papers to earn their keep, as well as for students. One of my most influential (to me) tutors wrote a paper on the subject of education that pre-empted many of the things spoken about at this event; he recently repeated to me his unhappiness with the university system. As an undergraduate studying Philosophy I frequently came up against people sneering at my subject for it’s lack of practical relevance. In turn, I looked down on them for studying a subject as (to me, then) abominable as Economics – as presumably they were only in university to get a degree that could secure them a job as a banker or accountant and I could think of nothing worse, more boring, more lacking in spirit, and generally lower – whereas I, the lone bastion of principles in a degraded world, was learning for learning’s sake. Despite my snobbery I can’t really apologise. My views haven’t changed.
As noble as I believe the Free University Brighton’s aims to be, however, I am not wholly without concerns. While I agree that it’s inappropriate for universities to become commoditised, and that they have become too mired in those ‘measurable achievements’, placing quantity over quality, I would not go so far as Levy in saying that universities should be without exams or assessments. While it’s true that those things alone don’t foster a spirit of learning, and true that in university half the seats in lecture theatres are absent of the students that are supposed to be there (or worse: in my Heidegger seminar, one of the best I took once I got through the first few bloody difficult weeks and began to grasp it, by the end the class was down to just four of us regularly attending, out of twelve who’d begun it), learning that’s entirely free of structure and measurement is likely just as bad.
I can demonstrate this by an example from the part of the night directly following the speakers, which was a session of ‘speed learning’ in which various volunteer tutors from FUB gave three minute talks on their subjects. During this, I asked one tutor a question – admittedly a very tricky question, on a tricky subject of which I’ve not much knowledge at all and was keen to learn (if I don’t tell you what it is it’s only because I don’t want to embarrass the person in the very unlikely event that he should read this). But he couldn’t answer it. If this was a ‘conventional’ university I would be pretty shocked if a tutor couldn’t answer my question, not even a little bit. I think I would be doing the FUB a disservice if I was lenient due to its ‘special’ status. What I’m saying is that without any measurable standards, how are we to know that what’s being taught is correct? How are tutors supposed to know that their students are really getting it? How are the skills learnt here to be translated into the ‘real world’?
This brings me nicely onto my next point. First of all, I’m not sure that I think that skills learnt at the FUB should be or indeed are intended to be translated into the ‘real world’. By ‘real world’ I guess I mean the established order, in which we get qualifications, get a job, earn money etc. It occurred to me that the FUB is in a way setting itself against the order, which I think is both necessary and good. But it is still a part of this order. We can’t escape the fact that, leaving civilisation and becoming self-sufficient aside, we still really have to earn money, we have to co-operate with the way the world works. For all his talk of communism, Bob Brecher still earns a salary from the University of Brighton, and it’s his recognised work and status that allowed him to be speaking at the Blind Tiger this night. My question is, is the Free University Brighton going to remain purely reactionary, and therefore complicit; or is its ultimate intention to properly challenge, and therefore suggest an alternative to the current order?
I’m not saying that if so it ought to draw up a manifesto. Real, positive political change (I think) can only be achieved gradually and organically. I see this as organic, a slow snowballing whose beginning was marked by the Occupy movement. But I’d be interested to know their answer, and whether they’d be bold enough to answer affirmatively if, really, it is. Or perhaps the people behind it don’t know. Fair enough. But if not, I reckon they probably ought to think about it.
(and so, the afterparty)
This is an unusual political post; previously I’ve made a conscious decision to steer clear. I hope I have remained objective; it’s quite late and I got to bed rather late last night having remained at the Blind Tiger for the afterparty for which my friends’ (and one-time fellow students at Sussex) band, Red Diamond Dragon Club (incidentally a couple of years ago I got to see another friend’s band playing the Blind Tiger Club – then known as Hector’s House – so it seems to be becoming a thing) and a great funk-hip hop band called Funge – who did a most excellent cover of Jamiroquai’s Deeper Underground – played.
Listen. I would like to write more but I have almost certainly gone on too long already (I imagine this needs a lot of editing that I won’t do at least for a while but I want to get this up while it’s fresh, you see, and before I set off for a busy busy bank holiday weekend and won’t have the chance) and also at the time of writing it is very late and I am very, very tired.
I nevertheless hope you’ve enjoyed this in one way or another (at least for the music, right? Or for the Lucas); please share if you did, and please leave your comments should you agree, disagree, or have any thoughts at all on the above; because this being a subject so important and so interesting to me, I’d like to know and to discuss.