By Nora Newhouse, A.K. Simon, and Charlotte Woods.
Four young men and women were dancing in the middle of a graveled walkway in Madison Square Park last week, flanked by chairs and tables, from which onlookers drank coffee and enjoyed one of the last days of summer. But they were probably unaware that the dancers were participating in a movement class that doubled as a collective protest against the high cost of education.
Fresh off the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street on September 17, New York City students and professors held a four-day “Free University Week” in Madison Square Park from September 18 to September 22. The Free University had previously taken place in the park on May 1, in the midst of Occupy’s “May Day” protests this spring. The grassroots symposium’s chief aim is to “provide an education that is democratic, critical, and accessible to all,” as well as to display solidarity with student movements around the world, according to a press release on its website.
While the park’s lawn was crowded with families, orbited by playful dogs and wandering toddlers, it also housed OWS activists who had laid out a wide array of pamphlets informing participants about the classes available. The most recent edition of the Free University consisted of over 130 lectures and workshops on a diverse range of topics, including “Yoga,” “Capoeira”, and “Screen Printing.” Other courses were more closely related to OWS and how to organize effective social movements, such as “Building a Student Union,” “How Social Movements Win,” and “Radical Potentiality: Recreating Academic Practices in the Humanities.” The program even featured a class titled: “How to Enjoy Dating More in NYC.”
On September 21, New School For Social Research professor Cinzia Arruzza led a class entitled “Teach-in on the European Student Movements.” Keeping with Occupy’s communal attitude, the organizers provided supplies throughout the park in C.A.R.E. stations – an acronym standing for “Comfort/Art/Rest/Energy” – that offered food, art supplies for poster-making, and an area for relaxation between classes and activities.
Caleb Maupin, who is an activist for the Workers World Party and led a class titled “Why Wall Street is War Street”, expressed his disappointment with the media’s coverage of the one-year anniversary. “When the media says it fizzled, that’s the biggest bullshit I’ve ever heard. It was huge,” Maupin said. “It was chaos on Wall Street. There’s no way anyone can call that a fizzle; it was an explosion.”
Others, however, saw The Free University and the student movement in general as the most effective incarnation of Occupy’s ideals. “September 17 had some great direct actions, but there weren’t hundreds of thousand of people in the street,” New School student and Free University participant Sophie Stoneberg said. “A year on, there are no concrete projects apart from Strike Debt and The Free University to mobilize the public. The Free University has kind of restored my faith in this after September 17.”
Despite the differing opinions, attendees agreed that Free University Week was an important event for OWS. To make higher education accessible to everyone, Gregory Rosenthal, a Ph.D student at State University of New York, said that it “needs to be taken out of the classroom and the ivory towers need to be knocked down.”
When asked whether The Free University could actualize its lofty goals of abolishing college tuition and making higher education a free right, Rosenthal said, “We all think so. We’re just figuring out how to get there.”
The Free University will hold a meeting on September 30 at The New School’s Theresa Lang Center to discuss the movement’s next steps.