Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Goodbye Really Free School

It’s with sadness that I discover the Really Free School has shut down. It was one of the most original responses to education cuts, a band of misfits occupying buildings to host voluntary lecture programmes, taking a grand piano with them wherever they went.

Back in February I joined forces with Corporate Watch, in presenting a primer on the financial crisis at the school. It took place in an old mansion in Bloomsbury Square, in an upper-floor room with a projector. I had a double-sided A5 page of notes. On the one side was written ‘Credit; Ownership; Currency; Commodities; Derivatives’. On the other side was written “Commercial banks, investment banks, interdealer brokers; Institutional investors, hedge funds, private equity”. I started by holding it up and saying, “On this side is all the stuff the financial sector deals with, and on this other side, is all the people that deal with it.”

That’s not entirely accurate, but I’m a believer in establishing simple frameworks around complicated topics. It at least allows listeners to feel in control, rather than the panic brought on when someone raps about abstract evils and twisted theories. In the audience was a zonked-out cat called Andy – he’d worked for a hedge fund, and subsequently progressed into a life of squatting and community work. People think that’s strange, but I don’t think so at all: The hedge-fund hounds are often individuals on the borderline, interesting people with crazy ideas. We got chatting afterwards about financial activism, a fascinating topic I'll develop on in later blog posts.

I went back to the school several times. I took notes at a workshop on internet security. I watched a film about a feminist revolution. I saw a lady called Barb Jacobson give a talk about alternative monetary systems. I arrived for a session on setting up a ‘Timebank’, but nobody pitched up to give it. I attended an amazing poetry session, got drunk and recited my favourite haiku: “Oh avocado, how tasty you are to me, all green and mushy.”

There was some stuff of questionable quality. Like part 3 of that film Zeitgeist, utterly shite. And then there was the talk by a guy who’d written a paper on tax havens. He spoke endlessly about critical theory, rather than tax havens, and used words like ‘aporia’ and ‘bios’. At some point I lost it and had to leave.

But, when push comes to shove, that was the real beauty of the Really Free School. If you wanted to contribute, you really were free to do so, and if you wanted to leave, you could. The real question is whether it ever had the internal impetus to keep going. Perhaps it needed a more directed education programme, a process of strategically commissioning talks rather than relying on organic volunteering. The idea of a travelling school materialising in old buildings is catchy, but you need substance to complete it.

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