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Walking the Walk: Occupy Philadelphia Forges Ahead with a Free University

Occupy Philadelphia's Free University Working Group. Photo by Dustin Slaughter

In a cafe mere blocks from posh Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, 25 or so activists assemble to chart a new course for the Occupy Philadelphia movement. It’s an idea that was just as subversive some 50 years ago as it is today, and perhaps more so, given the deepening crisis facing primary and higher education.

The first Free University of Philadelphia working group meeting has convened, and it is composed of a broad cross-section of people: professors from Bryn Mawr, Villanova, and Princeton; a homeless, unemployed construction worker; citizen journalists; and of course, activists who have committed themselves to the movement here since it began here in October.

As Larry Swetman, an activist and one of several behind Occupy Philadelphia’s Free University initiative tells me:

“When I got the chance to go to college I realized the empowering nature of education, and how it can change everything. It can make your life and it can also break it. I come from the poverty mindset, and those who haven’t had a chance to be educated, I can’t stand for that anymore. I have to educate people so they can better themselves.”

Larry Swetman. Photo by Dustin Slaughter

Many here who want to teach have become disillusioned with how education has shifted to a commercialized enterprise–charter schools and for-profit colleges–and are upset that rising tuition and school closures have shut out an increasing number of people from a chance to better their minds.

Others, like Jacob Russell, who is a published author and artist, feel that it is necessary to “get rid of the gatekeepers of literature and integrate the arts into all aspects of life.”

Initial courses such as comparative literature, creative writing, race and gender studies, physics and even a course on how to change car oil have all been discussed. The idea is to continue building course offerings if the idea grows in popularity and attracts more teachers.

Still others here just want to help build a fresh way of learning, a horizontal model that would take a page from the non-hierarchical General Assembly that the Occupy movement has become known for, and in so doing, introduce new students to the process of direct democracy.

How this would translate into the classroom remains to be seen.

One aspect of this endeavor that is more certain, however, is the venue where the university might be based: the Elkins Estate. This sprawling property was once the home of William L. Elkins. According to the estate’s website:

“Elkins was largely responsible for the production of the first gasoline ever refined from petroleum at Philadelphia’s Monument Oil Works, which was established and operated by Elkins until his partnership with John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil Company in 1875.”

Elkins Estate

The irony of nurturing an idea with anti-capitalist overtones in a space where oil barons once rubbed elbows is certainly not lost on this group. The arrangement to use the estate as a venue has not been finalized, however, and a rotating list of locations is under consideration – including Rittenhouse Square.

Other occupations are taking up the idea too, including Occupy Berkeley. The concept of a free university seems like a natural outgrowth of this movement. The encampments, despite the national crackdown, are meant to be a microcosm of what occupiers want the world to be.

What’s that saying that’s so often shouted by protesters nowadays? Oh, that’s right: “You can’t evict an idea.”