In defence of the really free school

This article was not written by someone who was involved in creating the free school.  It's an impression by someone who happens to know a few things — not at all the whole story — about what went on there.  In one sense the free school doesn't need defending.  It is what it is.  But in another sense, there's work to be done, I hope these words help.

Media madness

The student protests have produced a few headlines over the last few months — usually teamed with carefully selected images of disorder.  In the last week, the tabloids had a new reason to pay attention.  A house owned by Guy Ritchie was occupied by the Really Free School, bringing a flock of Murdoch's henchmen and the rest to the scene.  The beeb even had their man give a little tour of the place at a quiet moment, against the wishes of the inhabitants.  To me, the most interesting part of his report was the view of a few local people who seemed more curious than angry.  "I really would like to know what they're about — you know, what does it mean?"  Despite the information on the website that could have answered this, the BBC reporter did not oblige.

Most of the freeschoolers had read enough about the media in the UK and elsewhere to know that they would not be fairly represented whatever they did or said, and not surprisingly took a dim view of the media's attempts to enter the place and talk to them, some even coining the acronym "AJAB", meaning "All Journos Are Bastards".  Their expectations were borne out in some smears by the likes of the News of the World.  So what is the real story?  The people who participated in this occupation, like those that came before at colleges and universities around the country after Parliament's vote on fees, know what they are about.  Using the web, we can reach out and try to put the media spin right for ordinary people who might never have come across things like this in the past, like the people in the BBC clip.  And we can defend the free school from bad arguments and propaganda.

What's the point?

Despite the extra media attention, Ritchie was a side issue.  The point was that his property had previously been a language school, making it a great target for a creative action in the fight to roll back the government attack on education and learning, and to make a model, however small, of a better system.  The present austerity measures are not fair or necessary.  Instead, they are designed to enrich the rich who fund the major political parties.  Normal people in Britain have a tiny fraction of real political power in the UK compared to corporate donors so wealthy that they can, collectively, make or break parties (read more about the issues here and here).  There's no real need for any measures like increasing fees, cutting back on university funding, or cutting the EMA, which helped the poorest college students to travel to their classes.  Students also want to support the struggle of working people facing reduced public services, being sacked from public sector (and other) jobs, and facing high unemployment, insecure futures, and less bargaining power because of the government's "loose labour market" policies, all to increase profit for employers.  These are the issues that brought the students into the streets and helped propel the occupations.  Before Ritchie's place, the free school had another location for some time but received very little attention from the corporate press.

Still, the occupation of a famously rich person's house does bring up issues that puzzled some onlookers.

You, me and Guy

Fair enough, some might say, you might think the cuts are rubbish.  But what did poor old Guy do to have his gaf taken over?  Didn't he earn his money fair and square?  Can't he do what he likes with it?  And what did you people do to deserve a big house like that?

Let's think that through.  I believe that people should get paid for the trouble they go to for society: the effort and sacrifice they put into their work.  I'd hazard a guess that most would agree.  But we don't live in a society like that.  Let's put it as a question for the reader.  Someone offers you a choice: either you can be trained to do Guy Ritchie's job, doing everything Guy did to learn his trade, or you can be trained to be a coal-miner.  But here's the interesting part: either way you'll be paid the same for the work and training — maybe even a bit more for mining.  Which one do you choose?  Well, if you could hold either job down, no-one would choose the mining gig.  Guy Ritchie's job is more interesting and rewarding, and less harsh.  That's right: this shows that, by any sane person's standards, he puts in less effort and sacrifice than the coal miner.  The reason he earned fabulous wealth is not because the world is fair.  It's because not many people do have the choice laid out above, leaving people like Guy extra bargaining power to demand pots of cash.  The amount of people with any serious chance of getting to where he is now is very limited.  The deck was stacked from the beginning with a privileged upbringing and an expensive, network-building education.  Given what Ritchie had, do we really think that there's no-one working in Asda right now who could have made a better film than Revolver or Swept Away?  I mean, Swept Away?  If you like Guy Ritchie's movies, you might say that it isn't as bad as all that — he gets some of his power from his unusual talent.  But, even if it's true, does the luck of being born with talent (rather than actual effort and sacrifice) justify getting 100 times the pay of a harder job?  And don't even get us started on the likes of Paris Hilton, who have barely ever even lifted a finger.  There are more of them about than most people think.

You see, it's not the students that are spongers, trying to get by without being saddled with huge debts to pay off when they are dumped into a harsh labour market.  It's not the public sector workers, threatened by council cuts and the CSR job massacre.  It's not the unemployed, lost in an insane world in which there are less jobs than people that can fit into them, forced to jump through humiliating, pointless hoops to get their JSA.  Look at the figures.  The amount of unearned wealth held by the top 2% towers over any "sponging" that goes on in the benefits system, even by the widest definitions of sponging (which are wrong anyway, but that's another story).  In a world where around 34 million die for lack of nutrition every year, while 1% of the global military budget could feed, clothe and shelter all these people, justice and the way our society works are two very, very different things.  There's no point in pretending otherwise.

There's no hatred or resentment of Guy himself here, or any other person for that matter.  But lack of hate and resentment for individuals doesn't make wrong into right.  So if we are going to shed tears for anyone, please, let's shed none for the delay of Mr. Ritchie's building plans.  His lawyers might say he can control tens of millions of pounds-worth of resources that could be put to better use; economic justice says otherwise.

Another comment might be: but you can't just break the rules like that — what if everyone did?  The answer is another question: whose rules?  In a country where ordinary people have virtually no say over what the law is, and are deprived even of the information and time they would need to make an informed decision on it, obeying the law is a tactic, not a principle.  Put another way, obeying the law isn't equivalent to doing the right thing.  Like Gandhi and Martin Luther King before them (not to mention unsung heroes of the peace movement like David Dillinger) the free-schoolers weighed up the possible disruption caused by their actions against the potential gains for society.  Besides which, some of the locals seemed quite impressed by the free school, if their website is anything to go by.

What is education?

Does the free school give you official qualifications?  No.  Will it help you to be a successful corporate employee?  Probably not!  But giving and receiving lessons at the school will make you think. It will improve your life and those of people around you.  It will help you to change the world.  Learning is political.  Paulo Freire once wrote: "There is no such thing as a neutral educational process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the practice of freedom – the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with the reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world."  The free school was meant as just such a practice of freedom.

In classes as diverse as posture therapy to particle physics, local history to language, politics to pop music, this was a taste of education as it was always meant to be.  We heard how, outside the walls of the free school, what education there is to be found is bent to the needs of a sick system.  How working class kids don't learn much at school apart from taking orders and enduring boredom, preparing them for a life of repetitive labour.  And how those bound for technical jobs and high-level management are made to understand that social conscience can't be allowed to interfere with improving their own employability (see the work of Jeff Schmidt, who was sacked from an academic job for writing about this process).  One participant related that scientists at a certain highly respected University are taught (in a mandatory course, no less) not to spread knowledge, but to keep their group's ideas secret before a mock meeting in which they "sell" their "commodity" to a "venture capitalist".  In course material they are recommended to "treat everyone you meet like a potential employer".  We heard how research money is given out by the military machine, and how to be a "good" researcher one must not, or must learn not to, care too much about this.

The end result of this process is the rise of people like the creator of the atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer.  Take a moment to guess what his reaction to Hiroshima might have been, and then read the following passage. "He entered that meeting like a prize fighter. As he walked through the hall there were cheers and shouts and applause all round and he acknowledged them in the fighters salute — clasping his hands above his head as he came to the podium."  Bethe, another contributor to the vaporising, poisoning and burning alive of so many children, commented glowingly that "the intellectual experience was unforgettable".  An extreme disconnection with the suffering of others is usually called psychopathy.  For these scientists, it was simply what they needed to do in order to satisfy their funders. This is what the spirit of discovery and learning finally becomes under the grip of power and profit.

Scientists want to understand the world.  Artists want to fully realise it, explore meanings and touch others.  Crafts-people and nurses, mechanics, linguists and planning experts, all have their own satisfactions from their learning.  As well as personal satisfaction, people want their work to matter to society.  The system we live under distorts and perverts those simple human motives in the scramble for profit, power and market share.  It doesn't have to be that way.  The free school was one part of the effort to struggle with the chains that have been placed around learning, and, one day, to smash them once and for all and build a better system.

Can we win?

What's achieved, in the long run?  Sure, you had some times with your grand piano and your Vinny Jones masks, but does it really help to improve life for anyone else?  This deserves an answer, and there is a good one.  The free school is just one part of a long story, stretching both forward and backward through history.  Sure, it won't have the Tories begging for mercy on the doorstep.  But with each small step, new people hear the word about a free society.  Others become better organisers, and find out new things about the world and themselves that will help in the struggle ahead.  Plans are made and understandings are built.  More and more people realise that power never gave up anything without a fight.  More people learn how to fight.

In the Vietnam era, there were many occupations and "teach-ins" too, where people discussed ideas and learned in a free setting.  Like the free school, it wasn't about back-patting and pointless gestures.  Soon, there was a massive movement of ordinary Americans burning draft cards, disrupting recruitment and generally raising the costs of the war to an unbearable degree for the political elite.  Worried, among other things, about the consequences if yet more people joined such a widespread and radical anti-government struggle (as government documents confirm), they backed down.  From women's rights to civil rights, from the poll tax to the destruction of the Tory government in the 70's, going back to elementary worker's rights on time, conditions and pay, struggle has played a crucial but hidden part in history.  Even when the odds of winning have been worse that they seem now, ordinary people have refused to disconnect themselves from social problems.  They have risen up, and won.  The free school taught about this struggle.  Its "graduates" know that we can win again.

On March the 26th there will be, perhaps, the biggest protest in the history of the working people's movement in Britain.  Like the school, protest is part of the bigger picture.  Half and million people?  Enough to occupy every public building and corporate headquarters in London, if they chose to.  A million?  Enough to shatter the cage that holds us all, if they could see the bars.  We'll be there, discussing, learning, organising, planning a better future.

What can we win?

In the first instance, we can win a roll-back of the government attack on learning and working people in general.  We can win an economy in which employers have to work to find scarce employees, drawing money to the bottom of the pile, not the other way around.  These things are not to far off if we push ahead hard enough.  But the system always pushes back.  So where are we headed?  The participants and the free school had many, many different opinions about this question.  This is just one.

It's a long way from most people's experience, but working people do have the ability control their own lives.  In a factory taken over and run by workers in Argentina, one woman went from working in front of a furnace to doing the books and making financial decisions in a matter of months.  The hardest thing for her?  Learning how to read.  Another worker commented that no amount of money would make him go back the the corporate way of life.  You would have to shoot him to make him to give up his new-found dignity and control.  Remember that people thought it was impossible for women to be surgeons in the 1930's.  Now it is impossible to deny, and we can barely understand how someone could think that way.  The same will be said about the abilities of all working people in the future.

There is a way to make an economy where everyone gets their share of the pie.  Where everyone has a meaningful say over decisions that affect them.  And where education is not neglected and distorted to serve the needs of the profit machine, but run instead to better everyone's lives.  It's not a pipe dream, but a well thought-out way work and consume efficiently.  Take a look at participatory economics, and see if you think it's worth fighting for.

We don't all agree on all of the details, and we don't have to.  Some concentrate on one issue, others on something else.  Together, these disparate people can come together for social change.  We have seen that in the free school.  And we will see it on the streets in March.

The experience

Social activism isn't about martyrdom. It isn't about infighting and criticism.  It isn't even about looking yourself in the mirror and telling yourself you're on the right side.  It's about winning change.  And as well as that, it's creative, empowering and fun.  In the free school, jazz mixed with street rhymes, science jargon mixed with slang, grand pianos and cell-phones both added to the music, and people realised each other's humanity in a new way.  More than that, we realised that it's better to stay connected to society's problems than to shy away from them.  Getting stuck in doesn't lead to more sadness, but more sense of empowerment, connection to life, and more laughs as well.  Maybe the Vinnie Jones masks did conceal a tear of frustration or two at the speed of the eviction on the second location, after all the hard work of installing everything needed to live sustainably in the house.  But, I'm told, they were outweighed by the smiles and songs as the school moved to its third location.  So the struggle goes on.

Long live the really free school!

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