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Subverting institutionalized education with
free classes and radical organizing / by Chris Lee

What’s wrong with higher education today? First off, it’s expensive. Second, it’s not very fun. Lastly, it’s expensive, like wildly expensive, like reality-tv-prize-money expensive.

The average cost of four years tuition at a private college is about $125,000, which, to put things into perspective, is $25,000 more than what you would get for winning RuPaul’s Drag Race (minus the sickening supply of ColoRevolution cosmetics).

Most people living in Boston have likely faced the reality of higher education being more than just an apparatus for teaching and learning—it’s broader than that, of course, and vastly more influential. Higher education institutions, especially large research universities, are determinative of their surroundings. Their growth shapes physical spaces; their findings shape cultural conditions and social norms. Living in Boston means coming to terms with a handful of educational institutions centering the economic and developmental infrastructure of our immediate environments.

This situation isn’t unique to Boston, but it is uniquely daunting. An alternative education seems impossible, until someone dares to imagine otherwise.

Four years ago, I met Christian Greer, one of three co-founders of Corvid College, an experiment in radical education and one of the most active organizations for alternative schooling in Boston. At the time, Christian and I were both enrolled in graduate programs at Harvard, an ironic juxtaposition, perhaps, but one that conveys the thorny mixture of institutional allegiances and decidedly non-institutional desires that seems to permeate this city.

I was puzzled by the idea of radical education at first—definitely surprised, a little skeptical. Corvid is a puzzling thing. It’s a non-accrediting school; it’s mostly free; it has no centralized space; and its student body is mostly made up of self-declared burnouts, weirdos, and punks. In short, it’s a hard sell, at least by the standards set for educational institutions today, which dole out diplomas with one hand and demand endowments with the other.

Comparatively, Corvid classes ask very little in the way of money, though instructors are encouraged to set their own economic preferences, whether it be sliding-scale fees, beers, or baked goods. Participation is also less than mandatory: attendance is rarely called, save for the occasional guilt-trip grouptext (‘wotsup where r u?’). Classes are held out of people’s homes, sympathetic spaces, or wherever else radical education is welcome (and, in some cases, where it is decidedly unwelcome).

In the years I was active in Corvid, it was a boozy, boisterous affair. Classes wouldn’t so much end as they’d evolve into drinking games or impromptu charades tournaments. But for all of the nonsense I shared in Corvid’s irreverent ethos, the focus on learning was taken very seriously (albeit never too seriously). When Christian moved to San Francisco (and again to Amsterdam), expanding Corvid’s network of alternative education, I took on classes of my own, starting with a four-week seminar on what I called ‘Strong Apathy: The Politics of Whatever.’ Corvid offered me an opportunity to broach subjects that lacked grounding disciplines: slacktivism, comics, astrology. I was given a chance to care a lot about not caring a lot, and I was grateful to find a small but similar-minded group of not-carers.

The flexibility of radical education lends it a buzzy appeal, but it isn’t always conducive to long-term stability. Without space, funding, or accreditation, interest can wane as quickly as it can rise, and organizers can find themselves struggling to sustain ongoing classes or projects. The autonomous, non-hierarchical structure of Corvid affords great freedom to its teachers and students, which allows for periods of transition such as the one Corvid is currently experiencing.

Last month, a group of Corvid organizers announced that they were restructuring under a new heading, the Greater Boston Free School. Corvid College will continue operations under the direction of Eric Buck, one of the original founders of the school, while the Greater Boston Free School will organize independently with a new agenda and mission. It’s too soon to tell how this amicable split will bear out, but it bodes well for the state of radical education in Boston that both Corvid and the Greater Boston Free School are continuing to challenge traditional modes of pedagogy.

The loss of The Phoenix has struck a heavy blow to organizations like Corvid, which rely on unconventional media to promote their causes. Moreover, increased crackdowns on DIY spaces and soaring rent costs have ensured that dedicated spaces for countercultural activity are few and far between. But the project of alternative education is resilient, and its continued relevance drives my contribution to this running column, FREE’S KOOL.

Future pieces might address classes I’ve taught, report on recent developments in radical education, explore specific models for alternative learning, or feature interviews with active organizers. Ultimately, though, what grounds this series are a few core beliefs—that knowledge can be shared and not suppressed; that we can learn collectively, chaotically; and that education can operate alongside play.

A funny thing happened at The Media launch party two weeks ago. A few hours in, just as I was about to leave, someone (was it me? does anyone remember?) said, “Friendship pyramid.” And one by one we followed suit, kneeling to support each other in a ridiculous spectacle. Friendship pyramids were a popular pastime in the Corvid circle, and often capped a night of freewheeling classes. One year we managed to touch the ceiling of a Somerville apartment with a wobbly tower stacked four high. We all held the pose for a quick picture until we collapsed in a bruised pile.

The photo didn’t come out right.

There’s a kind of clunky metaphor to be made here about radical organization. A structure made up of human bodies is not made to last. Physically, it’s exhausting, and it hurts when you all fall down. But in the thick of things, it’s exhilarating, it’s weird, and no one can stop smiling. The Media, as I see it, has a lot in common with this kind of reckless play: an ad hoc ethic, a fearlessness about fucking off, a dissatisfaction with the way things are, and a hope that something better can exist, even if it has to be willed into being.

For more information on Corvid College:

For more information on the Greater Boston Free School:

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