This guest post by Prof. Len Krimerman is in conjunction with the current exhibition Day-Glo & Napalm: UConn 1967-1971, an exhibition guest curated by alumnus George Jacobi (Class of ’71) on the student times of the late 1960s and early 1970s at UConn and in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Music Festival of 1969. Currently on display until October 25th, 2019.
By Len Krimerman*
BEFORE THE BEGINNING
“Anarchism at UCONN” may seem a baffling title or an attempt at dry humor. We are, after all, not talking about the ‘60s and ‘70s at UC Berkeley or Ann Arbor’s University of Michigan. And today our own state’s flagship university is safely and securely nestled within what its region delights in calling itself – “the quiet corner”.
But I can assure you, there really were years, not days or months, when anarchy, or something very much akin to it, had a place within and was tolerated by UCONN. Though there is now no tangible trace of this anarchic educational venture, and no documentation of it in the official histories of this University, it actually did emerge, and it had a great run.
So let me tell a bit of this radical experiment’s story. The idea of it came to life in an undergraduate course in social and political philosophy I was teaching in the Fall of 1968. We were discussing social critic Paul Goodman’s The Community of Scholars, which certainly sounds tame enough. But his book’s challenging anarchic thesis was that several of Europe’s finest universities were founded, during the Italian Renaissance, by “secession”. Faculty thwarted by rigid state or clerical bureaucracy simply quit, taking with them dozens of their students, and created self-directed places like the University of Florence.
If that worked so well centuries ago, he continued, why not try it here and now, this time pulling away from the equally rigid corporate and often militarized universities so dominant in our contemporary culture?
It was the late ’60s, and even our normally quiescent campus was flaming in revolt; some buildings were “occupied”, others were defaced; attempts at recruitment by Dow Chemical, the maker of Napalm – used viciously in Vietnam – were obstructed by protesters, Trustee meetings were disrupted, etc. To many in the class, the notion of secession seemed a wiser and more effective form of dissent. But we were stymied as to how to make this radical notion come alive in a practical, down-to-earth way. Suddenly, a hand shot up with an ingenious proposal that changed everything: it at once drew on Goodman’s separatist notion, while still enabling direct protest against the University. The proposer raised just the exquisitely right question: “Why do we need to secede outside the University; why not instead secede within it?” Individualized evaluations would be substituted for competitive grades, and students and faculty could collaborate on what and how they would learn. Students could avoid most or even all of the dreaded, and often not very useful, “required subjects” imposed by faculty senates, and learn how to democratically manage their own educational community.
Furthermore, seceding inside our university would make us visible to the rest of the campus, and help us inspire others to experiment in their own diversified ways. And if we forged a place for ourselves on campus, we would then have access to library, laboratory, and human resources, rather than having to somehow duplicate them on a shoestring budget.
A CALL TO ACTION, and OUR EVENTUAL SECESSION
Though unexpected, this proposal was no idle suggestion, but a call to actively innovate with an idea that eventually resonated with numerous folks in many parts of the campus. Within a few weeks, a large group of students and a smaller one of faculty met to consider how to most forcefully insist on the need and value of a place right on campus for “internal secession” – a place we had begun to call, the “Inner College”(IC).
In 1969, we became advocates for this new (to us) educational initiative, bringing people from similar university alternatives in Maine and New York to meet with UCONN administrators, and attracting a substantial multidisciplinary group of faculty supporters. It took awhile, but for whatever reason, the university admins gave in. (We often wondered why; perhaps they thought their support would make us less likely to participate in protests and demonstrations?) They gave us a year’s time to begin the program, and to convince the University Senate that the IC should go forward beyond that. After lengthy canvassing of progressive faculty, and to our most joyful surprise, the Senate finally voted to give us two more years. And they did so with only a few restraints; for example, we were limited to accepting no more than 60 students in any semester (others often joined us through “independent study” courses), and we were required to report regularly to the Senate on how the program was taking shape.
In 1970, our experiment applied for and received a three-year National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant. This ensured that we could continue to rely on several staff members who had been working, often with little pay, since our program began. (They had all been students in – and founders of – the IC.) Just for us, the university had set aside a little-used trailer in one of its peripheral parking lots. It was a place for general meetings, some classes, continuous mentoring, a photography dark room (remember, it’s still only the early ‘70s), the development of the Inner Tooth, our literary magazine, and several other activities. Many of these and others, including an ongoing pottery workshop and printings of the very first UCONN Free Press, also took place in the basement of a house immediately off campus adjacent to Mansfield Supply, where I lived along with several others over the entire six year life of the IC.
For the most part, the IC’s experiment with internal secession worked remarkably well. Many, perhaps most, of our students found the IC’s learner directed environment a bit bewildering at first, but they adapted fairly quickly to the wider range of possibilities we offered. Students went to Cuba to study its unique childcare system, and to Guatemala to live with peasant farmers. They went on trips to Canadian Free Schools and several IC-like universities and colleges on the West Coast, and they wrote in some detail about all of their experiences with these educational allies. We did give grades, but these were based largely on each student’s own self-evaluation, and less so, on extensive written evaluations by our staff and faculty. Each student had a team of three mentors or advisors: a peer from the IC, one of our staff, and any faculty member of their own choice.
Tracking our students, we found that they were accepted into graduate and professional degree programs at a rate higher than other UCONN students generally. Additionally, many had put together singular off-campus projects. One of these was WALE (Willimantic Alternative Learning Experience), which tutored its young and diverse students in an apartment across from the city’s Natchaug Elementary School; the School eventually invited them into its classrooms to do their good tutoring work. And several worked as mentors within two “free schools” in our region, one in Willimantic, and the other in Stafford.
Predictably, there were clashes within the IC, some of which we handled well, others poorly. At one point, we had two faculty coordinators, who disagreed during an IC meeting over whether we should put a priority on “academic excellence”, along with our non-directive sensibility. Rather than seeking a compromise or collaborative position, both coordinators offered – more accurately, they threatened – to resign should their own position not be upheld by the whole group.
None of us were well prepared for, or had much experience with, “conflict resolution”, a skill – or art, really – that we gradually recognized as indispensable in an almost totally egalitarian environment. In mainstream institutions, if two or more people disagree there’s typically someone in place whose formal position – as a boss, a manager, a university president, a section chief or department head – allows them to settle disputes. Eliminating those positions of authority requires the development of new norms and relationships – especially as regards settling conflicts – agreed to by the whole community. This was not always our strongest suit; we learned mostly that we had much more to learn.
Coming Alive and a Safe Refuge
But perhaps what has always struck me most forcefully about our educational secession is its very direct connection to “coming alive,” a connection it shares with a family of similar forms of community life. While some people can come alive and remain enlivened on their own, most of us need at least occasional guidance and support from others. More specifically, we need some very safe refuge where the masks and habits that we have internalized can be seen for the external and often disempowering forces they are, and can be discarded. For example, in far too many cases students enter colleges and universities with “career goals” others have chosen for them. And their experience with “education” has been one compromised by endless, heartless competition, and the threat of penalties for non-compliance. To move beyond these, and find our own genuine desires may often require a safe space that honors self-direction and enables us to become and remain fully alive.
The IC, despite its deficiencies and lack of experience, frequently played this important role, offering a substantial degree of safe refuge, within a community supporting self-direction. Here’s part of a poem which beautifully expresses our common experience:
The Choice: A Memory from Freshman Year
….One day the head of the Honors Program
Called me into his office and said I had to choose —
My place in Honors or my class with you.
There was no contest. I knew freedom when I saw it,
The heady music of thought and action combined,
The brilliance that bloomed in all of us
Because you had the courage to believe in it.
I walked away, and stumbled headlong
Through that door you opened
Into a field of struggle and light
Where nothing goes down smooth
But meaning and purpose always beckon.
(written by Elena Stone)
Elena’s poem captures my own feelings about the IC’s experiment. I would only add that there was an ongoing two-sided road of reciprocity between those who believed in our student-learners, and those learners themselves. We – the initiators of that unusually free experiment – were no less stumbling, at the outset, than those we mentored or encouraged. None of us had any real prior experience with self-directed education, though some had read or taught about it. But we were willing to risk engaging fully in it; and it was our learners’ brilliance more than any academic readings or prior teaching experience, that gifted us with the practical wisdom to learn with and from them. Yes, the beauty of the IC was to offer freedom, but freedom within a learning community that enabled each independent learner to find the support he or she sought most.
My own IC experience led me to a vastly different path from academia, and its too often impersonal roles of “teacher” and “professor”. Instead, this experiment pushed me to focus on creating safe spaces and self-directed learning communities, both inside and outside the academy – anywhere I could play, grow, dance, imagine, and rebel collectively and constructively.
There is no magic bullet or generic recipe for developing a long-lasting learning community, much less a whole society, that honors coming alive and autonomy. But the IC, I think, provides a small but useful step towards that, and a good sense – a pre-figuration – of what such a society might actually be like. Virtually all of our dominant institutions face in the opposite direction; they prefer, indeed depend on, our remaining voiceless, captive, and other-directed, rather than being exuberant, empowered, and self-directed.
Maybe it’s time now, five decades later, for many more types of secession, many more diverse learning communities, and safe spaces. As John Dewey once wrote: “Democracy must be born anew in every generation….”
Interested in how any of this might take place, or is already happening? If so, send your feedback, questions, disagreements….to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.*
Many, many thanks to Marian Vitali, my wife, for much needed editing and long time support.