Free classes for all

UOTC teachers and collective members pose at the June 2 launch event

Why should you need an expensive libereral arts education to ponder the question of realism, or pricey equipment to take a film making class? You don't- the University of the Commons (UOTC) dove into its schedule of free, open to all classes a few weeks ago, and the effort is growing.

In a panel discussion at the summer session's launch June 2, speakers placed the school in a radical context, mentioning other efforts such as D-Q University and Black Panther liberation schools like the Oakland Community School. 

The group's mission statement says that the UOTC "aims to inspire participants to evolve more equitable and just societies and live more empowered and fulfilling lives." The school isn’t accredited and students won’t get any formal acknowledgment of having taken classes there. 

It does, however, have some system-approved teachers. Dr. Barbara-Ann Lewis, who is teaching a class called Science Literacy to any and all who show up, is no newbie. She received her PhD in Soil Science from UC Berkeley in 1971, worked as a scientist at Argonne National Laboratory for seven years, and then taught environmental engineering at Northwestern for another 27. Since then she worked a stint as a violin-maker (“it’s good to have a trade,” she told me).

So what’s a pro like Lewis doing in a place like this? For her, its almost civic duty. “I want to teach the public,” she said. “The public votes, but has no idea about some of the real science behind the environmental issues.”

But in many of her university classes, “I had the standard students. They pay tuition, they come in, they don’t know too much about what’s going on in the world. They’ve lost their curiosity.”

She found students with that curiosity in her experience teaching with the Free University of San Francisco last year, Lewis says. “I had an 18-year-old and I had a 50-year-old in the class, lots of kinds of people, who all wanted to learn.”

Warren Lake of the San Francisco Free School, a similar effort that teaches free classes in the city, attended the launch in hopes of joining forces in some way with the UOTC. The Free School, Lake says, started with free yoga classes and has naturally offered movement, dance and other “right-brain pursuits,” compared to the UOTC’s heady academic offerings. Lake sees the Free School as “both a place to incubate teachers and for students to get together.” But when it comes to transferable skills and help along career paths, the picture is more complicated.

The Free School has been around for a few years now, and Lake says the accreditation issue is something he’s “thought about a lot.”

“There are different ways to show expertise,” said Lake. “Making a documentary or writing a book can often work as well as a college degree for showing you are interested of invested in something. There are different ways to market the experience.”

The University of the Commons is a great effort. But it brings up some questions. Who is it for? People who want an education but can’t afford one, now that the cost-free California community college system is a thing of the past? People who are already pretty well educated but always enjoy learning, not to mention generally fulfilling experiences? Students who want to supplement un-creative traditional schooling? People looking for friends and community who enjoy some learning on the side? Real change, liberation?

A Guardian article on a similar effort last year- the San Francisco Free University- pointed out that their effort was promising, admirable, and potentially very beneficial. It was also very white.

June 18, the pretty white- though, as members pointed out, also pretty female and queer- UOTC collective spent the majority of their meeting talking about “diversity and outreach.” They talked about teaching ethnic studies and women’s studies courses that are being cut out of public university curriculum. They talked about ideas for partnerships with organizations around the city that work with different groups, asking to see what kinds of free classes people there might want to participate in or teach. They talked about resources for classes in Mandarin and Spanish. They hope to plug in to existing efforts, and they hope to grow.

As of now, the classes range in the attendance. The students of Occupy U, a class discussing what worked and what didn’t in recent social justice efforts that focuses on Occupy, is about 11 mostly activist types, while From Mahler to the Music Video, a class tracing the history of music, has about 70 students that the instructor John Smalley says includes everyone from "professional musicians to homeless people."

Next week will be the third week of classes, but you can still join in, although it might be a good idea to contact the instructor beforehand.

Science Literacy w/ Barbara-Ann Lewis

Tuesdays 5:30-7:30pm, Modern Times, 2919 24th St., SF

Responsive Cinema w/ Rand Crook

Tuesdays 7-9pm, the Emerald Tablet, 80 Fresno, SF

Intro to Western music: from Mahler to the music video w/ John Smalley

Saturdays 11am-1pm, Latino/Hispanic Community Meeting Room B, Main San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin, SF

History in digital culture w/ Molly Hankwitz

Sundays 6-8pm

Mutiny Radio Café, 2781 21st St

Occupy U w/ Stardust

Sundays 6-8pm, Modern Times, 2919 24th St., SF

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