The “Free” School and Boston's Corvid College

By Jake Carman

This past winter, a new school in Boston began classes in the tradition of radical education. Influenced by anarchist politics and ideas, Corvid College claims to be “anarchic: self-managed in spirit, horizontal in structure.” Classes are for learners of all ages, and courses range from Primitive Daoism, to Anarchism and Religion, to the Criminalization of the Immigrant – there is even a class all about the Sacco and Vanzetti case.

Eric Buck is one of the founders of Corvid College. “During my years at Goddard, [I] discovered the Ferrer Schools in Spain,” he recalled. “Slowly, as I began to read more and more in alternative educational experiments, I began to develop a picture of what a college built around self-direction in all respects might be – not just pedagogically, but financially and organizationally.”

Corvid College is a modern-day incarnation of the educational experiments of Spanish anarchists in the early 20th century. In 1901, Catalan anarchist and teacher Francisco Ferrer y Guardia began a new tradition of radical education by founding La Escuela Moderna (or “The Modern School”) in Barcelona. In Catholic and monarchist Spain, La Escuela Moderna aimed to free education from the dominion of the church and “educate the working class in a rational, secular and non-coercive setting.” This technique would flatten the teacher-and-student hierarchy and promote independence and free-thinking to those who would one day lead the working class in the social struggle.

In 1911, two years after Ferrer's death, sister schools of La Escuela Moderna sprang up across the world. In New York City, Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman and Voltairine de Cleyre opened the Ferrer Center with nine students. Other schools opened in South America, Cuba, London and elsewhere in the United States, often teaching day classes for children and evening classes for adults. Meanwhile, in Spain, the revolution in education helped promote a working-class consciousness that proved valuable to the 1936 Spanish Revolution. Here in the United States, Ferrer's ideas were influential in reshaping the educational landscape, even among some mainstream private schools.

Buck claims, humorously, that he came to Boston “to escape academia.” There, however, he and other radicals devised a new kind of alternative education that blended ideas from the Modern School and the Free Schools with elements of traditional colleges.

“None of us know how to ‘do community’ anymore,” Buck said. “I think the college model can be resuscitated and put to use in revivifying the practice of community… This is why the college model has been chosen over other educational processes, like the Free School or the skillshare group.”

Today's Free Schools often take the word “free” literally, in promoting social and political freedom without charging tuition. Using this model, teachers are as free to teach what they want as the students are to learn. Free Schools exist everywhere from Portland, Ore., to New York City to Australia.

Corvid College is not a direct descendent of La Escuela Moderna, nor is it quite a Free School. Instead, Corvid draws from these earlier models to become non-traditional in other ways. For instance, Corvid College does not plan to seek accreditation; instead of grades and degrees, the organizers hope students will develop portfolios.

“Accreditation is one of the primary means of impersonal, professional, institutional control over what is taught today. [It] requires institutionalization… We want to be free of institutionality,” Buck said. “Accreditation is just one mark of the whole system that destroys or impedes the educative impulse and standardizes human growth. In other universities, students should be demanding the de-accreditation of their university. In Corvid they won’t have to.”

One criticism of Corvid College is that some of its courses are quite expensive for its lack of accreditation. At $500, a course called The Massachusetts Legal System, for instance, costs almost half as much as a course at UMASS Boston.

“Course fees at Corvid are set by individual teachers, and higher costs for a course indicate a teacher’s higher needs,” Buck said. “Since we find ourselves still in an economy that is based on money and expect to for some time, we wanted to make the college function in such a way that if someone wanted to make a living from it, she could try. In other words, no one is going to prevent anyone who wants to propose a course (notice I did not say ‘be employed’) from charging something for it.”

While Corvid does not provide financial aid per se, the school does have some creative suggestions for addressing the economic problem.

“Teachers offer a variety of idiosyncratic discounts and cost mitigations,” Buck said. “Some are putting out a tip jar so students can pay what they can. Some accept goods and services in lieu of cash. Others offer discounts when a certain enrollment figure is reached or for paying cash in full up front. Still others are teaching for free because they can and want to. Finally, since we value financial transparency and directness and despise bureaucracy, students living under financial duress should contact the course teacher directly and see if any arrangements can be made.”

Even if some courses may be beyond an individual’s means, participating in radical education projects can only encourage development and growth; and if there is one thing the people of our region need in these times, it is the spreading of new ways of learning and teaching.

Students can sign up for courses at Corvid College on its Web site.

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