Educational counter-institutions, I

Thanks to those who have responded, either on the blog or through email, to my post on the “Roots of American Anarchism” course. I suspect that our pilot course online will fall somewhere between self-paced instruction and a basic online seminar, or, more likely, that we’ll end up offering both options. There is no reason not to offer options tailored to a variety of learning styles and schedules. I’m open, and I think a viable educational counter-institution has to be open, to a great deal of user-customization of the process. That means being willing to provide a bare minimum, as well as being able to imagine versions of the service that can actually compete within or against existing educational environments. Kevin, who is a busy fellow, has expressed interest in self-paced self-instruction. Brad wants a law school curriculum. Absolutely. I want all of the above. Making any of it happen is mostly a matter of working out what we have to offer, what needs we have, and what needs we can meet.

Our online school can’t offer state accreditation. It can’t, for the moment, take the place of conventional high school or college courses. It can’t rely on any of the structures and social forces that prop up accredited public or private institutions. We’re not offering certification in some hot software system. On the other hand, we don’t have the overhead, or the bureaucratic dead weight of most colleges, and we’re not tied to employment trends. An education in liberty is likely to remain equally im/practical, despite considerable changes in the environment. Unfunded university students are probably going to pay something like $1500-2000 for my course. I’ll see a minute fraction of what the university takes in. However, thanks to the economies involved, it’s likely that a course of comparable size online might net nearly the same salary, at a fraction of the tuition for students.

Pardon me for making these economic calculations in public. I know even market anarchists can be a little sensitive about mixing such mercenary concerns as food, clothing and shelter with our more theoretical concerns about providing a society in which folks can provide themselves with, well, food, clothing and shelter. As someone who has played the “anarchist entrepreneur” role before, I’m aware just what kinds of scrutiny and criticism this kind of loose talk can bring down. Listen, folks: whatever philosophical, theoretical, or simply semantic problems we have with particular economic concepts (and we all seem to have some with some of them), the bottom line is pretty simple. People gotta eat. And useful labor ought to be able to find compensation. Labors of love are lovely, but no serious libertarian movement can be built that does not find the means to support its own labors.

As some of you know, I recently had a pretty serious crisis of energy. I had to withdraw from a couple of projects and rethink my commitments to some others. It was a very bleak week or so during which I tried to figure out if there was anything in the world I really cared enough about to commit myself to. That sort of questioning may seem strange to folks who only know me by my research, or by the various archiving projects I’ve been involved in. Don’t get me wrong: I’m pleased and proud of the work that I’ve managed to get done. I’ve managed to add nearly 15,000 pages to the rather dispersed archive of anarchism online. And I’m equally pleased and proud to be part of a community of others laboring with much the same doggedness, and much the same (lack of) compensation. (Iain, Brad, Kevin, Chuck, Jeremy, Charles, Ken, Jeremy, Roderick, Roger, all the A3/ALL crowd, all the anarchy-listers—thanks.) And, finally, the answer to my existential crisis was that I did indeed really care about doing this work that I’ve spent a lifetime getting good at, despite everything. But that week of soul-searching came with a lot of confirmation from my friends and allies that the sort of despair I was feeling was not just a figment of fatigue or an effect of blood sugar. A very unscientific survey of my libertarian friends suggests that the question of compensating labor for the movement is not merely an academic one.

Does an educational counter-institution, an anarchist counter-curriculum or libertarian educational marketplace, offer any answers to that apparently pressing question? Maybe. I think so. Stuck in the belly of the university beast, but always faced with the threat of not being stuck here, it strikes me that there is an opening for something else, something that puts the needs of instructors and students alike up front, where we might expect them to be in any sort of rational educational system. Faculty commonly complain about how hard it is to actually teach in the university setting. Students complain about how little they actually learn. In picked sections, supposedly made up of the cream of the student body, I’ve often seen little or no intellectual curiousity and very little sense of responsibility for self-instruction (which is always part of the educational equation.) I remain open with regard to the nature of the “best” educational experiences. I’ve been a student and a teacher too long to be smug about that kind of stuff. I’m pretty well convinced that the model currently being pushed on me is a failure, or a solution to a “problem” of a very antilibertarian variety, and that we can do better. And we can look out for one another. And put the resources that we have been building, such as our digital archives, to more and better use. And, in the process, hone skills applicable in other areas. . .

[to be continued. . .]

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2702 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.


  1. I’ve already expressed my excitement about the class you’ve proposed, and I hope we can find a way to make it happen. What you’re hinting at here, though, sounds more like a way to get the movement to take itself seriously by *investing in itself* – this proposed course being one route. I think a class is a great start to establishing SOME sort of institution that will put our money where our mouths are. If we could find a way to fund the work you, Kevin, Roderick, Brad, and others already do as a labor of love, who knows what’s possible?

    Anyway, I just wanted to say that your work and dedication is appreciated, and that the money issue isn’t one that only you have been thinking about.

  2. Hehe. I was just on my way home to work on part II of this, so thanks for the very timely encouragement.

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