Unexpectedly Everywhere: Reflections on Alternative Learning
In November 2011, in the rising period prior to the ‘height’ (and before the incredible second height) of the Printemps érable here in Montreal, myself and roughly twenty other anglophone students met to discuss the possibility and plausibility of an ‘alternative learning project’. In a small apartment with limited seating, we discussed the project (experiment? network? cooperative? these were the initial questions). At the very beginning, the idea had been that we would organize a few free courses off campus and that students would either take a semester off or dramatically reduce their enrollment hours at the university in order to participate meaningfully. Though learning (and what we learned) was obviously important, it became abundantly clear that the true drive of the project ran a good deal deeper. The plan was to not to simply plan out or speculate about a free learning environment outside the confines of the university but rather to experiment through lived experience. We would build what little we could in two months, knowing that we had very little notion of what we were doing (instead knowing definitively what we did not want a learning environment to be) and document what happened, steering as we went along from there on out.
But, at this meeting, for the moment, we had no concrete notion of what the project would look like or how it would be organized. So rare is it that one can work so fiercely towards an end that has not yet been formulated. We saw this in the student strike, see it now with Idle No More – where the energy is headed is secondary to its infectious quality, propelled by its seeming limitlessness. It requires something like an energetic agreement with one’s peers, like walking towards a light where one cannot see precisely what is being illuminated, for the sake of (fondly) overwrought metaphor.
Out of this gathering came first and foremost more meetings and, more importantly, a desire to attend them – to participate in the building and the organizing. Looking back, I still believe this was the crowning achievement of the project. Establishing the process to the means as the focus of the excitement – the prize to be taken away and learned from (for this and future free learning communities, we always said) – made the work meaningful and incendiary. Also, from that first evening: a manifesto. Crafted quite liberally from a go-around in the room, we asked a few simple questions. Why are you here? What do you want to accomplish? Typing frantically as people spoke, a few moments of cutting, re-arranging, constructing (fondly) overwrought hyperbole, and there it was. Borrowed from what little rhetoric we knew of previous alt-schooling movements, the somewhat hazy rabble-rouse of May 68, and a relatively acute attention to social issues that had been illuminated so generously in antithesis by the unflinching white monolith of McGill University. It was rousing, well constructed and, though utterly lacking in pragmatics, lit a significant fire under the whole business. The general sentiment in the room: well, we just built that together…
Roughly 9 months later, the second-height of the casseroles seemed a whole map of scale away from where we had been before. Seeing those streets fill every night felt like another world of possibility. During this time, I found myself drifting from the project I had given so much time and energy to. I had noticed others drifting as well (undoubtedly a product of that dreaded ‘burnout’ seasoned activists are so wary of), but I had also seen many new faces, people who were further from the organizational aspects of the project but who were taking the mantle in a manner many had predicted from the beginning. The Alternative University Project (more often ‘altuni’ or ‘altu’) had become a network, an online presence with half of the structure we’d originally had in mind and twice the reach. People we had never met (or that, realistically, knew someone within in the group, we were too small-minded with our propriety over the thing) were posting and facilitating courses. Good, interesting courses. A few community members trickled into the existing classes, for which some flyering along the way that was given rough credence. There was a website that we publicized at marches. A moderate sum of donated money was funneled into the development of an open-source website that would be finished by the fall. Much of the fiery enthusiasm had dissipated, but the thing as a whole seemed to be settling into a sustainable beat.
My estrangement from the project can perhaps be explained best in the context of a conversation. During a meeting early in the summer (this, one of our last for a while, numbers dwindling, the rough center rapidly expanding), a few of us discussed the politics of the project. The student sitting to my right, a newer participant, noted quite plainly that he saw the group as a social learning forum—a place for students who weren’t exposed to certain things to try their hand, expand their fields of learning, and meet new people. This matched up nicely with what had been my growing fear: that it had become (or perhaps had never been more than) a social club for the already privileged and highly educated (mostly white, mostly anglophone) students who formed the fabric of the project. The scope of the thing had seemed so large in those initial months, then only slightly smaller as I came into contact with the vast expanses of francophone worlds that stretched out beyond our small lily pad of McGill-based divergence, then smaller still when the casseroles began. Which communities were we at best ignoring and at worse shutting ourselves off from? It had been such a large part of our discussions at the beginning. The general response to those concerns always seemed to be in the project itself. We’re trying something here, with the hopes that others might be able to learn a few things from our triumphs and blunders should they try the same. Maybe even one of us would pick it up again in a few years, be all the wiser for what the group as a whole had been through. But, despite, despite… that creeping doubt. I kept my feelings to myself for the most part, writing a few trusted friends abroad with whom I often discuss alternative learning, but not much else.
In stepping back I heard murmurs, friends and others in the activist community who had evidentially been besmirching the project from afar. Their concerns were of course more virulent and less rooted in apprehension than mine. I heard one such critic compare the project and others like it to ‘greenwashing’ (the absurd suggestion that the alternative learning community we had built was much the same as a recycled paper cup, the idea being that one thinks they are enacting positive change when in reality they are merely maintaining the status quo). I was once again confronted with confusion and paranoia. Questioning my own activism and my own field of ethics while at the same time feeling estranged from the good I was so damn sure we had been doing put me in a nearly paralyzing between-two-point-ness. So this is what had become of all that enthusiasm and momentum, we’d evidentially dug in too deep to be open to change (my own fears, perhaps) while others were obviously content with pointing the finger (and somehow not noticing those same fingers re-establishing hierarchy within the activist community in doing so).
I fear now, writing this, my own gross simplifications. Glossing over, for one, months and months of incredibly inspired and productive work within the project. To all of you who put your arms in to the shoulder blades trying to build something without a blueprint: you have and continue to inspire me.
But, still, there I was, caught between those two paralyzing positions. Hearing all the latent negativity bore some realizations to the surface. Again, this piece is first and foremost about energy – something that welled up inexorably in multitudinous action came down again in a rush, looking for an outlet.
To turn to the positive: the project cemented my politics. Coming so freshly out of that ‘radicalizing’ moment, it gave me an intimate community in which to explore this new consciousness. One thing I think of the finger-pointers forget is that consciousness expands by degrees. I had seen it before (maybe even felt it myself) but never been able to contextualize it. A genuine feeling might arise (the budding of the ‘radical’), but when one feels that there is no open arms, no community waiting to accept them, the thought of abandoning what very well might constitute everything one calls their life, their world is, plainly, unthinkable. Alt Uni was, undoubtedly, a place for that consciousness to steep. Not to mention its place as an outlet for our energy, our ideas.
And so now I am once more inspired and upset. It is little wonder that so many people fall back into the rolling tides of the status quo before they can fully find a place outside of it (the lawns there seemingly tended, guarded). For the true achievement of the alternative university project was the way in which it meaningfully brought people together regardless of where everyone had been two weeks prior. To me (and I can only speak of myself), it taught me new manifestations of community, modes of learning, and expressions of the self. Certainly, those involved with the project were, for the most part, university students. And certainly, other causes fall closer to the ‘heart of the matter’ than altering the nature of higher learning in and around McGill. But one cannot ignore the fact that real, beautiful people who are just as lost as I was two years ago need quite desperately opportunities to find themselves – room to develop free from hegemonic structures of the university, one’s family, society writ large. As part of this energy, this little bit of community that we were able to bring into being, I feel this constancy and community. Over the course of the project I learned to question and contextualize everything that I learn. For, indeed, we will be doomed to maintain the structures of the past unless we examine them anew. Breaking down structures of hierarchy – the “way-things-are-ness” so rampant in our education systems – enlightened me to the possibility of activating moments both in and outside these structures. To quote the manifesto, written just over a year ago now in our living room with the peeling paint (from which I learned so much about black mold and housing law):
Finally, returning to that energy: while at first I was distraught over the whole thing (not in the closing weeks, but only upon noting the negativity; in the back and forth), I’ve come to peace with the idea that the project must have had a similar effect on others – that the energy isn’t gone but simply reconstituted as something more permanent. How extraordinary to imagine the potential if the whole spectacle of humanity that took to the streets with their families so many summer nights held that uplift, kept a bit of it close and fed it like an ember. Indeed, one does not quickly forget such an energy, and spring comes every year again.