Balloon from The Free You, the Midpeninsula Free University's regular newspaper. Drawing by Fred Nelson (text added by Jim Wolpman). Used with permission.
The photos are from the U of C sit-in in 1969
The basket is from the "Free You," the Midpeninsula Free University's newspaper.
Rebecca Zorach is a professor in the Art History department at the University of Chicago.
Often run by students — by definition transient members of a community — alternative institutions ebbed and flowed and often reinvented themselves from one year to another, changing names along the way.
“Free” meant that students and teachers were free to form classes on any subject, and enrollment was open… “Free” usually meant free or almost-free in terms of cost …“Free” also meant a political or psychological state of mind: education for freedom.
At the University of Cincinnati in 1969, 160 students enrolled in a class on “a black view of whites, sex, politics, society, beauty, war and power.”
Starting from this otherwise mysterious entity, the Chicago area’s experiments with the free university form expanded to numerous existing institutions, offering classes in politics, art, and new lifestyles.
In 1967 thepaper published a denunciation by Walter Trohan, the chief of its Washington bureau, who folded the free-Us into his vitriol. “These so-called ‘free universities,’” Trohan wrote, “represent a potpourri of hastily organized ‘classes,’ ‘bull sessions,’ or harangues....
Her class was infiltrated by a Chicago cop, whose reports may have led to the firing of Dixon’s husband from his job as an electronics worker in a plant that produced airplane components.
But in contrast to the sit-in at the University of Chicago, protest in 1970 was only secondarily directed against educational institutions: instead, it called for institutions to redirect their energies to respond to a national crisis in which students felt under attack as students. The chief weakness of the New University as it has been formulated is that in addressing itself to the immediate goals of ending the Vietnam war and political repression at home, it fails to accord any recognition to the larger problems which underlie these political evils and perpetuate them
. Lifestyle-oriented classes that taught people to make their own crafts, grow their own food, and repair their own machines, constituted a direct critical response to modern consumer society.
Starting from the perspective that considers walking to be the most efficient and ecologically sound form of changing location (the bicycle is a sophistication of auto-motion), the automobile is introduced as a sometimes necessary machine in a poorly organized society like our own.
Following the student unrest of the late 1960s, a narrative quickly emerged that had young people turning away in droves from political activity to pursue alternative lifestyles. In a 1972 article Barry Glassner wrote that “Radical activist groups are gone....Energies of the sort that went into riots...now go into programs such as ‘food coops’....Other student groups start ‘free university’ courses.”1 Mildly supportive of the changes he describes, Glassner (who was 22 at the time) failed to notice the substantial history of free university organizing (and food coops!) that had run alongside the political movement for nearly a decade. In part, this may have been due to the fragmentary nature of the free universities (“free-Us” for short) themselves. Often run by students — by definition transient members of a community — alternative institutions ebbed and flowed and often reinvented themselves from one year to another, changing names along the way. But throughout, they involved both radical politics and artistic and lifestyle components, experimenting with alternative institutional structures into which many different kinds of material could be inserted, and pressuring existing institutions to change.
At the peak of the movement in the late 1960s, there were as many as 450 free universities around the U.S., most of them loosely associated with existing institutions.2 By 1975 most had disappeared, though they left traces in new experimental campuses, student-run programs in existing universities, women’s, Black, and ethnic studies programs, and new commuter and career-oriented academic programs.3 In the Free-U movement, several strands came together, more or less comfortably. The movement included efforts to develop independent radical education; efforts to expand beyond traditional university curricula and audiences; and efforts to transform the universities themselves. As the historian Jesse Lemisch put it in an email, “there was always debate among us about building separate and independent institutions as against building within the institutions.”4
The word “free” itself contains at least three different ideas — without even mentioning Abbie Hoffman’s use of the word as a personal moniker. “Free” meant that students and teachers were free to form classes on any subject, and enrollment was open. As the student movement developed a critique of the knowledge production industry and the authoritarian structures of the modern university, it sought alternative forms for teaching and learning. “Free” usually meant free or almost-free in terms of cost — classes weren’t always entirely free of charge, but administrative costs were bare-bones and teachers accepted minimal or no pay. “Free” also meant a political or psychological state of mind: education for freedom. This could itself mean many different things. It might mean lifestyle freedom, or psychological freedom — personal liberation, self-exploration. A major feature of free-Us was the encounter group, a type of experimental group psychotherapy movement involving intense collective emotional experiences. (The inclusion of encounter groups in the University of Chicago’s free-U so alarmed administrators that they asked that campus space not be used for such activities.5)
In its beginnings, “free” also meant liberation in the political sense. The free-Us grew out of the Free Speech Movement and Civil Rights freedom schools and received a substantial push from the organizing done by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) around universities as institutions. In 1965 the SDS Bulletin was already announcing six free universities—the Free University of New York, The SDS New School in San Francisco, the Free University of Florida, the Free University of Austin, TX, The School in Chicago, and Monteith College of Wayne State University. A desire to politicize art and culture was present from the beginning: in 1965 Monteith offered classes in “Art and the City” alongside “Authority and Freedom,” “Northern Student Movement,” and “South Africa”; the Free University of New York offered “Marxist Approaches to the Avant-garde Arts” in its selection of 44 courses; and The School in Chicago offered a performing arts class.6 Offerings were eclectic, but politics and cultural critique often merged. At the University of Cincinnati in 1969, 160 students enrolled in a class on “a black view of whites, sex, politics, society, beauty, war and power.” The same free-U offered classes on prog rock and “The Jew in a Multi-Faceted Bag.”7 It’s easy to mock classes like “happy music”8 at Berkeley or “Let It All Hang Out, or How to Avoid Uptightness,” held at UNC-Chapel Hill.9 But these classes coexisted comfortably with more obviously political discussions. In addition to classes on “being human,” drawing, ESP, and “Shivers Down My Backbone: Rock and Roll and its Consequences,” UCLA’s Experimental College also offered “Contemporary Israeli Problems” and the tantalizingly prescient “Ronald Reagan—What is he? Where did he come from? What can we do about him?” (Reagan was first elected governor of California in 1966.)10
“The School in Chicago,” according to the 1965 SDS Bulletin article, was holding its first roster of classes that year in a church on the west side, with a free-U ethos summed up in a quote from the catalogue: “The objectives…are determined on an ongoing basis by students and instructors together.” Starting from this otherwise mysterious entity, the Chicago area’s experiments with the free university form expanded to numerous existing institutions, offering classes in politics, art, and new lifestyles. Roosevelt University students set up a free-U in response to the university’s refusal to hire Staughton Lynd, who had been recommended for appointment by the history department.11 22 eclectic classes were offered at the free-U at Lake Forest College.12 They included “The Black Ghetto,” a class called simply “Group,” and a variety of artistic media including walks, pottery, yoga, film, and cooking. (Franz Schulze, a professor of art history at the college and a prominent art critic, taught at least one class.) Students at Elmhurst College organized a free university with the approval of administrators. SDS members there offered courses in “Radical Critique of American Society” and “Women’s Problems, Women’s Struggles,” while the renowned mural artist John Pitman Weber, a professor at the college, offered “Varied Cultural Seminars” that examined “popular visual culture, television, comics, popular magazines, city streets, and political art.”13 St. Xavier University’s free-U held a “Powder Puff Mechanics” class that taught women how to fix cars.14
The early years of the free university movement came as the Chicago press, in particular the Tribune, waged a veritable vendetta against the New Left. In 1967 thepaper published a denunciation by Walter Trohan, the chief of its Washington bureau, who folded the free-Us into his vitriol. “These so-called ‘free universities,’” Trohan wrote, “represent a potpourri of hastily organized ‘classes,’ ‘bull sessions,’ or harangues....The instructors range from New Leftist professors to Communist party leaders....[teaching] an odd assortment of radicals, Socialists, anarchists, nihilists, and dupes.” He scornfully noted that one student saw the free university at Southern Illinois as a way to “figure out how to live in a culture he disliked.” Trohan concluded the article with a call for repression: the New Left’s “danger, if allowed to go unchecked, is great.”15
The Hyde Park – Westside axis first indicated by the SDS School was repeated in a program created in 1967 as a collaboration between movement organizers and university students and faculty. Free-U classes were held on the U of C campus under the umbrella of the Center for Radical Research; students assembled information on political and economic power in Chicago that was then used as a resource for a School of Community Organization set up on the west side to train Black and Latino organizers.16 Staughton Lynd and Jesse Lemisch taught a radical history course; Heather Booth and Naomi Weisstein taught a women’s studies class. One of the teachers in the free-U, Marlene Dixon, a politically radical professor of Sociology and Human Development, was soon to become the center of controversy. Her class was infiltrated by a Chicago cop, whose reports may have led to the firing of Dixon’s husband from his job as an electronics worker in a plant that produced airplane components.17 And in December of 1968, the University of Chicago announced that it would not renew Dixon’s contract. From January 30 to February 15, 1969, a group of students occupied the administration building to protest the decision. The sit-in became a flashpoint for the student movement at the university; by the end, 42 students had been expelled for participating in the protest, and 81 suspended.
During the Dixon sit-in, students held a series of “Open University” sessions to animate the protest and show that they were not sitting in against education. One mimeographed flyer announced that “The meeting that called the current occupation of the ad building did so in order to open up the university to a different kind of education, not to shut it down.” The program included seminars on women in academia and radical filmmaking, a critique of reactionary sociology, an open discussion asking “What does student power mean?” and a “Blues jam session and maybe a dance…”18 During the sit-in, students and faculty, including members of Chicago’s chapter of the nationwide New University Conference, discussed the possible formation of a “Suppressed Studies” division (to include women’s, Black, working class, and third world studies—and a department of “do your own thing”).19 Some activists were not convinced by the free-U concept. “A free university that would help us to serve the people is an impossibility in this country,” stated a flyer put out by the Worker Student Alliance, a branch of the SDS led by the Progressive Labor Party. “If we want to build a struggle to change things about the University and the society we have to ally with workers. Before we can do that we must fight racism—both our own and the University’s…the idea of a Free University plays into the hands of the administration.”20
This question arose in a different way in the wake of the Kent State and Jackson State shootings of 1970, when students were shot and killed by National Guard troops. Student protest gave new vigor to the free-U movement. But in contrast to the sit-in at the University of Chicago, protest in 1970 was only secondarily directed against educational institutions: instead, it called for institutions to redirect their energies to respond to a national crisis in which students felt under attack as students. The School of the Art Institute became a center for information coordination for student strikes throughout the Midwest (one teach-in there is documented in the Kartemquin film, What the Fuck are These Red Squares?). Loyola University affiliates formed an alternate university in Rogers Park. University of Illinois students created a “People’s University” that offered collectives, not courses.21 Northwestern students had already begun teaching alternative courses as part of an Experimental College, which then became the Evanston Free University.22 But the shootings mobilized this otherwise quiescent campus to strike. With the encouragement of faculty and the tolerance of the administration, striking students redirected their energies toward the formation of a “New University” that redefined direct political action as the content of educational activity. Faculty adapted existing courses to the new situation or changed their topics entirely.23 But this was a temporary solution. With sustainable internal change in mind, discussions soon turned to broader topics. As Gerald Graff, then a professor of English at Northwestern, wrote in a memo, “The chief weakness of the New University as it has been formulated is that in addressing itself to the immediate goals of ending the Vietnam war and political repression at home, it fails to accord any recognition to the larger problems which underlie these political evils and perpetuate them: the increasing spiritual, moral, and intellectual bankruptcy of American society, the growing brutalization and meaningless of institutional life and the sense of despair, boredom, and loneliness which besets the individual.”24
Graff’s suggestion provides a key to understanding what motivated new university curricula that appear to be oriented toward lifestyle and not political critique. In Trohan’s Tribune article in 1967 he had already intimated that “New Left leaders do not want very many of their followers to go into ‘free universities’ because that would drain people from the S.D.S. projects which seek to disrupt and harass university officials.”25 This question was hotly debated in other free-Us, in particular the Midpeninsula Free University in Palo Alto.26 At the University of Chicago, there is something uncanny in the fact that a new Experimental College was announced in the very same week as the 1969 sit-in, and that it was spearheaded by an organization, Revitalization, that had initially been founded “to bring big-name entertainment to campus.”27 Revitalization’s initial course proposals included carefully neutral titles such as “Radicalism in Contemporary Society,” “The Future of American Capitalism,” and “The Draft and the Law.” The offerings eventually provided were quite different: home economics, ceramics, calligraphy, environmental design, medieval combat training, and Teachings of Avatar Meher Baba. “Most of the new programs,” a brochure explained, “are concerned with the quality of everyday life—an attitude of creation, of doing, of sensitivity to our environment and an aesthetic ideal.”28
Lists of classes cannot convey the texture of the experience of teaching and learning, but they do provide a cross-section of the interests free-Us served. And those interests were manifold. Despite superficial differences they share an emphasis on radical change—whether political or cultural. Lifestyle-oriented classes that taught people to make their own crafts, grow their own food, and repair their own machines, constituted a direct critical response to modern consumer society. They addressed the fact that students felt their university education was too abstract and theoretical, divorced from the real world—whether that real world meant “how to build a dulcimer” or “what is actually going on in the ghetto.”
When not being ridiculed, the late 1960s are often romanticized. Even conflicts between the activist left and the hippie counterculture, in hindsight, seem to blaze with an intensity unmatched by current debates. And yet, most university students in 1970 were probably much like one young white woman in another Kartemquin film, Hum 255 (document of student discussions in the aftermath of the Dixon sit-in). When asked what she identifies with, the college student responds—almost plaintively—“my future career?”
But at the intersection of the politically radical, the counter-cultural, and even the aesthetic, some durable counter-institutions did emerge. Academic departments in previously marginalized subjects were founded. The Chicago Women’s Liberation Union ran its own liberation schools well into the 1970s, and an independent Lavender University taught courses on gay and lesbian topics late in the decade.29 It could be argued that Jane, the underground abortion service founded by Booth, Weisstein, and others, partook of a similar ethos — liberation combined with education. In 1972, a Free University at the University of Chicago offered—amidst sensitivity training and Borges, sexuality and structuralism, and “Building Dulcimers and Other Things”—a class entitled “Local Motion or Volkswagen Mechanics.” It sounds eminently practical. And it might seem surprising that a course on auto repair would have grown — its instructor told me — out of the sit-ins and protests. But the course was an unusual auto mechanics class, to say the least: “Starting from the perspective that considers walking to be the most efficient and ecologically sound form of changing location (the bicycle is a sophistication of auto-motion), the automobile is introduced as a sometimes necessary machine in a poorly organized society like our own.”30 The course was taught by Ken Dunn, and its ethos persists in the Resource Center, the South Side “environmental education organization” (my italics) that Dunn founded two years later. The Resource Center is now a mainstay of environmental, artistic, sustainable and self-organizing culture in Chicago, and an inspiration to many other groups and individuals. It’s hard to imagine alternative culture in Chicago without it. And it’s just one example of the various effects, subtle and more substantial, of the free universities’ experiments in radical educational change.
1 Barry Glassner, “The Move from Violence to Vibrance,” Chicago Tribune, 3/13/72, B11.
2 “Curriculum: The Shadow Schools,” Time, 6/6/69 (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,941678,00.html#ixzz0uVrfiIkq). Accessed 7/22/10.
3 Florence Howe, “Structure and Staffing of Programs,” Women’s Studies Newsletter, III, 2 (Spring 1975), 1.
4 Jesse Lemisch, personal communication, 7/14/10.
5 University of Chicago Archives. Office of Student Activities Records 1921-1981. Box 19, folder 7, “Free University 1972.” Thanks to Kevin Tirella for bringing to my attention this and other aspects of the 1972 Free University.
6 Ron Chiolak, “Free University Report,” SDS Bulletin, IV, 2 (1965). Available online: http://www.sds-1960s.org/SDS-Bulletin.htm. Accessed 7/14/10.
19 Chicago History Museum, Steve Trimble papers, folder 2, “Detailed minutes of a meeting on the Common Core held in 319 Cobb on 2/3/69.”
20 Chicago History Museum, Steve Trimble papers, folder 2, “copping out – the free university.”
21 Information on Loyola, UIC, and SAIC appears in Northwestern University Archives. Anti-Vietnam War Strike Materials Collection, May 1970. Series 31/6/88, box 1, folder 1, “The Daily Strike.”
22 Northwestern University Archives. Subject files collection. “Evanston Free University.”
23 Northwestern University Archives. Anti-Vietnam War Strike Materials Collection, May 1970. Series 31/6/88.
24 Gerald Graff, “On Alternatives to the Alternative University,” memo. Northwestern University Archives, Student activities files (31), “The New University (May 1970-).”
25 Trohan, H47.
26 JoAnne Wallace, “What’s Wrong with the Free University,” The Free You, III, 10 (September 1969), 29. Available online: midpeninsulafreeu.com/images/90.pdf (accessed 7/14/10).
27 University of Chicago Archives. Office of Student Activities Records 1921-1981. Box 27, folders 6-9, “Revitalization, 1968-1971.”
28 University of Chicago Archives. Office of Student Activities Records 1921-1981. Box 15, folder 16. “Chicago Experimental College, 1969-1970.”
29 “Women map plans to open liberation school,” Chicago Daily Defender, 2/12/73, 18. Lavender University of Chicago, Free catalog, v. 1, no. 4 (fall 1978). Chris Riddiough, who was involved in the New University at Northwestern, was also on the board of the Lavender U.
30 Ken Dunn, personal communication, 7/8/10. University of Chicago Archives. Office of Student Activities Records 1921-1981. Box 19, folder 7, “Free University 1972.”