How to start a "free university" dedicated to sustainability and localization.
June 12, 2008 5:32 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for information about starting a "free university" around the subject of creating a more sustainable and vibrant local economy.

I'm on the steering committee for a group called Citizens for a Sustainable Local Economy. I've agreed to coordinate the creation of a free university. We're hoping to create a group of volunteers who would teach free classes on subjects such as life skills, techniques for conserving energy, etc. Does anyone have any experience with something like this?

Here are some of the questions I have:

Is there a better/more common name for this idea than "free university." Searching google with those keywords doesn't result in anything useful.

What topics would be most effective? One idea I have is courses on storing food (canning, drying, freezing, etc.)

What kind of organizational structure is most effective?

Any information and advice would be appreciated. Thanks in advance.
posted by diogenes to Education (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Depending on where you are, you may be trying to duplicate existing university extension programs, which often offer exactly those sorts of classes (and often for free, too). So that's the first step, I think -- checking with the major land-grant universities in your state and local community colleges (if you are in the US) or the equivalent in wherever you are to see what programs are already available and funded by them.

I should point out, at the risk of being pessimistic, that this has been done before often, and has rarely lasted -- there are a lot of barriers to doing this (mostly coming down to financial -- if you have enough money, you can hire people to do the organizational work that it takes to sustain a project no matter how difficult). If you look through leftist magazines of the 1970s (eg Whole Earth Catalog, Working Papers, etc) you will see lots of articles about attempts to do exactly this sort of thing, and I'm pretty sure that similar endeavors to make the "people's university" happened throughout Europe and elsewhere as well. Not many of those stayed active for very long, sad to say.

Ironically for your organization, the greatest difficulty with this is internal sustainability. The first year is pretty easy -- the volunteers are gung-ho and wanting to teach, it gets publicity, etc. But keeping it going is really hard -- managing and finding (and worse, needing to fire) volunteers takes an enormous amount of energy; keeping access to teaching spaces can be hard; maintaining interest can be hard. Just because someone cares about a topic does not make them automatically a good teacher of it -- teaching, particularly teaching in the community, is hard, and there are skills that are needed in order to be effective.

The most effective topics are the ones people are interested in learning -- you have to meet your audience where they are, not where you want them to be. And keep an eye out for disconnects -- canning is a great thing to do, but may or may not do a lot for the local economy, for example, depending on how you are defining "economy" and so on. Just because something is a good thing to do doesn't automatically mean that it is either meeting a real community need or helping the overall organizational aims.
posted by Forktine at 6:03 AM on June 12, 2008

in days of yore, I was part of a group that offered what we called a Free School. the topics were pretty varied: history, current events, cinema, bicycle repair, composting, bookmaking, wildcrafting, etc.

in some ways, your topics will depend on what facilities you have access to & can use. we were lucky enough to have a local arts group who allowed us use of their space for many of our topics. if you have access to a large-scale food-safe kitchen, I would say that a course on canning & preserving food would be great & very useful in this day & age.

our organization structure was decentralized & egalitarian. we operated as much as possible on a consensus basis, which worked out pretty well. the classes were of two basic models: either we as a group would do a research project on a particular issue or idea & then prepare a curriculum, or we would tap some local brilliant person & cajole them into teaching a course (easier than it sounds in most cases - passionate & knowledgeable folk are often eager to share their interests).

we always made handout materials for folks to take home with them - a mixture of primary information & resources for further research or interest. we also had our schedule of classes figured out six months in advance so we had a steady calendar to offer. we did pretty good, all things considered - we had good attendance at most of the classes, and the folks who showed up seemed engaged with & appreciative of the experience.

finding groups to partner or co-sponsor with can really help in terms of getting the word out. also, if you can, offering childcare is a clincher for many folk being able to attend.

on preview: Forktine has many useful & insightful things to say. but I wouldn't be overly concerned with the fact that it might not last forever. not everything does, but that doesn't mean it wasn't worthwhile or didn't matter. ours only lasted a couple years, but I'm still glad we did it. and really, you won't know until you try, no?
posted by jammy at 6:39 AM on June 12, 2008

I wouldn't be overly concerned with the fact that it might not last forever. not everything does, but that doesn't mean it wasn't worthwhile or didn't matter.

That's a really good point, and I completely agree. The key is to do things in a way that let the project keep going as long as it is being valuable, rather than ending after a year when really there was four years of work to do.
posted by Forktine at 7:23 AM on June 12, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the thoughtful answers Forktine and jammy. Lots of helpful information.

I think the key is to go into it with open eyes, knowing that it won't always be easy and it won't last forever, but confident that it's worth doing anyway. At our first couple of meetings, I met several people who were involved in similar groups that ran out of steam. It's unfortunate that it's so hard to keep groups like this running, but I think it's important that new ones evolve to replace them. I'm hopeful that if nothing else, we will connect some like-minded people and teach each other a few things.
posted by diogenes at 7:36 AM on June 12, 2008

At the risk of sounding all web-two-point-oh and stuff - Wouldn't it be a better use of your time to snag a good domain name and form a clearing house for this sort of information? Beat the bushes for local stuff at extensions all over the country, and become a central clearing house for this sort of information country-wide - This might skirt some of the stuff that Forktine mentions...

. <--For Whole Earth, firefox, etc.
posted by Orb2069 at 9:38 AM on June 12, 2008

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