Liberal Education

Seeking Asylum in Freedom University: In Praise of Undocumented Education

What is the value of a private education? Not that version on offer at a private college or university, but an education that is private in respect of being essentially invisible to the larger public—under the radar, unaccredited, uncertified, undocumented. Can such an education be said to have any cultural relevance in our performance-minded age, when conspicuousness, transparency, and inspection carry the day? If, as appears to be the case, we are all voyeurs and exhibitionists now, fixated on seeing and being seen, of what account is the education experience (or any experience at all) that goes unnoticed—and, therefore, cannot be appraised—by a perpetually peeping public?

A recent development may prove illuminative. In 2010, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia voted to ban undocumented students from attending the state’s top five public universities. Similar measures had been implemented already in South Carolina and Alabama, and poll results indicated that about two-thirds of Georgians favored a policy to bar illegal immigrants from public higher education altogether in Georgia, even if they were to pay out-of-state tuition. The board of regents seemed to be on solid ground, the policy action reflective of the uncompromising mood of many in the state and throughout the country on the particular matter of immigration, whether motivated by xenophobia, nativism, law and order, concerns over the scarcity of public goods, or some concatenation of these. The policy went into effect immediately.

Predictably, not everyone took the news sitting down. Many took to the streets instead. The wave of campus protests that erupted across the state featured the usual laments, the customary appeals to authorities to overturn the policy, the typical iconography (hand-painted placards and banners, megaphones, marches, chants, testimonials—optics straight out of central casting) associated with demonstrations wherever an aggrieved people assemble to vent their collective outrage at some injury, indignity, or injustice. As recently as 2015, a year marking the golden anniversary of the historic Selma-to-Montgomery marches to secure voting rights for disenfranchised African Americans, student protesters in Georgia were still actively engaged in the struggle for civil rights, staging sit-ins in full academic regalia, defiantly shouting “undocumented and unafraid” in the style of call-and-response, and occasionally getting themselves arrested for criminal trespass or failure to disperse. Documentary evidence of these several protests was captured in cellphone videos, shared through social media, and preserved for posterity in the peculiar amber of the Internet.

A decidedly less visible response—one with tactics, in many ways, more subversive than those routinely employed by community organizers or social movement activists—was the establishment of an underground university for some of the very students prohibited from matriculating at Georgia’s most selective state institutions. Named Freedom University (or, in its saltier incarnation, FU), it is a modern-day freedom school now based in Atlanta, where volunteers provide rigorous academic courses, leadership development, movement skills training, and assistance in navigating the college application and financial aid process, all at no cost to students. The initiative was founded by a small group of professors affiliated with the University of Georgia who simply wanted to offer an intellectually stimulating learning experience to students denied the opportunity for study at institutions of their choosing. In the early days, faculty taught weekend classes at an undisclosed location in Athens, and a far-flung web of supporters pitched in with guest lectures, books, supplies, transportation, modest financial contributions, or whatever other resources happened to be needed—a testament to the power of bricolage over bricks and mortar. The operation relocated to Atlanta in 2013, where it continues to grow in student enrollment, course offerings, and participation in the undocumented student movement.

Not a lot is known about the inner workings of Freedom University, which is likely by design. Life could be made more difficult than it already is for students and their families if certain details of their education activities were to come to light. Some worry about harassment, arrest, or deportation. Out of an abundance of caution, then, portions of the Freedom University experience are conducted under a protective veil of secrecy. But its very presence is a glittering example of how we might contend with broader anti-freedom forces rapidly advancing on higher education in America.

After all, the battle being waged here is not just for the rights of undocumented students to a quality postsecondary education, nor is it chiefly even about the larger cause of social justice, as all-encompassing as that project is. Rather, the revolution in question may be more properly understood as one for the self-determination—or autonomy—of a higher education enterprise that is increasingly dictated to, and intruded upon, by special interests and whose every dark corner is, as Nabokov put it in Invitation to a Beheading, ultimately invaded by “the solicitous sunshine of public concern.” That mellifluous bit of phrasing contains a decidedly malefic undertone; the surfeit of attention being directed at the academy is turning the place into something resembling a Panopticon, an elaborate system of incarceration and surveillance.

Problems of life in the Panopticon

The Panopticon, conceived in the late eighteenth century by the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham as an innovation in prison reform, has become a widely used metaphor for the ubiquitous monitoring of our lives in a technological age. Architecturally, the structure Bentham designed, though never fully realized, consisted of a central tower from which a single supervisor could view the circularly arranged cells of inmates at all times; the sense of observation would be constant and complete, the objective to confine, correct, and control the convicted. The sinister genius of this “mill for grinding rogues honest” was that its subjects would never know for sure when or even whether they were being observed and so would be forced to conduct themselves as if their every move might be detected. The mere specter of the watchtower presiding impassively over their affairs would be sufficient to induce the desired effect.

Today, the panoptic ideal extends far beyond its origins in the penitentiary; no modern institution, nor any individual contained therein, is immune to the withering gaze of the all-seeing eye. Thus have we all been consigned to the status of prisoners. “Is it surprising,” Foucault asked rhetorically in Discipline and Punish, “that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?”

This may seem an extraordinary claim to make about the academy, which still looks—in the eyes of much of the public anyway—like a veritable citadel of professional privilege and protection, where professors are free to come and go as they please, free to sound off without fear of reprisal, free to pursue projects of personal interest. Are these to be understood now as illusions, as apparitions of times gone by? In what respects has the landscape changed? Let us count the ways.

For starters, the institution of academic freedom is itself being abraded with the systematic dismantling of tenure. Fully 75 percent of new hires across disciplines are classified as part-timers who labor under the perennial threat of employment insecurity and are eligible for only a fraction of the benefits traditionally accorded the professoriate. With the erosion of the tenured and tenure-track ranks, the faculty’s share of shared governance is diminishing, and its discretion over the terms and conditions of academic work is being replaced with mechanistic rules, regulations, and procedures that further the age-old cause of worker docility and manageability.

This, of course, makes it easier to narrow the scope of higher learning for purposes of tighter adhesion to society’s economic priorities. The reign of instrumentality—of education as a tool for the furtherance of state and market interests—is by now nearly absolute, governing the conduct and concerns of universities all the way down. The notion of learning for its own sake has virtually zero purchase anymore, the arts and humanities are suffering a prolonged devaluation for their failure to be STEM fields, and programmatic decisions—what is offered, how material is taught, and the uses of knowledge—are being outsourced to state governments, such that overtly political or ideological agendas increasingly shape the curriculum. (See Jedediah Purdy’s “Ayn Rand Comes to UNC” in The New Yorker for an especially chilling account of this dynamic.) Performance-based funding, which has been adopted in thirty-five states so far, is further yoking higher education to the great millstone of economic development.

Superintending all of this is a sprawling accountability and assurance regime to certify that stakeholder bidding is done. One can easily spot examples of this regime at work. It is to be found in an almost pornographic obsession with evaluation and assessment, much of it required by and conducted for accrediting bodies, to the point that we are now laboring under a “forever review” in which the examiners never really leave campus but are always lurking around as shadow figures; in the official pieties about evidence-based decision making, evidence-based culture, and evidence-based practices (the Othello-like demands for “ocular proof” leaving vanishingly little room for the virtues of mystery, uncertainty, and experimentation); in the quantification and measurement of outcomes and output; in the hyper-rationalization of our organizations along the lines of the industrial model; and in the abiding faith in standardization and uniformity as managerial conveniences that substantially enable ease of counting and control.

We might also mention the incessant inquiries and interrogations requiring academic programs to plead their case for existence or demonstrate their utility, setting them on an endless quest for validation and legitimation by external judges whose favorable opinions are deemed to matter. The access project in higher education, usually uttered with reference to student access, has expanded to include any member of the public who wishes to inspect the goings-on of the academy; everyone is granted viewing rights in this new era of ceaseless exposure. For their part, the news media tend to paint a particularly grim portrait of higher education, highlighting all that is wrong in and with the ivory tower and detailing how the enterprise ought to be radically reformed in the consumer interest.

Comes the objection: These are nuisances, to be sure, but isn’t it misleading to suggest an equivalency between criminal imprisonment and the abridgement of liberties being described here? (One is reminded of the inspector’s cool retort to K. in Kafka’s The Trial: “You are under arrest, certainly, but that need not hinder you from going about your business. Nor will you be prevented from leading your ordinary life.”) True enough, the academy is most assuredly a long march from the Gulag, and some of the micromanagement that must be endured is more along the lines of Big Bother than Big Brother. Still, there is a pervasive sense that the city of intellect is yielding—obsequiously, in many cases—to the scrutiny of the police state. When our working lives give way to performances for, and observances by, omnivoyant authorities, whose purpose is ostensibly a form of social control, can thought control be far behind?

Such concerns are behind a growing cultural anxiety (bordering on full-blown paranoia) over our loss of privacy and the proliferation of electronic ways and means to breach it, leading the philosopher John Gray to quip that “fifteen minutes of anonymity has become an impossible dream.” But notice how complicit we are in the arrangement. We enthusiastically embrace an evolving ethic of showiness, choosing as we do to share the intimate details of our lives, giddily effacing our own privacy at every turn. After all, the point, it seems, is not just to have experiences but to be seen having them. “Pics or it didn’t happen” is the mantra of the social media age, an updating of the “new visual code” that Susan Sontag described in On Photography in 1977, but it might as well be said also of education. It isn’t sufficient nowadays that our students have learned anything, much less anything ineffable; their acquisition of knowledge must be verified according to the approved metrics and rubrics, or it just didn’t happen.

If all of this constitutes a carceral condition, we collude in its maintenance. We aid in the preservation of the status quo by our overreliance on the good offices of the ruling class for remedy of what ails us and by our failure to envision and enact workable alternatives from below. This is another way of saying that the cage to which we imagine we’ve been consigned isn’t always the one imposed by the bureaucratized academy and its surrounding regulatory environment; just as often, the portable prison we carry atop our own shoulders is the culprit. Indeed, this is the most insidious effect of the Panopticon: it penetrates and programs our consciousness by degrees, making us not only accomplices or accessories in an imprisonment scheme but, in effect, our very own warders.

What is to be (un)done?

Anyone who has looked on in dismay at this deteriorating state of affairs has doubtless entertained a corollary thought: Wouldn’t it be nice to slip free of it all, to steal away to a place not only far from but blissfully invisible to the madding crowd? In such a place as this, we might finally focus on what really matters. In their imaginings of an Edenic elsewhere, perhaps something very like Freedom University is conjured in the minds of the disaffected and disillusioned.

For, on one level, Freedom University can be understood in this purely figurative sense, as a symbol of, and covering term for, a whole range of fantastical alternatives to the contemporary university and its ever-widening web of entanglements. The more we feel constricted or simply unfulfilled by present arrangements, the more likely we are to repair to fictive versions of Freedom University, counter-institutions mentally constructed and customized according to our own idealistic designs. If the academy is steadily becoming less hospitable to the life of the mind, we can create a compensatory university of the mind, one always and easily available for restorative sojourns, with no pre-travel authorization required by Accounts Payable.

It may be tempting to dismiss occasional getaways—or disappearing acts—of this sort as the enchanted wanderings of daydreamers, idlers, and utopians, far too self-indulgent and ephemeral to be of any real use to the body politic. But that would be shortsighted, a negation of the idea that the seeds of social transformation are sown in the fertile subversions of the imagination. Lewis Mumford, writing in 1922, distinguished between what he called “the utopias of escape and the utopias of reconstruction,” both of them serving the primary function of making everyday life on earth somehow more tolerable. Although both utopias are, crucially, mechanisms of transcendence contrived by restless and captious minds, the first one is strictly interior and abstract, whereas the second manages to stick itself concretely into the world.

Freedom University, the literal entity back in Georgia, would seem to split the difference: it is a tangible presence and a communitarian endeavor, to be sure, but a subterranean one meant to be mostly unseen by the masses. As such, it deftly balances the equally forceful pulls of civic withdrawal and civic engagement, creating a kind of liminal space in which the border between revolution and retreat is effectively blurred.

By taking their education underground, the students and faculty of Freedom University are iconoclasts in the original sense of the term: they are “breakers or destroyers of images.” This is true in two mutually reinforcing ways: they are removing their activities from view by severing the line of sight into them, and they are simultaneously attacking the cultural conventions that make a fetish of visualization.

Perhaps this designation was beyond their scope, not in their initial calculation; perhaps they were simply trying to secure a safe haven for their intellectual pursuits. This would, of course, put them in the company of anyone—from the serially marginalized to the intermittently neglected—ever compelled to invent workarounds to bureaucratic policies or rule systems that stifle human potential, creativity, and aspiration. Or, to come at it through another lens, our institutional (and institutionalized) conditions invent insurgencies, producing alienated students and teachers who are in exile from some preferred version or vision of the enterprise and find that they must do what individuals have always done when the experience they desire eludes them in some way: they must become refugees—refuge seekers—in search of sanctuary for the free exercise of their ideals. With Freedom University, they have found it in the legislation of their very own DREAM Act, the bold move of envisioning and constructing a learning community that neither requests nor receives any official warrant to operate. In the process, they are doing their part to keep alive a fragile idea—dying, sadly—of the academy as an unapologetically countercultural, contrarian institution, rather than one that seeks always to ingratiate itself, to be affirmed, to try mightily not to give offense.

Freedom University is a reclamation project in another sense, as well. It is an act of excavation, a recovery or disinterment of higher learning for its own sake, as though by an archeological dig through layers of sedimentation that have built up over time to obscure or encrust the original artifact; eventually, we arrive at the substratum—the underground—where exists the real substance, sparkling in its simplicity. The absence of much of what one finds on the modern college campus these days, from quality enhancement plans to proverbial climbing walls, is, paradoxically, brought into sharp relief. This return to the essentialism of teaching and learning, minus the labyrinthine layers of support services with which we have eclipsed the core of the education experience, is a quintessentially radical act, a return to our humble roots.

The denizens of Freedom University are not necessarily pioneers; they follow in a long line of grassroots activists, anarchists, and disrupters of the status quo in education. Various alternative schools and informal academies have appeared over the years across cultural settings, often in reaction to government censorship, excessive state control, structural barriers to access, or the systematic disempowerment of particular groups.

The freedom schools of the American civil rights movement were the immediate model and inspiration for Freedom University, but these schools were themselves patterned after 1950s-era Citizenship Schools, an adult education project designed in large part to assist African Americans in passing the required voter registration literacy tests of the time. The classes offered by the freedom schools and Citizenship Schools were conducted in church basements, beauty parlors, kitchens, and other spaces temporarily annexed to the cause, and they would come to play a durable role in the “cognitive liberation” (a concept introduced by sociologist Doug McAdam) and civic participation of African Americans during the height of the movement and beyond.

A different sort of “freedom school” was to be found in the counter-university movement of the 1960s. Also known as anti-universities or open universities, these institutions were typically established by experimental free-thinkers and radical leftists at odds with what they perceived to be the repressive policies and structures of their home institutions during a period of profound civil unrest. The social critic Ivan Illich was, at about this same time, arguing forcefully for “deschooling,” or the deinstitutionalization of school (and of society more generally), in favor of flexible webs of self-motivated, self-sufficient learners. A similar spirit animated the hobo colleges of the early 1900s, which offered gathering places for the homeless to hear lectures in social science, law, labor relations, philosophy, and literature.

Anarchist free schools (or free skools), built on the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century libertarian education experiments of Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana in Russia and Francisco Ferrer’s Escuela Moderna in Spain, have been for many years vital laboratories for the development of critical consciousness and community empowerment. They stand in firm opposition to the hierarchical and authoritarian organizational structures of mainstream schools, which—so the argument goes—simply reflect and reproduce the worst aspects of modern industrial capitalism.

These are among the worlds we create or co-create for ourselves in the face of intolerable circumstances, bitter betrayals, routine disappointments, or exclusionary systems and practices. Behind every adventure in alternative or transgressive education is an overriding impulse to be free of something or free to do what is not sanctioned elsewhere.

The cultural significance of Freedom University

The possibility that something special, even magical, might be happening in the underground precincts of Freedom University is perhaps more of a contribution to the reform agenda in higher education, and ultimately to the common good, than meets the eye. The fact that we are invited into an entirely speculative relation with it—that we are permitted to wonder from a distance about its activities without being able to behold them directly—restores a certain primacy to the place of mystery in the learning process, which is relentlessly under siege by the cults of efficiency and certainty. At the same time, Freedom University’s existence invites us to consider how we might foster additional education experiences that are completely out of sight (ones that enable us to “teach and learn as if nobody is watching,” to riff on the popular exhortation) and how we might come to see the considerable virtues in opacity as against transparency.

This is a tricky prospect, not least because there is a tendency in cultural discourse to conflate invisibility with victimhood and powerlessness. (Of course, invisibility—the kind that is elective, rather than assigned—also confers certain powers, for good or for ill, as Plato’s myth of the Ring of Gyges illustrates.) Notwithstanding the considerable personal and societal losses sustained when the oppressed are rendered invisible by callous indifference, our emerging problem has as much to do with the corrosive effects of excessive exposure. There are untold victims of this form of visual trespass. As the Jewish legal doctrine of hezzek re’iyyah instructs us, “the injury caused by seeing cannot be measured” with absolute precision, though it can be estimated to include the social costs incurred when speech is inhibited or ideas are suppressed out of anxious concern that we are being monitored.

Going underground offers not just shelter from the lidless gaze of the surveillance machine but a return to what is at base a private—and invisible—enterprise, the life of the mind. This is bound to be unsettling or even galling to anyone who believes, apparently in keeping with the tenor of the times, that higher learning is a public good, that it ought to be directed toward whatever particular outcomes are preferred by technocrats, that the only credible education is one that is competently managed within formal institutions, and that the whole affair must be scrutinized at all times to ensure that it is in service to the crowning objective of a credential with an exchange value in the commercial markets.

Meanwhile, such an overdetermined program of education does not sit well with many who believe that it constitutes nothing less than an assault on intellectual and human freedom. But rather than asking them either simply to accept without protest the decisions of policymakers or to petition the power elite for redress of grievances (the two ends of a continuum), the Freedom University model is a reminder that we can be the architects of our own emancipation, that structures of authority can be circumvented when they no longer serve—or serve well—the purposes or the people they were initially designed to support, and that in our era of scarce resources, we still control inner resources of imagination and initiative.

Like the students and faculty who established Freedom University, we can decamp for new terrain, even if only temporarily. We can estrange ourselves from what is common, customary, conventional; we can give ourselves over to a mystery. In the end, like Mrs. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, we will come to discover that “this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures.”


David J. Siegel is associate professor of educational leadership at East Carolina University.

To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled@aacu.org, with the author’s name on the subject line.

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