By Catherine Lee
At a time of widespread crisis in the state education system, a group of San Franciscans has created a school of humanities and sciences offering short-term classes that anyone can join at no cost.
The founders of the Free University of San Francisco met in December 2010 when they agreed the ongoing education catastrophe demanded a response because, as is, we are living amid intellectual wreckage.
“The social order is in disintegration. The divide between the rich and poor is an abyss. Unemployment and unease are widespread,” FUSF Dean Alan Kaufman said during the inaugural meeting. “The liberal arts are disappearing, displaced by studies guaranteed to generate the highest income.”
“The minimum requirement for membership,” according to Kaufman’s proposal, “is a desire to teach and/or a desire to learn.”
The founding instructors include Matt Gonzalez, who ran in the 2003 San Francisco mayoral elections against Gavin Newsom; Kaufman, a published author, poet and anthologist; and “Diamond” Dave Whitaker, local icon and City College student senator.
“The purpose of education is not to turn the student into a better consumer and profit earner,” Kaufman said, “but to help him discover the wealth of human culture.”
The founders embraced Kaufman’s call to action and held the school’s first session in March. The five-week-long courses began in April and include classes in music, cinema history, writing, law, sociology, drawing, science and literature.
Tim Phillips is a practicing lawyer who attended an early organizing meeting. He developed the course, “What Your Boss Doesn’t Want You to Know: Your Rights at Work,” which he now co-teaches with fellow lawyer Darin Ranahan.
Phillips said he is in tune with the optimism and opportunity represented by the ideals of the Free University, which is why he’s taking the time to teach on Tuesday nights.
Since the practical class about employee rights is more like a workshop than a grade-based course, however, it isn’t quite comparable to City College classes, according to Phillips. Other instructors offer lecture-based classes at FUSF.
Classes are hosted in unconventional venues throughout the city – the Beat Museum in North Beach, the main library at Civic Center, Pirate Cat Radio in the Mission, and art galleries in SOMA and the Western Addition.
The FUSF classroom mood was well characterized by instructor Michael Murphy-Loeffler, “This is a perfection-free zone. There is no right or wrong here – we’re here to learn.” Encouragement from instructors and students comes in many forms. Students offer each other paper and pen for writing exercises, and latecomers are quietly offered seats in the circle without fuss.
Students like Laurie Hampton appreciate the opportunity to be back in the classroom. “I’ve been fighting to go back to school for 15 years,” she said as she wiped tears from her face during Bobby Coleman’s writing class.
Tuition, textbooks and transportation have been barriers to education lately for Hampton. Barbara Joans, the instructor of “Revolutions in the 1960s vs. 2011,” who was in the writing class as a student, gave Hampton a ride home.
Jeff Chen, a stock analyst with two masters degrees, said the quality of the instruction and classmates he found in his March class – John Smalley’s “Introduction to Classical Music” – inspired him to attend a second FUSF class.
Chen is now taking Loeffler’s dream analysis class. “I work 10 to 11 hours a day and when I dream I’m still having work dreams,” he said. “This is too many hours of work. I’m hoping this class can help me dream about other things.”
Advanced registration is not required and students do not need to provide any form of identification or education history. Current courses are listed on the FUSF website freeuniversitysf.org.
To receive the course catalog via email, visit FUSF’s website and subscribe to the email list. Dates for the next session have not yet been determined and new class proposals are welcome.