Coming Alive In Dangerous Times (1961-1983): Chapter 2
[Editor's note: this is the third installment of GEO founding-member Len Krimerman's new memoir. You can read the preface and introduction here, and chapter one here. Look for chapter three next Monday.]
Circumstances Favorable for Anarchists
For the next eight years, I had the opportunity to experiment in much greater depth not only with anarchist ideas but with anarchic ways of living in community. Though I may have fallen in love with the exuberant free spirit of anarchism in New Orleans, what emerged tended to be fragmentary and fugitive: I’d not attempted to construct anything like a continuous, day-in-day out, anarchist community. But in my new home in northeastern Connecticut, circumstances conspired to enable me to move from this “romantic” stage to one involving far more focused, comprehensive, and sustainable experimentation. And one that most often took shape as a community of learners.
Those favorable circumstances included the increasingly wide – and turbulent – rejection of the U.S. military presence in Vietnam, the massive general strikes in France and elsewhere during May of 1968, and the pervasive Woodstock Festival counter-culture. A cultural revolution, begun in the early ‘60s, had grown in size, indignation, and legitimacy by 1968, creating the soil for disruptive innovation, especially on college campuses. It was largely youth-led; many college students, almost everywhere, were ready for active resistance, and University administrators were fearful of it.
Creative Vandalism, Learning by Doing
One course that I regularly taught was “Social and Political Philosophy”. Of course, I managed to spend time discussing anarchist thinkers like Thoreau, Prince Kropotkin, and Emma Goldman, along with the traditional lineup of Hobbes, Locke, J.S. Mill, Marx and Engels, and John Rawls. But what I recall most is my students’ willingness – enthusiasm – to experiment creatively and in practice with the ideas we were discussing.
Once in 1969, the students in this course came to class on a Tuesday with a collective proposal: that we “learn by doing” rather than continuing to merely discuss social and political theories. That is, actually put some of these philosophical theories into practice.
OK, I said, but how do you want us to begin going down this new path? What sorts of “practice” do you have in mind? Why not think about this in some detail, I continued, so we can discuss it on Thursday more fully.
No, no, they responded; we’ve already chosen an application: we want to paint over this dull and uninspiring, institutional grey, classroom, using some philosophical ideas we’ve studied, and some colorful images they suggest. Our model for this, they continued, is that article you recommended on “Creative Vandalism”, which appeared in Anarchy Magazine in March, 1966). It was risky, but how could I, as a self-styled anarchist, resist?
We then decided to meet at our classroom the following Saturday; classes were not in session on weekends, and it was still normal for classroom buildings to remain unlocked. Everyone showed up, with their own paint, magic markers, butcher paper, and tape. For the most part, I watched in amazement, much like a spectator at a high wire circus event. It seemed important that I not interfere, judge, or inadvertently shape the process or the outcome. They were the ones they had been waiting for, creating an action of innovative rebellion as they drew and painted on what had become “our classroom”.
What emerged was a thoroughly delightful mosaic with quotes from philosophers we had studied, and a huge beautiful sun over the chalkboard shining down from the front and center of the room, All upbeat, imaginative, spontaneous.
So what did these creative vandals actually learn from all this? Maybe, that learning is more than reading and discussing other people’s ideas; that philosophical notions, especially when applied in real situations, can be a source of coming alive; that a good community encourages and supports risk-taking experimentation, even when it involves rebellious activity....
Unsurprisingly, not everyone on the campus was happy with our exercise in applied social and political philosophy. A few days after the “paint-in”, Charles Fritz, then the head of my department, stopped by my office to warn me that some administrators (here we go again) were extremely dismayed by it; he sympathetically suggested that I consider meeting with them to address their concerns. When I related this to the class, their reaction was immediate: “We decided on this and carried it out, not you or you alone; so we should all meet with our critics. Let’s invite them here, to our recreated classroom, to dialogue with us.”
The invitation was sent out, announcing an open public forum on the “creative vandalism” hosted by Philosophy 217 to be held in the Home Economics Building, room 104. Several curious students from outside our course joined us, and then our three critics – the dean of my College, Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS); the professor whose class met in the same room just after ours; and the dean of Home Economics.
The first dean had little to offer beyond claiming that he had seen better graffiti in men’s bathrooms. (Perhaps he was suggesting that we needed to take courses in the University’s Fine Arts College, before engaging in more creative vandalism?)
The professor whose class followed ours scolded us as well, lamenting that “No one in my History of Fashion course is looking at my slides.”
But it was the Home Economics dean who was most visibly upset with our experiment in creative vandalism. She seemed to find what we had done incomprehensible, as if we had poured the paint over ourselves or had swallowed our magic markers. With a mix of pain, anger, and bewilderment, she told us, “We don’t even let our pre-schoolers paint on the walls.”
A deep voice from the back of our classroom responded, “That’s the problem!”
After our visitors left, we talked together and assessed our situation. What now? After considerable discussion, a consensus was reached that we would return the next Saturday and whitewash away our rebellious art work. Our initiative was not aimed at either pleasing or annoying others, but at enriching our own learning, taking a different, other-than-verbal, look at what we had studied and discussed, and “coming alive” in a spontaneous and inventive way – a way that we hoped might attract others weighed down by inert ideas, enforced passivity, or uninspiring classrooms.
If You Don’t, Create Your Own
In another semester, my social and political philosophy class read The Community of Scholars, a short and very provocative book by anarchist philosopher, novelist, poet, educator, and social critic Paul Goodman. In it, Goodman contends that many of the world’s finest universities – for example, some in what is now northern Italy – were founded by “secession”.
Disgusted with the bureaucratic and rigid controls within church-run and state universities, a dozen or more faculty each rounded up many of their students, and together set up their own learning communities, and handled most of the necessary “administration”.
It is way past time, Goodman maintained, for this kind of secession to happen again. Today’s educational systems, even at the so-called higher levels, mimic the rigidity and far exceed the bureaucracies that spawned new universities in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Goodman was not alone in his view that what we have at lower levels is “compulsory mis-education” (the title of one of his books), and that teaching at colleges and universities rarely aims at reversing that. Thus, in general, hardly any room is left for passionate aliveness, for the kind of exhilarated learning that is mainly shaped by yourself and your peers.
The academic bureaucracies that were tolerable or largely escapable four decades ago have often increased, even doubled: at many universities, there are more vice-presidents and other administrators than members of academic departments. What too many college graduates find as the major outcome of their four or more years of education is life-crippling debt.
Better – much, much better – to secede: to learn from digital sources, from peers and learner-centered mentors, and ultimately, from immersion in life: spontaneous, imaginative, reflective, or rebellious engagement in what moves us, and makes us come more fully alive. To paraphrase Karl Marx: Students, you have nothing to lose but your ever-increasing debt.
The idea of secession resonated with much of the class, even though student debt was pretty much unknown in the late 1960s. (Think about that; how did higher education institutions get by without depending on huge numbers of student loans?) In particular, Anadine, way in the back of our classroom, wanted us to consider going even further than Goodman by initiating what she called “internal secession”. Why not, she asked, form a new kind of learning community right here within the old, inflexible one at UCONN? Individualized evaluations would be substituted for competitive grades, and students and faculty could collaborate on what and how they would learn. Learners could avoid most if not all the dreadful, and often not useful, “required subjects” imposed by faculty senates, and learn how to democratically manage their own innovative communities.
Furthermore, seceding outside and away from our university would make us invisible to the rest of the campus, and fail to inspire others to experiment in similar ways. And if we forged a place for ourselves on campus, we would then have access to library, laboratory, and human resources, rather than having to somehow duplicate them on a shoestring budget.
Much like creative vandalism, this was no idle suggestion but a call to experiment with an idea that resonated with us in a very practical and innovative way. Within a few weeks, a group of nearly a hundred students and faculty met to consider how to most forcefully insist on the need for and value of a place right on campus for “internal secession” – a place we had begun to call, the “Inner College”(IC).
[W]e need some sort of very safe refuge where the masks and habits that we have internalized can be seen for the external and often disempowering forces they are...
After a few months of advocacy, of bringing folks from similar university experiments in Maine and New York to campus, and of attracting a multidisciplinary group of faculty supporters, the university admins gave in. (We often wondered why; perhaps they thought their support would make us less likely to participate in protests and demonstrations?)
We were given a year’s time to convince the university senate that the IC should go forward. After much canvassing of liberal faculty, and to our most joyful surprise, the senate eventually voted to give us two more years. And they did so with only a few restraints, for example, we were limited to accepting no more than 60 students in any semester, and required to report regularly on how the program was taking shape.
Later that same year (1970), the IC applied for and received a three-year National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant. This ensured that we could continue to rely on several staff members, who had been working, often with little pay, since our program started. (All had been students in – and founders of – the IC.) Just for us, the university had set aside a little-used trailer in one of its peripheral parking lots. It was a place for general meetings, some classes, continuous mentoring, a photography darkroom (remember, it’s still only the early ‘70s), the development of the “Inner Tooth”, our literary magazine, and many other activities. Many of these and other activities also took place at a house immediately off campus, where I lived along with several others involved in the IC.
For the most part, our experiment with internal secession worked very well. Tracking our students, we found that they were accepted into graduate and professional degree programs at a rate higher than CLAS students generally. Many had put together unique projects, including WALE (Willimantic Alternative Learning Experience), which tutored its young public school students so well, that the city’s Natchaug Elementary School invited them into its classrooms to do their good tutoring work.
A serious problem affecting the most dedicated of the student learners was that their preferred learning projects often had to be set aside in order to help run and sustain our experiment; several times, conservative faculty in the university senate tried to abolish us. One partial remedy was to offer our students academic credit for an entire semester away from the IC and the demands of our critics; students could travel to Cuba to examine that country’s innovative childcare programs, or to Central America to see what people there thought of our country; make a full length movie, or study photography or pottery with off-campus mentors.
Predictably, there were clashes within the IC, some of which we handled well, others poorly. At one point, we had two faculty coordinators, who disagreed during an IC meeting over whether or to what extent we should put a priority on “academic excellence”, along with our emphasis on being learner-directed. Rather than seeking a compromise position, both coordinators offered, or more accurately, threatened, to resign if their position was not upheld by the whole group.
None of us were well prepared for, or had much experience with, “conflict resolution”, a skill – or art, really – that we gradually recognized as indispensable in an almost totally egalitarian environment. In mainstream institutions, if two or more people disagree there’s typically someone in place whose formal position – as a boss, a manager, a university president, a section chief or department head – allows them to settle disputes. Eliminating those positions of authority requires the development of new norms and relationships – especially as regards settling conflicts – agreed to by the whole community. This was not always our strongest suit.
Coming Alive and a Safe Refuge
But perhaps what has always struck me most forcefully about our educational secession is its very direct connection to “coming alive,” a connection it shares with a family of similar forms of community life. While some people can come alive and remain enlivened on their own, most of us need at least occasional guidance and support from others. More specifically, we need some sort of very safe refuge where the masks and habits that we have internalized can be seen for the external and often disempowering forces they are, re-examined, and discarded. In far too many cases, for example, students enter colleges and universities with “career goals” others have chosen for them. And their experience with “education” has been one compromised by endless and heartless competition, and the threat of penalties for non-compliance. To move beyond these and find our own genuine desires may well require a safe space that honors self-direction and enables us to become and remain fully alive.
The IC, despite its deficiencies and lack of experience, frequently played this important role, offering a substantial degree of safe refuge, within a community supporting self-direction. Here’s part of a poem which beautifully catches our common experience:
….One day the head of the Honors Program
Called me into his office and said I had to choose —
My place in Honors or my class with you.
There was no contest. I knew freedom when I saw it,
The heady music of thought and action combined,
The brilliance that bloomed in all of us
Because you had the courage to believe in it.
I walked away, and stumbled headlong
Through that door you opened
Into a field of struggle and light
Where nothing goes down smooth
But meaning and purpose always beckon.
(written by Elena Stone)
In their remarkable book, A Tradition That Has No Name, Mary Belenky and her collaborators identify this crucial kind of social space as being at work within the USA’s civil rights movements, as well as in several organizations focused on enabling women to cope with a range of oppressive conditions. They call it a “public homespace”, as it involves in their view both private, self-directed experiences and a context of highly sensitive collective support. Belenky et al. quote Bernice Reagon, a civil rights activist and co-founder of the musical group Sweet Honey in the Rock:
That space while it lasts should be a nurturing one where you sift out what people are saying about you and decide who you really are. And you take time to construct within yourself and within your community who you would be if you were running society. In fact, in that little barred room where you check everybody at the door, you act out community. You pretend your room is a world....It’s like, “If I was really running it, this is the way it would be.” (page 163)
Much of the support in a public homespace comes from one’s peers, but a significant form of it arises from what A Tradition That Has No Name calls “developmental leaders”, such as civil rights icon Ella Jo Baker and Myles Horton, the founder of Highlander Education and Research Center. Developmental leaders awaken and nurture the leadership capacities of those whom they mentor, and enable them to find their voices and become risk-takers and problem solvers.Decades ago, when the IC made its unexpected appearance, A Tradition That Has No Name had not yet been published. But we resonated unknowingly with what that book would call public homespaces and developmental leadership. I now see our experiment as a small part of that nameless tradition. There is no magic bullet or general recipe for creating a learning community, much less a whole society, that honors coming alive. But this tradition provides both a step in that direction and a good sense – a pre-figuration – of what such a society might actually be like. Almost all of our dominant institutions face in the opposite direction, failing to offer either of these two powerful and empowering resources. They prefer, indeed depend on, our remaining confined, captive, and other-directed, rather than being whole, exuberant, and self-directed.
As Goodman, Belenky, and many others in the nameless tradition have claimed, we often need to secede from what is disempowering, and either find or create a homespace that supports our coming alive and makes our full development its central priority. The IC’s inner secession provided this sort of safe and nurturing space for me as well as our students and other dedicated staff.
In particular, through our experiment in secession, I came to see a role, a path, a calling for myself as a developmental leader, and an architect of safe spaces in which I and others could grow and rebel constructively. A role I felt more and more drawn to, both intellectually and emotionally. Intellectually, I could now understand why leaders did not have to be tyrants or dominators, and why there was no need to choose between communities run by remote and bureaucratic authorities or totally leaderless organizations in which everyone heeded only his or her private judgment. Emotionally, I discovered that the work of developmental leadership and community building based on creating safe, nurturing spaces was where I felt most alive, most hopeful, and had some skills to offer.
Despite the occasional annoyance of having to re-prove ourselves to outsiders, we had much the same experience as Bernice Reagon: we were creating our own learning community together, drawing on and fostering what was alive and creative in each of us.
Go to the GEO front page
Len Krimerman (2015). Anarchist Experiments in Northeast Connecticut: Coming Alive In Dangerous Times (1961-1983): Chapter 2. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/story/anarchist-experiments-northeast-connecticut