What is a free skool?

A free skool is a horizontally-organized and monetarily-free network of learners that come together with a DIY ethic to share the skills and knowledge needed for the liberation and well-being of their community. Free skools are run by a group of volunteers who coordinate classes, organize facilitators, promote the free skool, and find the other necessary resources for the free skool to operate. In its most pure sense, the free skool locates donated spaces and charges no fees for attendance, though there are practical exceptions made.

The types of classes one might encounter in a free skool are limitless, or limited only by the imagination of the groups involved. There is, however, a cultural tendency for free skools to offer courses that aim to liberate people either theoretically or materially from authoritarianism and consumer capitalism. Common courses one may find at a free skool are bicycle repair, anarchist discussion group, edible plant identification, open source computing, know your rights, knitting, and scores of others.

A free skool is spelled with a 'k' to differentiate it from a free school, which are most often limited to K-12 education as a replacement for “school-school.” Free schools, also sometimes referred to as “brick and mortar” free schools, tend to issue diplomas, pay their employees, and have some relationship with the state and other certification and accreditation bureaus. The free skool on the other hand is informal, unaffiliated, and offers no certification or legitimization of ones knowledge or skills obtained rather focusing on learning skills for their own sake or due to an intrinsic interest on the part of the learner.

The Philosophy of the free skool

Free skools don't exist in a philosophical void. The Free skool movement draws influences from classical anarchism, the new left radicalism of the 1960s, and the DIY punk ethos of 1980s radical social movements. Additionally there are influences from back-to-the-land movements that draw on radical forms of ecology, popular education movements that aim for liberation of the oppressed, and unschoolers who seek to end the school as an institution. In all, the philosophical roots of free skool education are a disparate collage, much like the free skool movement itself.

Anarchist education, integral education and utopian libertarian schooling

The earliest written anarchist critique of education is that of William Godwin in his 1793 tract An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice. He laid the foundation for an anarchist educational philosophy including such principles as criticizing the coercion of children by adults, supporting the inherent goodwill and intrinsic interest of the child, and a recognition of education as a tool of authoritarian state power. These basic principles of a libertarian education are consistent with the philosophical conceptions of the early anarchists Kropotkin, Bakunin, Proudhon, Tolstoy, and Godwin himself.

It is important here to outline the philosophical principles of early anarchists: a belief in a vision of human nature that allows for the nurturing of an innate capacity for good, a belief in cooperation as the foundational aspect of a healthy social community, an emphasis on rationality and scientific progress as the guide for developing cultural and social institutions, and the belief that the state will inevitably lead to authoritarianism and as such should be actively resisted. These views manifest themselves in the approach toward what is taught and how it is taught within the free skool. Free skools believe in the innate capacity for good in society. This core principle allows for the possibility of voluntary giving ones time and skills without expectation of remuneration. The anarchist value of mutual aid as outlined by Kropotkin is embodied in the foundational act of freely donating and volunteering ones time and resources for the betterment of the community. This gift economy, an act of radical generosity, undermines the capitalist ethic of the profit motive.

Free skools embody the idea that the state will inevitably lead to authoritarianism by its ultimate refusal to participate in any form of legitimization of its educational process. As such, no certificates, diplomas, transcripts, grades, or other official evaluations are provided. Free skools have the tendency to value skills for their intrinsic utility and not for the purpose of increased employment prospects or usefulness in the capitalist wage economy.

Integral education, as originally outlined by utopian theorist (and sort of wingnut) Charles Fourier, is in essence a project to reform society into harmoniousness through the deliberate use of education. Integral education aims to provide an education that blends intellectual pursuits with the learning of manual skills. Fourier's ideas were picked up by a variety of anarchist and libertarian educators that followed him including Sebastien Faure, Paul Robin, and Francisco Ferrer. As such, integral education became a central component of anarchist education through to the present day and is essential to the free skool and its philosophy today.

DIY: Do-It-Yourself

The DIY movement in punk culture spawned from a belief in the inherent authenticity and value of social artifacts that are hand-crafted, personalized, and autonomously produced. In many ways, the aesthetics of punk were a refusal of the mass-produced and overly alienated products of industrial consumer culture. DIY emerged in all sectors of society: food (backyard and community gardening), publication (zines), broadcasting (pirate radio, micro-radio, blogging), clothing (knitting and crochet, hand-stitched fashions), politics (direct action, consensus decision making), computer programming (open source and the hackers) medicine (nutrition, holistic, and preventative medicine), housing and economics (cooperativism, communal housing, and grassroots unionization). Each of these manifestations of the DIY ethic and aesthetic are a refusal of capitalist culture with its eternal profit motive and alienation. Instead the DIY countercultures embraced a small-scale and local craftsmanship that echoed many of the economic theories of the early anarchists.

Many of the aspects of DIY culture that influenced the punk movement can be traced back to the work of Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog, a periodical that came from the 1960s counterculture. The Whole Earth Catalog had a back-to-the-land bent that focused on communal living, utopian community, and DIY reskilling.
DIY has managed to reach a mass audience with a hefty web presence and even a basic cable television station (the DIY network) with such projects as Make (Make Magazine, Maker Blog, and the Maker Fairs), Craft Magazine, the website Instructables, and other various books and magazines devoted to hobbyist and self-taught manual skills.

Lately, some criticism of DIY as individualistic and isolationist has led to the coining of the acronyms DIO (do it ourselves), DIT (do it together), or DIWO (do it with others). These responses have led to a greater emphasis on community in the DIY world.

Popular education and critical pedagogy

Where the anarchists and the DIY movements provided the core of the free skool ideology philosophically (it's core educational theory) and practically (the basic curriculum), critical pedagogy and popular education perhaps explain the pedagogical theory of the free skool in the most accurate detail. Critical pedagogy emerged as a Marxist challenge to the dominant educational philosophy and practice, which it criticized as a hegemonic expression of capitalist and nationalist values. Critical pedagogy, at its inception, posed the possibility of another education, an education that addressed the racism and classism of the education system.

Paulo Freire is perhaps the most well known of the critical pedagogues. Freire was a Brazilian educator who worked with the illiterate peasant class to attempt free them from their oppression as they lived with legacy of colonialism in 20th century Latin America. Freire, in his landmark book Pedagogy of the Oppressed criticized what he called the “banking model” of education, wherein it was assumed that teachers had expertise knowledge and students were empty vessels to be filled.

Freire's challenge was for education to overcome this patronizing and managerial dynamic, allowing teachers and students to learn through a cooperative dialogue. This method is reflected in the free skool and its pedagogical emphasis on breaking down the student-teacher hierarchy. One of the core principles of the free skool concept is that anyone can be a teacher and anyone can be a learner. Breaking the myth of teacher expertise is an ideal and a practice of free skools around the world.

The anti-colonial challenge

One theoretical limitation to free skool theory that originates in its anarchist roots is a preoccupation with modernity and rationalism. Most early anarchist educational theorists faced educational systems in Europe that were based in teaching religious doctrine and which acted to suppress any teachings that opposed the hegemony of the church. Perhaps Francisco Ferrer's Modern School is the quintessential example of this practice. Ferrer was deeply concerned with using scientific rationalism as a counter to church teachings that he saw as dogmatic and superstitious. Though this aim was noble and liberatory within its historical and social context, the idea cannot be forwarded to free skools of today.

Sandy Grande in her book Red Pedagogy takes critical pedagogy to task for being an educational philosophy based in eurocentric and modernist assumptions of “progress” and “rationality” as ultimate ideals. Grande deftly outlines how these, likely well intended, critical approaches to education rarely address the needs of colonized communities for sovereignty and self-determination. Grande focuses particularly on indigenous communities and the detrimental affect that radical political and educational theorizing have had on these communities. Grande suggests a 'red pedagogy' that is rooted in anti-colonial struggle and in indigenous ways of knowledge. The free skool movement has a great deal of growth to accomplish in this area.

There have been some free skool projects which have attempted to address the problem of decolonization and begin the work of learning from colonized indigenous communities in North America, as well as tangibly repatriating resources to indigenous communities. One such project is the Unsettling Minnesota project that emerged out of the Experimental College of the Twin Cities. The Unsettling Minnesota project aims for a deep and radical re-transformation of the relationship of settlers to the reality and the legacy of colonialism. By challenging the authoritarian hierarchy of the settler's very existence on stolen land and by attempting to undermine and dissolve the racist American settler-colonial mentality. Unsettling Minnesota aims to accomplish these goals through teaching attendees about the histories of colonialism and resistance, outlining a concrete plan for allyship, and by providing material support to Lakota communities in their struggle for decolonization.
Additionally, the Indigenous FreeSkool in Hamilton, Ontario is utilizing the free skool model for teaching indigenous liberation and the revitalization of indigenous language and culture.