Free the school, the mind, life, city will follow
By Phreddy Wischusen
The Michigan Citizen
Thomas Jefferson said, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr thinks Detroit can’t survive without filing for bankruptcy; activists say emergency management means Detroiters are no longer free; and education has ended for many of us with the attainment of a now-dusty diploma.
A group in Hamtramck is fighting the atrophy of the intellect and apathy in democracy.
The newly founded Hamtramck Free School is a free-of-charge and open-to-the-public communal learning platform, offering a variety of classes. The classes are intentionally informal, making the students and the teachers equals, says Michael Brown Michigan State University Ph.D. candidate, Detroit resident and co-founder of the HFS, emphasizing the goal of the school is to be “free in the sense of liberatory, rather than free as in not charging.”
“Non-hierarchical learning,” Brown continues, “removes some of the institutional blockages that deter people from participation in education. You don’t have to have credentials or an acceptance letter to come (to the HFS), you just come.”
The HFS learning model, Brown says, “aids the teacher coming to the awareness that they themselves are an active participant in a community of learners as opposed to the director of knowledge,” and empowers students to participate more, and contribute more of their own personal knowledge.
“There’s a reciprocity as opposed to a unidirectional (focus)…,” he says. Additionally, classes can be taught by anyone who wants to teach. The more relevant the class is to the conditions of area residents, the more people will participate, and the more people who participate, the stronger and the experience will be for all.
Classes so far have examined alternative learning models, the theater of Bertold Brecht and the Detroit Future City Plan. Beginning on March 22, the HFS will offer a series of classes on post-colonial and Black feminism. The classes will take place Saturdays through the end of June from 4-6:30 p.m. at Klinger Street Studios (11627 Klinger Street, Hamtramck). All the course readings will be available for free at hamtramckfresschool.org, so even if people are unable to attend they can access a well-curated selection of critical writing relevant to the topic.
Brown says the group wants to “tailor (HFS’) offerings more explicitly to the conditions under which people live in the city of Detroit, including more hands-on skill-based education.
On March 24, Rosie Sharp will teach a class on garden planning. Sharp, who works with the Greening of Detroit and is the field coordinator for the Detroit School Garden Collaborative, has been active recently with the HFS, both taking and teaching classes.
“I really love learning and I enjoyed going to school when I did,” says Sharp. “I do a certain amount of work on my own just to keep my brain working … (but) doing slightly more complex reading is hard to do on your own. Having a group to work through challenging material together helps.”
In February, Sharp organized a class on the Detroit Future City Plan because so many people were talking about it and it was being given so much weight in the restructuring plans for the city, but no one she knew, she says, had actually read it. After an HFS initial meeting and reading of the plan, Erin Kelly, a DFC program manager, came to the HFS to discuss the plan with the “students.”
Now her readings of the DFCP and other pieces she discovered at the free school are prompting her to take action against gentrification. She is working on creating a series of “land forums” to help people with minimal resources buy land in the city.
In addition to the learning materials, Sharp believes the actual process of learning is invaluable. “Learning is difficult sometimes. It doesn’t feel very good because you’re stretching beyond what you’re already capable of to grow. If you don’t practice that skill, you become easily frustrated and that limits your ability in all thing in life,” she says. “It’s OK not to know things. The older we get the less acceptable it is to ask ‘stupid’ questions or not be an expert on stuff. If you’re not comfortable being bad at something, you’re never going to get good at anything except what you already know.”
To learn more about the HFS, view the upcoming class schedule or read any of the materials from their past classes, visit hamtramckfreeschool.org.