French philosopher Jacques Rancière based the premise of his book The Ignorant Schoolmaster on a groundbreaking experiment led by Joseph Jacotot in the early nineteenth century. Jacotot was forced into exile by the counter revolutionary forces in 1815 and went on to teach in a Dutch university. While his Dutch-speaking students were eager to hear what the French-speaking scientist could teach them, language became simultaneously what prevented them from communicating and, more importantly, the inadvertent precursor to a great experiment in emancipation. To attempt to understand each other, Jacotot gave his students a bilingual version of a book, asking those truly interested in his science to come back a few weeks later, once they had mastered the French language. To his surprise, a few weeks later, many students came back with an impressive level of French. This left the teacher with revolutionary questions: ‘was will more important than ability? Was every man virtually able to understand what others had done and understood?’ This experiment proved the possibility to reverse the oppressive order present in the teacher/student relationship; it disproved the common assumption of the explanation as necessary. In fact, explanation theories were uncovered for what they mostly were: tools of domination. ‘To explain something to someone is to imply they are not able to understand it on their own.’ The explanation was the mythical cornerstone ‘of a world divided into learned and ignorant, able and disabled, intelligent and stupid minds’. Acknowledging will as the key to ability made the inherent equality of intelligence a logical conclusion. If Jacotot’s students were able to learn French, it was because they had the will to understand what Jacotot had to say, but more importantly the will to partake in a conversation, in an equal conversation. As such, ‘this method of equality was first and foremost a method of will. One could learn on one’s own, without an explanatory master, when one wanted it, by the sheer force of one’s own desire or by the constraint of the situation’.
The Melbourne Free University was created in part under such a principle: one can learn if one wants to. The role of the teacher is therefore merely to facilitate this realisation, not to impose their own knowledge on a student. The MFU was the result of the belief that many elements in the contemporary education system prevent this equality from being acknowledged, which in turn limits the universal potential for emancipation.
For many, education and by a perverse extension knowledge in general, are little more than commodities, little more than tools for a simpler, more practical life. Universities have become increasingly outcome-oriented and it seems only the diploma and the possibility of a job on its completion are rewarding. The potential for personal emancipation is left unexplored and the thirst for understanding often limited to the basics necessary to pass exams. In this context, the Melbourne Free University aims to offer space for personal, self-motivated engagement in areas as diverse as philosophy, politics, history, sustainable development, geography and many others. The only limitations on our future curricula will be dictated by the motivation of those who decide to participate.
The Melbourne Free University does not offer diplomas. It does not offer anything but the satisfaction of knowledge for its own sake and the realisation that one can learn if one decides to. No qualifications are required to participate. The project is open to anyone and everyone who chooses to participate. Additionally, the Melbourne Free University does not ask for any form of commitment. It is not necessary to register interest, nor to participate in courses in their entirety.
Another obvious consequence of the commodification of knowledge has been the price put on its acquisition. University degrees have become increasingly expensive, and other forms of education are rarely free. Central to the Melbourne Free University project is its complete gratuity. The MFU upholds the principle of ‘no money in, no money out’. The cost of running the project is covered by in-kind, anonymous donations. This point is directly linked to the absolute autonomy of the MFU. We remain autonomous from any political party or organisation, government, private body, university or NGO. Yet the Melbourne Free University does not claim to be unbiased. The Free University stands for radical equality: the a priori belief in universal equality and the possibility of emancipation.
Our first semester offered four seminars over two days. On May 1, two seminars offered various interpretations of contemporary Australian issues, and more particularly of Australia’s role in the world and race relations in Australia. Our second series of seminars took place on June 5 and discussed ethics and morality in the twenty-first century and what role truths and religion play in contemporary society. These two afternoons allowed us to gauge the potential of the project.
The second semester will resemble much more a university semester. Four 6-week courses will be offered over 13 weeks: two courses, two evenings a week in Clifton Hill and Carlton North. The first hour will allow an expert to present on the subject and the second will be dedicated to discussion and open dialogue between all those present.
Courses for the second semester include Australian studies, international studies, philosophy and sustainability. Each lecture will take a different approach and participants will have different backgrounds in order to offer a variety of opinions. Lectures will eventually be put online, along with further readings, offering the possibility to research deeper the topics introduced over the semester.
We hope that in time our courses will link in with external projects. A few Saturdays will be dedicated to putting into practice the course on sustainability. Reading groups could also be run parallel to our courses.
While we believe in the necessity to keep the core body small, at least for the time being, to facilitate decision-making, it is not the aim of the founders and coordinators of the Melbourne Free University to claim ownership of the project. The Melbourne Free University is to remain free. We welcome help and are looking for anyone interested in participating in any way possible. It is our hope that in the mid-term, the project will become self-sustainable.
Finally, the limitations of the Melbourne Free University project are clear to us. We recognise that its revolutionary potential can be constrained by elements as diverse as location and time. We are aware that despite our commitment to advertising the project to as many people as possible, participation may be limited. Yet, while a practical enterprise, we believe the Melbourne Free University to be first and foremost a symbol. A symbol that the acquisition of knowledge can be for its own sake and that emancipation is there for anyone to take.
Knowledge, like freedom, is not given, it is taken.
First published in Arena Magazine, No.106