#1432 Created Updated 05/21/2021
The early years: "The Natural State of Man is Ecstatic Wonder."
Copyright 1979 by Dennis R. DuBe'
(This appeared in the November 1979 [Vol. 11 No. 9] issue of The Free School Catalog)
The Community Free School will be ten years old this October, and will celebrate the occurrence in several ways. Besides a birthday party, the Free School will host the fifth annual meeting of the Free University Network, and will embark on a long-range fundraising program to provide for the school's future.
This story begins a four-part series on the history of the Community Free School's first decade in Boulder. The series will continue through the summer, and conclude with the Anniversary issue of the Catalog, which will be published in August.
Boulder's Community Free School was first organized by students and the student government of the University of Colorado in the fall of 1967. Originally called "Unincorporated University", the group was headed by Vic Reinking and John McGill, and listed its first small schedule of courses in the fall of 1968. Associated Students president Paul Talmey helped push a funding proposal through the student senate, and "Unic U." started life with $100.
The fledgling free university gave no thought at the time to its future, nor to its history. The needs of the present were foremost: the rigid course policies of the university, the growing pressure of the anti-war movement, and the influx of drugs into the majority campus consciousness
The history of the free school goes back much further than 1968. No one is quite sure when the concept first surfaced, but there have been many brief experiments in learner-directed education in the last fifty years. The first real evidence of an autonomous, decentralized learning exchange was at San Francisco State's Experimental College in early 1965.
The Free Speech Movement
The idea for a free university grew on the college campuses that were deeply involved in the turmoil of the Free Speech Movement. Massive protests, be-ins, violent demonstrations, bombings, and fires were getting much TV coverage, but the roots of the movement were in the classrooms, cafeterias, and parks of the Bay area. Both complex and profound, the rationale of the Free Speech Movement sprang from an enthusiastic desire to support and defend America's Constitutional freedoms. Students saw the universities as mechanistic extensions of the American war economy, and were desperately searching for ways to reestablish lost freedoms, especially the freedom to learn and teach without state approval.
Amidst this strife was born the Free University of Berkeley (FUB), spontaneously created by the temporary occupants of a university administration building in 1965. "During the fifteen hours before the police arrived, the nation's first free university was established," wrote Michael Rosman in Center magazine, "with a dozen classes, some conducted cross-legged atop the civil defense disaster drums stored in the basement. Chaplin movies were shown. A Hanukah service was read, followed by traditional folk dances."
Although the demonstration ended when the police arrived, the Free University of Berkeley survived, and served as the inspiration for hundreds of free universities across the country in the following years.
The Early Struggle
Although FUB began first, it was quickly followed by the Free University of Palo Alto (FUPA, the real prototype for many of the free universities that exist today, including the Community Free School. Founded by a "handful of frustrated Stanford faculty" and Roy Kepler, who became the first director, FUPA's first catalog appeared in the spring of 1966, and was envisioned by its founders as a "serious counter-university to the limited education being offered at Stanford."
FUPA's founders were of a political nature, and several of the school's first 18 classes were political and included lectures by Herbert Marcuse and the regional directors of the Student's Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). They were interested in exploring areas of knowledge and research not available on the Stanford campus, and they were serious in their pursuit of a more human alternative to the society around them.
Other Stanford students, including Vic Lovell, created another free university in 1966 called The Experiment, and the two schools soon merged to become Mid-peninsula Free University (MFU), the first free university truly independent of a college or university.
The staff of MFU quickly published their Manifesto, which set down the principles they hoped would rule their lives. "The natural state of man is ecstatic wonder," stated the Manifesto. A significant statement today, the MFU Manifesto underlined the dual roles of freedom in education, and education in freedom. "Freedom of inquiry is the cornerstone of Education," states the Manifesto. "Education is not a commodity, and should not be measured out in units, grade points, and degrees."
A philosophy that has had far-reaching effects in this country, altering the visible character of universities, continuing education programs, and adult education programs, the Manifesto's directive that "each individual must generate his own most vital questions" and "program his own education free from central control by administrative bureaucracies and disciplinary oligarchies" is, today the underlying concept behind every true free university.
The Manifesto also called for a direct relationship between education and politics, stating that "education which has no consequences for social action is ... empty." The mixture of Kepler and others who advocated non-violence with the Stanford radicals created the strongest dialectic within FUPA, that of violence versus non-violence.
That confrontation continues today among free universities, with one faction advocating organizations be instruments of social change, and another arguing that free universities are instruments of personal self liberation.
MFU's faculty expanded to offer nearly 140 courses by the fall of 1967, and included teachers such as Joan Baez, Richard Alpert (Baba Ram Das), Herbert Marcuse, and David Harris. The encounter between political activism and personal liberation continued as diverse elements utilized the free u's democratic governing structure as a forum for their confrontation. The period saw a see-saw battle among the factions, and annual elections for the School's director became the battle ground.
In the heat of this continuing discussion, MFU got involved in external projects, such as a store and a print shop. The first issue of Free You, the official magazine of the school, emerged, starting an alliance between the printing press and free universities that is still quite evident.
By the summer of 1968 MFU's courses were headed toward self-liberation (meditation, psychodrama, gestalt, encounter groups, etc.), while the school's external activities became more political. The Free You evolved into an increasingly radical publication, and MFU began to sponsor more community projects and be-ins.
The city of Palo Alto banned be-ins in the summer of 1968. The city's initial reaction to FUPA and later to MFU had been to poke fun and belittle them, but the longer the free university existed, the less funny it seemed to city fathers. The ban on be-ins was struck down eventually, but the confrontation with the city heightened MFU's publicity and the organization thrived. The confrontation increased the anger between the city's straight population and the "hippies" of the free university, climaxing in the fall of 1968 with a near-riot, in which several of the free university leaders were arrested, along with a radical professor named Bruce Franklin.
Midpeninsula Free University continued to thrive through the winter. Their office was firebombed, and the staff responded by organizing secret defense groups to guard the office and store around the clock.
By the beginning of 1969, MFU realized that their growing organization could no longer be supported by benefit concerts and the meager proceeds from the store. After lengthy internal discussions, they instituted course fees that term, $10 per student, becoming the first free university to charge fees to learners.
The relative success of MFU was unclear during 1969, as registrations fluctuated and the magazine and print shop continued to lose money. By the beginning of 1970 the course fees had been increased to S15, and the coordinating board was expressing fears for the future of MFU. The school's only successful money-making venture, the store, began to lose money, and the new coordinator, Crist Noble, published an "official" history of the free u, ending with a philosophical statement about the school:
"Change is painful," he wrote, "for a nation as well as a free university, but we must be able to bear that pain - individually and collectively - in order to establish a society that represents a more human lifestyle and allows every man to attain the level of ECSTATIC WONDER."
Both MFU and the Free University of Berkeley had vanished into the changes by the end of 1972, their founders and lovers going on to other projects, other lives. But the inspiration and experience generated by those schools spread across the country, seized by angry and hungry community leaders and college students, and nurtured into the incredible network of learning environments and activities for adults that exists today.
The creative spark spread quickly from the Bay area to the Denver area. Denver Free University started in the spring of 1968, and Unincorporated University in the fall of the same year in Boulder.
The rest is just more history.
Copyright 1979 by Dennis R. DuBe' (This appeared in the November 1979 [Vol. 11 No. 9] issue of The Free School Catalog)