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free school in fairbanks!

Posted by straw prophet on May 3, 2011 at 2:32 AM

free school in fairbanks!

meet luke connor


the internet is a nifty thing. it allows us to connect, communicate, and coordinate in ways we could have never anticipated. michio kaku has referred to it as a "type 1" telephone system. a system of communication like the internet may be exactly what we've always needed to overcome the various obstacles of politics and resource allocation we've found that come along with living in large groups. i've met a lot of incredible people online; people who are tired of the way things are and genuinely want to make the world a better place. i think it's time that you meet them too, so i'm going to start doing some interviews.

an interesting aspect of interviewing someone online is that exchanges via e-mail or facebook can take course over a longer period of time. all of the responses don't have to be immediate and framed between commercial breaks, information can just flow back and forth. even though the internet has been part of my life for pretty much as long as i can remember, it still feels like a new medium sometimes. i imagine that we as a potential global society have yet to popularly realize what the internet means to us.

i met luke on facebook. he's in his mid-twenties and has been considering political and philosophical questions since his childhood. he recently posted an article about organizing a free school in fairbanks. although i spend a lot of my time thinking about global issues, i recognize that in reality the solutions have to come locally, from the ground up. having never participated in a free school and being one in search of local answers to global problems, i found his article exciting.

in our conversation luke described growing up politically involved then struggling within the system just making ends meet. learning of sarah palin's nomination for v.p. at a particularly trying time in his life catalyzed a deeper desire for social change...


You have to understand, I was living in what amounts to solitary confinement for months, in the woods with nothing but a radio for company. I was hearing about these things, the economy collapsing and so on, but there was no external point of reference. At that point, I almost couldn't tell if what I was hearing was true or if I was just hallucinating that the radio was even on. The things I was hearing were so far-fetched, I honestly feared for my sanity on a whole new level. I started writing a manifesto.

It was your basic stuff – my analysis of the root problems probably didn’t sound too different from Zeitgeist, but I wasn’t concerned with explaining the problem. I took the problems as given, and set about trying to solve them. I was trying to reform the prison system, national boundaries, all of it. I had nothing else to do! I was there for months, and although I eventually did get a car and a source of income after a fashion, I couldn’t stop trying to figure things out that I couldn’t do anything about, like taxes and international conflict. Most of it is probably worthless, but the point is that’s what I was putting all of my energy into. Then again, it was also around that time I had a dream about that chick from the Ninth Gate and became a Satanist, so that’s the kind of state of mind I was in.

speak of the devil...

Grant Morrison writes that art and magic are identical. He talks about corporate logos, and all the information they carry in such a simple image – when you see the golden arches, you instantly call to mind all kinds of things associated with McDonald’s, from the smell of the food to cows in Kansas, or even that one time you ate too much of it and threw up. If you control the images around people, you control the reactions they’re having all day, the information, feelings, and memories that are being brought to mind in everyone who sees whatever you’re putting out there (obviously subject to individual variation to some extent). Storytelling works the same way; that’s why people talk about Obama “losing control of the narrative”. What may have been weirdo comicbook mysticism in the 80s when Doom Patrol was written is now popular cognitive science, and people talk about it on the news.

In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how people make snap judgments and remember things without realizing it, like with logos. In Tipping Point, he talks about memetic epidemiology, or how ideas spread, and how things accumulate gradually until they get to a certain point, after which they explode hugely. He also talks about the practical limits of group size before factions and chaos ensue.


...which brings us to one of luke's ideas for the school: to keep group sizes small and coherent. in his article, luke suggested groups of 10...

"Say we had groups of 10. You could choose who to team up with, but 10 should be the rough total. Each person either already has a skill or learns one, and shares the resulting good/service freely among this limited group within a previously agreed upon limit. For example, if you fish, you might volunteer to share 1 of 3 fish, or 1 of 10, and so on. Someone else might grow tomatoes or do taxes. This way, everyone gets their taxes done and they all get fish and tomatoes, though with 10 people it would be ~10 things for everyone. Even if you don’t like tomatoes, several other people may have things you do want – if each group member takes advantage of at least 5 of the available 10 items in their group, it would still be a pretty good return for all of them. If someone wants to join a group but they don’t have any particular skills, they can pick berries or chop wood – in Fairbanks, completely legitimate options. They could also learn how to do things at the free school as above, or someone in the group could teach them.

free karate class anyone?

The idea is of a sub-village within a larger city, only you don’t have to live near one another. You might say “That sounds like an extended family”, and yeah, it does. A lot of people don’t have large, local, functional extended families like that, but even if you do, participating in this would just be like a bonus.

The best part is, while by its nature the endeavor would reduce people’s dependence on money, the skills people pick up (fur trapping? License is only $15) could theoretically make them money, too. It might even foster a kind of political unity; “conservatives” have done this for a long time, they just build their groups by breeding and bring Jesus into it. That’s off-putting to “liberals”, who abandoned the enterprise entirely, which made the “conservatives” contemptuous of the “liberals” because they couldn’t take care of themselves. But let’s face it, guys – deep down, we’re all anarchists. This is a concrete suggestion toward the end of improving the material and psychological sustainability and independence of the Fairbanks area and its various people, and surely that’s something we can all agree we want."

who can deny that? can everyone recognize that what we're doing isn't sustainable? if so, what better way to find a solution than through combining the limited resources we do have? the more educated the community is, the better your life, so why not make sure everyone has access to a relevant education?

so luke, how are things going now?

I’m doing pretty well, living with a student from NYC. I have been unemployed for 6 months, because Eugene is full of unemployed people and we’re all after the same few jobs (though when I get to Fairbanks next month, I will be working at a fine purveyor of smoking apparatae). So, I’ve just been reading and thinking and thinking and reading. The pieces of this current idea started coming together this year, when I first read Kurt Vonnegut. I think I may have been reading a book of his essays/short fiction.

He talked about traveling, and how when he was outside his hometown he couldn’t go to the yellow pages, lookup Vonnegut, and find someone he knew (or probably any Vonneguts at all), and how it made him feel a bit lonely. And weren’t we all a little lonely these days, or many of us anyway, and isn’t that part of what makes modern life suck? So what if, he said, we formed artificial, randomly assigned extended families, and designate them with common middle names, so he would be Kurt Chipmunk Vonnegut for instance. There might be 200 Chipmunks in Cincinnati, 1000 in NewYork, and so on, and anywhere you go you could look up your “relatives” if you wanted to. Of course, like real family, they don’t have to give you the time of day, but it’s nice to have the option.

That obviously isn’t what I proposed, but after I read that it clicked into place. I really think it’s

a) a way to take money out of the equation, to whatever extent, while still regulating exchange,

b) it’s a way to bring a lot of people in at the entry level and get them involved right away, and

c) it’s a way for people to organize socially and psychologically, so we aren’t just disparate individuals adrift in the oily medium that is our town, but are rather cohesive units that have some idea what the others are up to and how they’re getting on.

That last one is really important, and I think it might go a long way toward solving some of the social problems that plague our generation.

how do you see the school taking structure? can you describe how it would function?

Well, I've talked to a few people about it so far. A friend of mine from Anchorage is moving to Fairbanks in the fall, and he wants to put together a wiki for it that people can use. If someone has an idea for a class they'll run it by a few other people (or not, if they're mavericky), put together a basic lesson plan and description, figure out where they can have it, and advertise.

The website would be a place where the full schedule could be seen and updated as the month goes.The classes people had done in the past would be described there, like the free school of Vancouver has, but I think a talk page on each one would be a good idea, for corrections and discussion, so if someone wants to duplicate the class it will be better the next time.

That's pretty much it. In much of the Pacific Northwest they tend to teach political awareness for trustafarians and other anarchists, maybe a conversational Spanish thing, alternative currencies, yoga, sometimes cool shit like welding. It's difficult to see how in a setting like Portland this could easily be parlayed into the beginnings of the infrastructure for (correct me if I'm wrong) a resource based economy.

In a more rural location, like anywhere in Alaska, subsistence activities are practiced all the time. Some of them are expensive and difficult to undertake without a few people to help, some of them take nothing but a little time and maybe some walking. I'm not suggesting quitting your day job and living in a hut, but maybe if you lost your day job you'd have an easier time if you knew how to make/get some things for yourself, on the cheap. I think Alaskan free schools could be an avenue for people to start working together, sharing what knowledge they have and building a larger local base of production for some basic necessities.

People could teach fishing, hydroponics, ice fishing, cooking, first aid, sewing. Basic stuff that will really help you, esp. in an arctic setting. Meanwhile, you still get your groceries, but if you ever couldn't get them for reasons either monetary or supply related, you would have another way of getting by. Pretty much anything that is cheaper to make yourself, people should know how to make themselves, or know someone who does. Some people do this for economic reasons, some for tradition, some for the environment, but I am suggesting it for political reasons. We need to be economically independent.

Meanwhile, people can teach "urban art" in spraypaint medium. I'm sure not going to stop them. If someone would do it, I would appreciate it, because Fairbanks graffiti is just shitty scribbles, and we could stand something a little more interesting. People can teach music or loch ness monster biology, or actual biology if they want, and people can show up or not if they want. Reading or basic math might be popular, and I would probably be willing to take shifts with that. Some people will probably want to teach strange theories of nutrition, but their talk page will illustrate the controversy, so it's probably not a huge problem. No subject should be taboo! If someone submits a class that offends me, I may consider putting a frowny face by it on the schedule. If it's illegal, probably not put it on the chart, but WTF, that guy can do it without us.

That's the best part: anyone can do this, with or without anyone else's help, to whatever degree they can. All you really need is something to teach, access to a photocopier, and someplace people can gather to hear you where you probably won't all get arrested.


i agree that in order to get to something idealistic like a rbe we'll need some community foundations, free school sounds like a great way to do that. i've been discussing time banks with another friend, he loaned me an anarchist zine about different money alternatives. it would be great to have a place like you're describing to collect like minds and discuss.


also, a lot of people (myself included) are anticipating a terrible global economic collapse within the next decade or so. i myself am not entirely sure how to deal with that type of situation. are you anticipating a similar financial disaster (not that our economic system isn't already a disaster, lol)? if so, what are you doing to prepare (aside from the sweet free school idea)?


I’m not necessarily anticipating a disaster, of the kind that some people are imagining when they stock up on bottled water and colloidal silver. I do worry a little bit about the people who are preaching about buying guns and gold right now, like maybe they might start going Mad Max on people and disrupt supply lines, but as far as I’m concerned things are bad enough now to start doing something to help ourselves. And economic collapses can be personal, too. God knows the economy has been post-apocalyptic for some people for years.

will somebody loan this guy a few bucks so he can get a hamburger?

he's been asking for one since 1932!

Whether or not there's going to be a vast systemic collapse, money is a terrible problem. Otherwise capable people are left to starve because some corporation gets a tax break for making cheap plastic crap in Malaysia rather than Alabama. The richest people in the America get that way by brokering financial transactions, just because all the money passes through their hands and they get to take what they want. I'm just so terribly sick of it. We obviously have the technology, skilled workers, and willing unskilled workers to get everything done that we need to do and get things to the people who need them. When money is the only thing that can keep that in motion, and money comes from an outside source, we are on shaky ground. When everything relies on money, the people who control money control everything, and I think the only way around it is to reduce our dependence on it. We can’t wait for a time when that won’t involve work – we just have to figure out how to gradually replace the things we spend money on, and that means making stuff.


I haven’t done anything yet, but when I get back to AK I’m going to set about making soap and growing some plants hydroponically. I’ll probably help my stepmom with her garden and try to go along on a moose hunt or catch a fish. You’ve got to start somewhere. I’ve recently been talking to a Robert Shields who is currently getting a sustainability project up and running in Fairbanks, so I’ll definitely check that out and try to learn a few things from him. Lots of people (not including myself) are already doing things like this; I’m only trying to modify a very old idea very slightly, with the intent of making it more contagious, more accessible to the super-poor, and to get people thinking about it as a possible solution to our federal problems.

you mentioned that political philosophy has always been present in your thinking. can you describe your political philosophy? how have your experiences influenced/informed your philosophy? were you ever in the capitalist mindset of "everyone must work (i.e. earn money) if they want to eat"? if so, what changed that?


I was never really a capitalist. I was always closer to the Democrat side of the family. Currently, I think they’re a little more down with the system than I am. I think the central concept of my political philosophy right now is that we know enough to do better. People keep talking about the constitution, but when you ask them why they think it’s still a valuable document, they talk about the bill of rights.Yeah, obviously we like rights. What about the rest of it? Can we really not think of a better way to organize the structure of our government, even with 200+ years’ worth of new technology, information, thought, and experience? We know how this turns out. It’s not working, and to tea partiers thinking “if we only returned to the original intent, it would work”, I say “The original intent was for it to apply to 13 colonies with maybe a million people in them”. It’s not working now because the empire is too big and tries to enclose too many inconsistent cultures – somebody in Vermont has no business governing or being governed by someone in Texas. There’s no earthly reason they should have anything to do with one another unless they want to exchange something personally.

i doubt anyone from texas would listen to anyone from vermont anyways...


There is overwhelming evidence that cultures with some common foundation are more functional – some people make the argument that race is the deciding factor, some people think it’s religion or language; I think there’s probably the most evidence for gross economic disparities making a difference. I really do think living in an extreme environment like Alaska, if people are less focused on “national” politics or “national” commerce or “national” culture, would be enough to provide that kind of social glue in the face of virtually any difference. At the very least, yer standard geographical divisions (Interior, Northwest, Barrow, Southeast, etc.) would have that social glue internally, and I don’t see why we wouldn’t be able to get along as needed.


Joe Bageant talks about “the American Hologram”; it’s similar to what Chris Hedges wrote about in Empire of Illusion. My best case scenario for America is that hologram going away, and people starting to live real lives.

Or at least a different hologram! WTF, if art is magic we can have whatever we want, why the fuck are we putting ourselves in this mini-mall wasteland?


malaysia, for instance, looks like this.

regarding the constitution, rights are no good if they can't be used, doesn't matter what the paper says. when talking about the "constitution" of a society, we should be talking about those mechanisms that constitute the society's ability to guarantee services for it's people (food, shelter, clothing, free press, ect.), but our "constitution" isn't a technical reality but an abstraction recorded on paper and worshipped by the masses. people don't get it, just writing something on a piece of paper doesn't make it so, whether it comes to the value of money or the power of the constitution.

Exactly! We need to learn to differentiate what is from what's on a piece of paper, or on a screen, as a culture. I think younger people get it more than older people, because they grew up knowing not to believe anything on the internet. Kids always know the new technology better than people who are introduced to it as adults, and in this case it amounts to a whole new way of perceiving information. I think they're starting to trust abstractions a lot less and notice them more because they're surrounded by so many of them. That's a wild guess, I don't know if it's true.


 what do you say to people that want "proof" of our ability to cooperate and provide for ourselves without money (as if we hadn't been for thousands of years prior to money)? for example, a free market friend of mine insists that hunger and starvation are just natural occurrences that cannot be overcome, that it has nothing to do with the market, and that without money we wouldn't be able to intelligently allocate resources? i'm always a little dumbfounded by those attitudes. i mean i have no problem thinking about how we would do these things, but some people are so locked into the monetary paradigm that they literally think it's irrational to allocate resources without using markets, competition, advertising, ect. is there anything to do about that?


Starvation and hunger probably are natural occurrences; I’m not qualified to speculate about how we can feed literally everyone on the planet, but I do know that we can feed at least as many people as we’re feeding now, and it stands to reason that we can feed more if more they can also produce food for themselves in their apartment or what have you. We definitely have the technology for people to grow surprising amounts of food or what have you in surprisingly small and efficient spaces indoors, and a surprising number of Alaskans already keep goats, rabbits, or chickens (though I think the goats and chickens tend to be for people with yards). I’m not saying we can replace other food production systems with that, but we don’t really have to.


I can’t solve the problem on a large scale, but a medium-small group where in each member is making something that would otherwise cost money – and makes enough to share with anyone in their group who wants some, to some limited degree of their choosing, like 1 loaf of bread a week or something – gets around that with regard to all the goods being exchanged that way. You know what people need because you know them personally, there’s no confusion about supply, nobody is in charge, and you get more than you put in. I can’t prove that this will work, but I’m going to try it personally and let people know how it goes, and try to get other people to test the idea with me.

 Group size seems to be the key. Anything over 100-150, and things start to get a lot less well-oiled really quickly (according to Malcolm Gladwell and the studies he cites). My estimate for the best group size of the kind I’m talking about is 10, so as not to overtax producers. Plus, that way if groups wanted to interact more closely, or keep track of the things they produce on an online scoreboard of sorts and see how other groups are doing, ~10-15 groups would (according to Gladwell) be able to organize anything they wanted to do apart or together with relative ease. That is to say, relative to a much larger group.

Obviously there are some concerns, like “how do you know someone is going to make good before you give them a bunch of stuff you worked hard on”. I was thinking that once you have something to share, that’s the point at which you approach a group. If you have something to offer them, they can accept you and give you some of their sharables too, or say no thanks. If you have contributed month-to-date or in the previous month, you get a share of anything that comes up, and if you haven’t, you’re no longer a member, no harm/no foul. That way, by definition, only people who are contributing get access to the products of other people who are contributing. This also makes it easy for transient people to join for a short time and leave, while still benefitting and not cheating the group.

In any case, money is an inefficient means of distribution. You have starving people in the street – my apartment in downtown Eugene, OR has a view of a parking lot where bums regularly congregate and get into drunken fights, and every street is lined with panhandlers – meanwhile there are empty apartments, empty buildings, overstocked food getting thrown out, vacant lots where nobody is allowed to camp. Meanwhile, there aren’t any jobs for anyone, even if they are competent to work (unemployment is around 12%, officially). Massive unemployment means nobody can buy useless knick knacks that nobody would sell in the first place if they weren’t desperately scrambling for a profit, so all the Circuit Cities and gift shops close down, creating more unemployment, reducing buying power, which closes more stores and increases unemployment – and when you’ve got gaps on your resume, it’s harder to get a job, so you stay unemployed. Meanwhile, a savings account with 3% quarterly interest and $10,000 in it *magically accrues* more than the cost of my monthly rent four times a year, like it’s pocket change.


But fortunately, money isn’t what keeps civilization afloat. If money disappeared tomorrow, all it would take to keep the world going would be people who do important things making the decision to keep going to work.


In the bizarre universe where that would be people’s reaction, they would realize that the machines don’t run on money. Money doesn’t make electricity. It doesn’t send faxes or make phone calls or bounce signals back from space. So why let it ruin our whole shit? Why force skilled and/or otherwise able people to sit around all day getting fat and watching cartoons, or worse, go homeless and starving, when they otherwise want to work just because there are only 60 job openings at the WalMart and 2,000 overqualified applicants? Why force people to peddle cheap crap in the ruins of what used to be their home town, grinning and wearing a stupid shitty vest for $10 an hour while someone who owns shares in Walmart and never lifts a finger makes 300 times that? The people who keep the electric company know how to keep it running, and the people who keep satellites in good repair know how to do that, too. 

The more people who know how to keep the electric company running, the less likely we are to lose electricity in the event of some kind of economic collapse. The more people who know how to build off-license cabins in the woods without getting caught, the fewer people have to go without shelter or crash on couches all winter (I know at least one guy who has built one, out of mostly scavenged/free materials, and it was pretty solid).

There are so many things people need to survive (food, water, shelter, heat, etc), and right now, we pay for virtually all of them because we have no choice. We don't have a choice because many of us can't produce some or all of these things for ourselves, sometimes because we don't know how. But people have been surviving in Alaska, without all the wonderful modern technology and techniques that we have now, for centuries. The more people who know how to produce essential goods or do essential things, the less we have to rely on the “national” economy and the exchange of currency. Our lives don’t have to depend on slum lords and oil companies. If we just learn how to fill the needs they’re filling now, we can get these vampires off our backs.

That’s what the free school would be for. Individuals know things that the rest of the group doesn’t, and if they’re willing to teach the group, suddenly there are a bunch more people who can do this one thing. If another person steps up, suddenly all those people know two things they didn’t before. Suddenly not only do you have more skilled people, you have skilled people who know each other and talk. They could organize fundraisers, so if you want to grow indoors and don’t have the cash, they could help with materials. They could work together on larger projects, or brainstorm about what to do next. They can work together, but they don’t have to – I’m sure some people will and some people won’t. At least we could develop enough of a skill base that we can start navigating a way out of this economic death machine we’re all stuck in.


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1 Comment

Reply saydaysago
2:10 AM on May 24, 2011 
nice! i like this idea.