Rad School: Kansas City’s alternative grad school

Rad School, Kansas City’s alternative grad school program is just about to host it’s first semester of free learning. The school “emerged from a series of discussions among a group of people who love to learn, and who are creating an alternative to existing forms of advanced study”.  Organized around openly defined roles of ‘learners,’ ‘others,’ and ‘teachers,’ the school invites in-depth investigation of an infinite variety of projects by creating enough structure to establish accountability, foster exchange and gather resources, but enough flexibility to constantly change in response to the needs of its learning circle.  I recently sat down for coffee with Julia Cole, who is one of the members of the administrative circle at Rad School and socially engaged artist who will be a member of the 2012 Rad School class.

Caitlin Horsmon: As you know free schools aren’t new, and can be traced back to models like anarchist organizing in Europe in the teens – what influence did alternative educational models or philosophies have on your interest in Rad School?

Julia Cole: I grew up in England where the phrase ‘education is a right not a privilege’ was common, and that idea became deeply embedded in me.  When I first went to University I received a grant so that not only was my tuition paid for, but I also received money to pay for my rent and food.  It really allowed me to focus on the process of education in a way that opened the joy of learning for me, the joy of not needing to follow a program, not needing to do something just to receive a result but to really discover that the journey itself is the most amazing part. I see so many full-time students today under enormous pressure and working 40-hour weeks.  That’s unbelievable–how can you possibly come to terms with what an education is and can be under those circumstances? My major disappointment with the current educational system is that it’s becoming a training system for the delivery of professional skill sets, a part of an industrial system that’s all about invention and delivery, meeting consumer needs in a way that is so short sighted.  There’s no room to take risks and fail, to take a detour for a couple of weeks and then come back with something that you never would have known otherwise. So I think politically I agree with the way the anarchist model represents a different kind of economic system than the one we’re deeply embedded in, and educationally I see how that idea of constantly being driven towards a “productive” goal is totally destructive to the idea of what I feel is an authentic educational system.

I should say that I have also been particularly influenced in my thinking by the work of Paolo Freire and Myles Horton. The models they describe in “We Make the Road by Walking” calls for learners to participate fully in structuring and driving their education, calling on the strengths they already have, and I think that is an amazing way to empower people.

CH: How does the Rad School educational system work?

JC: The function of the body of the school is based on the idea of circles. Everyone in the primary group or learning circle is a “Learner” and each learner prepares a contract in which they lay out the scope of what they want to learn, the resources that they’re going to need, what kind of feedback they’d like. They then also lay out what they have to offer in the role of an “Other” – a counselor/shadow or a study partner – and what kind of an Other they seek. Everyone who is a Learner is also an Other at the same time, so it’s a reciprocal process of accountability.

CH: In addition to one on one support provided by Others there are also circles that meet monthly?

JC: Yes, group meetings happen twice every month. so we have the ‘Learning Circle’ and the ’Free Circle’. The learning circle is a higher-level accountability where you share your progress.  You and your other will share your work with the group periodically and there will be feedback, questions and recommendations that come from the group as a whole, but the relationship with the Other will be more intimate and more ongoing. We envision there being perhaps multiple phone calls or emails each month, and maybe having coffee once in a while, depending how progress is going, but really checking in with each other.  The reciprocal function means that everybody will be stepping up to be the kind of other that they’d want someone else to be for them.  Every other meeting we have a ‘Free Circle’ which is designed to be our interface with the community.  It’s a place where we’ll invite speakers, host events and more.  The first one we’re going to be doing is connected with Grand Arts and the Sissel Tolaas Smellscape project.

CH: Who are the teachers at Rad School?

JC: We have a ‘skill share’ form that’s going out now. It allows us to approach people who are an asset to the community in some way and to ask them if they’d be willing to share their skills, resources, advice or facilities, so we can build a directory of people who are willing to work with learners. We will ask Rad School learners who need this kind of assistance to create a fairly negotiated and documented agreement with each person that they engage with.  Teacher/mentors choose if they want to teach this for free, want to do work trade, do barter, or some other form of compensation.

CH: The structure of Rad School is really about students and the community finding creative ways to create new value through their interaction – how do you think this model can be more successful than a traditional graduate model?

JC: The idea that you could build a structure that has enough support to be useful and has enough fluidity to allow growth is something that’s really intriguing to me. Traditional models seem now to be becoming increasingly rigid.  The growth in assessment structures, evaluations, and the “student as customer” model are things that are shutting down the relationship not only between teachers and students, but also between students and students and cutting off the way that education can grow.  That’s why the structure of Rad School is very loose, it’s very open-ended.  The thing that I like the best is that we’ve deliberately designed a set of conditions that are intended to change over time.  So it’s embracing the need for fluidity and the need to be constantly addressing changes in the environment, context, and in what learners want – finding ways to be maximally fluid and yet hold something together.

CH: The inaugural class has 12 students – what’s the range of topics?

JC: Well one of the learners is developing the Kansas City Free School.  We have other people who are developing things that are more craft based – an application of creative skills for themselves in a way that expands their practice, people who are changing life direction. I’m going to be a student in the school too and I’m developing my writing practice, someone else is doing a study of the secular equivalents of religious beliefs and practices… Monday we’re having our first class, that’s when people will bring their contracts in..

CH: You have your first class meeting on Labor Day?

JC: Yes and I have to say I think it’s really amazing that we’re having our first meeting on Labor Day.  I love the idea that we would take part of Labor Day to engage in something that is labor, but it’s labor for the self in the way that maybe work used to be for people before we got into a mechanized factory system.  Self-motivated education reclaims energy that is typically spent in producing for others and turns it back towards self-fulfillment.

CH: So 12 now – what does the future hold for Rad School?

JC: I have no idea – we’re very open to learning by doing.  I know that several things are important to the notion of Rad School: smallness, locality, that it should be free and constantly able to change – those are core beliefs and everything else can change around that.  We thought about 12 as a number that would be manageable to do swift course changes if something’s really not working. You have enough diversity of opinion for challenging each other’s thinking, but you also really get to talk to people and get floor time.  I can imagine if this works that we might have to think about having multiple groups that meet, but I have no idea what that would look like yet.

CH: What makes Kansas City the right place for Rad School?

JC: We have a really close community, and it’s not closed down by gentrification. It would be harder to do something like this in a large city that has high levels of competition and scarcity built into the system.  We have a kind of abundance here that is opportunity – to be able to see that and to understand vacancies in certain areas as opportunity is very empowering.

CH: What’s the most exciting thing about Rad School?

JC: I think it’s part of a much larger phenomenon – it’s like the surface of a cauldron and there are all of these little bubbles boiling up in different places.  These are very localized experiments. I work with this concept that I call “creating magnetic alternatives” – it’s not a process of driving people toward your idea, but creating something that seems to fill a need and resonate with people so they’re drawn towards your ideas. I think that having multiple sites of small invention and alternative creativity is the most hopeful feature of our time.


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