A free school for the 21st century:
The Online University of the Left
The OUL is dedicated to ‘changing our thinking, changing opinion, changing the world.’
By Jay D. Jurie | The Rag Blog | October 18, 2012
Are you interested in learning more about society and the world we inhabit, how it all got to be the way it is, and of most importance, how it might be changed for the better? If so, there’s a new school at your fingertips, a good place to search for some answers, one that doesn’t saddle its students with a lifetime of loan debt.
Officially opened on January 1, 2012, the Online University of the Left (OUL) made its website debut in April at the Left Forum, an annual gathering of left-wing academics and organizers in New York City.
Dedicated to “changing our thinking, changing opinion, changing the world,” the OUL is largely the brainchild of Carl Davidson, twice a national officer of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) during the 1960s, and currently co-chair of Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS) and a regular contributor to The Rag Blog. OUL was created by wedding the “free schools” of the 1960s, the radical education project of SDS, and older expressions of democratic and left-wing education, with present-day technology.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, Davidson had an early interest in science and technology. This was followed by an interest in the philosophy of science, which led to philosophy and then Marxism, and eventually a return to his roots. He began using technology in media outreach and other political work that included teaching computer repair and internet skills to ex-offenders and former gang members. In Chicago, Davidson was a founder of a face-to-face “Open University of the Left” that sponsored class meetings and events at locales throughout the city.
For eight years he was the lead organizer of the Midwest Radical Scholars and Activist Conference. For 16 years he was a participant in the “Chicago Third Wave Study Group” which put some of its classes online. This background pointed toward the possibilities of a broader online university which could be facilitated by greater speed and broader reach.
These possibilities were coupled with the awareness that many working people with busy lives, even if they can afford it, don’t have the time to devote to learning in a traditional classroom setting. Influenced by the writings of Italian social theorist Antonio Gramsci, Davidson perceived that people can become “organic intellectuals” capable not only of learning but participating in the events that shape their lives. OUL’s online approach readily lends itself to these forms of exploration and growth.
Among the “top video courses” displayed on the OUL’s home page is a dialog about capitalism, socialism, and related topics between Charlie Rose, David Harvey and Richard Wolff; a documentary about the Occupy Wall Street Movement entitled “Rise Like Lions”; a talk by Angela Davis about slavery and the prison-industrial complex; and a discussion of Gramsci by the recently-deceased British historian Eric Hobsbawm.
One of the most captivating videos is “The U.S. in 2012: What’s Class Got to Do with It?” a roundtable discussion with Bill Fletcher, Jr., Juan Gonzalez, Bob Herbert, Frances Fox Piven, and Michael Zweig. Also shown on the home page are “top course outlines and materials,” including a Todd Nigel article comparing and contrasting Gramsci and Mao on the role of organic intellectuals, a link to the Solidarity Economy web site, and “Learning About Unions” by the AFL-CIO.
Presently featured on the OUL site are 20 academic departments, including political economy, solidarity economy, African American Studies, English & Literature, Womens Studies, History, Gay & Lesbian Studies, Global Studies, Psychology, Latino Studies, and Urban Studies, among others. In other words, something for almost everyone. Some of the departments offer subdivisions.
For example, the Science and Discovery department provides an Ecology and Energy subdivision, in which can be found a video entitled “The Story of Cap and Trade” moderated by Annie Leonard. Most of the material found in the departments consists of videos. Given its origins, OUL could be stronger on “hard science” and technology offerings.
There is a blog feature that consists of videos as well as written blog articles, including writings about the Occupy movement, the Black Bloc, and the crises of capitalism. There’s a section on books, which links to a page on the Goodreads site. Other links lead to World News from CEO Express, Arts & Letters Daily, U.S. Colleges and Universities, Left Parties of the U.S. & World and other sites.
One of the most fascinating blog entries is “Conquering a New Popular Hegemony,” an essay by Marta Harnecker, a Chilean sociologist and political theorist. Harnecker tells us that much of Latin America is in the process of adopting a 21st Century Socialism:
a new socialism, far removed from the Soviet model… We knew more about what we didn’t want in socialism than what we did want. We rejected the lack of democracy, totalitarianism, state capitalism, bureaucratic central planning, collectivism that sought to standardize without respect for differences, productivism that emphasized the expansion of productive forces without taking into account the need to preserve nature, dogmatism, intolerance toward legitimate opposition, the attempt to impose atheism by persecuting believers, the need for a single party to lead the process of transition.
Essays like this underscore the important role OUL can play in disseminating such ideas throughout North America.
A “classes” section features live video conferencing, with opportunities for questions and answers. One recent entry is a report-back on a trip to Cuba by philosophers and economists. An upcoming session will feature environmentalist Ted Glick on the topic of climate change.
A particularly interesting section is “archives,” with writings, audio, film, and video about Marxism, the Frankfurt School, Rosa Luxemburg, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Black Panthers, open access to the Public Library of Science on science and medicine, and numerous other topics.
A study guides section consists of syllabi and course outlines, some in annotated bibliography, and others in slide show, power point, and multi-media formats. For example, one entry shows nine syllabi in U.S. history for courses taught by Allan Kulikoff of the University of Georgia History Department. Another provides course outlines and handouts for a course on the political economy of capital accumulation taught by Jonathan Nitzer of the Political Science Department of York University in Toronto.
Since its inception, OUL has continuously expanded its offerings, and awareness of its existence has grown. According to Davidson, by September 17th, 1,500 users had subscribed for regular updates, and over 70,000 had visited the site. OUL has reached over 15,000 in seven countries, including Serbia, Turkey, India, and Indonesia. OUL’s Facebook page has received 1,675 “likes.”
Potential for expansion is virtually limitless. Given re-thinking of old concepts and fresh new approaches, as exemplified by 21st Century Socialism, combined with the continued decline of neoliberalism and its resultant production of austerity, the audience is bound to grow. To facilitate this potential, OUL might consider widening its appeal a bit.
While information is provided on the site about other left tendencies such as anarchism and council communism, OUL presently bills itself as a Marxist school. Of course this is its prerogative, but if the desire is to be a genuine “left unity” project, the explicitly Marxist label might be loosened a bit to attract those who may not wholly subscribe to that identity, as well as broaden its appeal to others who have not yet formed firm political convictions.
An exponential expansion in distance learning and online education means that this audience can be reached ever more readily. According to Babson College Prof. Elaine Allen (not affiliated with OUL), “the rate of growth in online enrollments is 10 times that of the rate in all higher education.” In fact, OUL may face a certain amount of competition as more colleges and universities move not just into online teaching but move into offering more free online classes.
Pioneered by some of the top-tier universities in the U.S. an approach known as Massive Open Online Classes (MOOCs) is doing exactly that, which means this is a trend likely to spread. However, that should present no threat in the foreseeable future to OUL, which Davidson would like to see grow by a factor of 10, with 500 teachers, 10,000 students, and 100 classes in left bookstores in major cities across the country.
An impressive amount of work has been done in getting OUL off to a very auspicious start. There is every reason to believe this project will have a bright future. If OUL does realize its potential, it will not only open doors of discovery to countless new users, it may well serve as an essential platform for social change.
But even in the 1960s “free schools” were not free, as they had operational expenses such as rent, maintenance, utility, and repair costs. These expenses are somewhat ameliorated these days through the online environment, but there are still charges for operating a web site. OUL was initially funded by a start-up grant, which will run out soon. For these reasons, regular site users are asked to contribute or subscribe for a modest $5 per month.
To visit the OUL site, go here.
[Jay D. Jurie, who attended the University of Colorado at Denver, is a resident of Sanford, Florida. He researches, writes, and teaches in the areas of public policy, public administration, and urban planning. Read articles by Jay D. Jurie on The Rag Blog.]
For more about free schools:
Ron Miller, Free Schools, Free People: Education and Democracy After the 1960s. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2002.
For more about distance/online learning:
Going the Distance, Online Education in the United States, 2011
For more about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs):