John Rennison, the Hamilton Spectator

Learn diverse skills for free

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The Hamilton Spectator

(Dec 27, 2008)

It’s learning on the edge.

The McMaster group, Students for a Renegade Society, is launching a Hamilton FreeSkool in January, aiming to pass on diverse skills and knowledge using a model traced to 1800s anarchist Spain.

It’s been brewing for months at SRS, a working group of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) McMaster, a student-funded, student-run group working on human rights, the environment and social justice.

Yes, it’s free. And yes, they spell school with a K on purpose.

“I find the normal structure of the university to be coercive,” Marya Folinsbee, an Edmonton native who has adopted Hamilton as her hometown, says at the Bread and Roses Cafe in the Sky Dragon Centre at 27 King William St.

With high tuition fees, work that students may not agree with and marks used as punitive measures, she says it’s not the best — or the only — model for learning.

So, from January to April, the free school will try to turn the public into experts — challenging the idea that only accredited instructors at institutions can impart wisdom to debt-ridden students.

Aly Ostrowski, a recent Mac grad in psychology and peace studies, says she’s also organizing the free school in the hope it will be more accessible than formal schooling.

Depending on student needs, it can travel to various locations, tailor course content, involve guest speakers and foster conversations where all are equal, says Ostrowski, who will teach a course on community dialogue.

She hopes to host guest speakers on topics as diverse as Take Back the Night efforts, Marxist-Leninist politics, organic farming and more, to encourage networks where they may not have existed before.

Winter 2009 classes include nutrition; introduction to permaculture; consensus, communication and conflict; community dialogue for collective action; music theory; French conversation and grammar; Go (the Asian strategy game); alternative mapping of Hamilton; bike polo; working with metal in creative and practical ways; self-defence; and being outdoors.

Folinsbee and Ostrowski come by their passion honestly. Folinsbee is teaching permaculture after spending time at the Lost Valley Intentional Community and Education Centre in Oregon, learning organic gardening and natural building.

Ostrowski has worked on anti-tarsands efforts and has been a peace studies teaching assistant.

SRS member Brian Jeffrey said the free school grew out of past unexpert lectures where anyone who wanted to speak could do so.

Hamilton FreeSkool isn’t affiliated with other free schools except in its philosophy that challenges traditional authority. There are several in Ontario: a Guelph Free School teaches courses such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the P.L.O: Born Fighting!, and Let Me Eat Cake: The Politics of Size. There is an Anarchist Free University in Toronto.

Learn about Hamilton FreeSkool at or by e-mail at