Shimer College

June 06, 2013

On Free

I have been reflecting endlessly on words that seem to be the opposite of what liberal education is about and yet, in my view, are not. Bewilderment. Slowness. Now, I am turning my attention to free. 

How is the notion of “free” related to higher education? To what we do at Shimer each day? To what we think the aims of education are? I asked related questions recently at the Huffington Post.

I will argue that there are at least 2 connections between “free” and higher education worth pondering. And, I will argue they are particularly worth pondering in terms of Shimer.

First: there are many ways that freedom and higher education get linked, one of which is the notion ofacademic freedom. So: free here, has to do with free discourse and, in a preferable world, attentive and thoughtful listening. It is all about the dialogical rather than a monologue. It is about conversation. It is free, open – those sorts of things. The notion of academic freedom, invented some time ago and supported in various ways in the courts, is an extension of free speech more generally, with a specific eye to participants in the academic professions. For some information on academic freedom, try here (the AAUP site) where it is defined and elaborated upon. Do note: not all speech or speech acts by academics count, of course. So, as with all freedoms, there are limits. 

Second: Here, free has to do with cost. Free, as presented in Free: How Today’s Smartest Businesses Profit By Giving Something for Nothing by Chris Anderson  is relevant. Free as in MOOCs and related phenomena are also relevant. Free. That means: no obvious financial costs to the customer or consumer. Examples: the free toys that come with certain “happy” meals. (Hmm, not so free?) The free apps that populate my phone (once in a while to my great frustration, as when mapquest sends me around in circles). Free newspapers like the Reader in Chicago. Whether they are truly free or not, of course, is another story; are their opportunity costs or hidden costs or… And, yet, I pay nothing in the way of dollars and cents directly for these things. Nor do those many who enroll in MOOCs or take advantage of Shimer’s free lectures in recent months at the Standard Club (free to them, not to Shimer).

Anderson has written a shorter version, available here, entitled Free: Why $0.00 is the Future of Business. Is our question Why $0.00 is the Future of Education? This question is out there in MOOCs and in other places, like the Occupy Movement’s efforts at education and versions of TED Talks. And more. 

(For a review of the book by Anderson entitled Free, written by Malcolm Gladwell, check this out.) 

Of course, the first and second notions of free come together – and contrast – in many ways: the commodification and sale of speech (and ostensibly of democracy), entanglements of all we do with capitalism, and, a silly phrase I believe I plagiarized:

I believe in free speech. Wanna give one? 

But there is another question for Shimer here… . isn’t there?