By Traian Brumă
Part I : Five types of watercrafts that sail towards adulthood
For a quarter of a century, Ceaușescu was Romania’s omnipresent dictator; his picture adorned every wall and stamped the first page of every book published. He was executed on Christmas day of 1989 and the country was suddenly “free”. I was six at the time of the revolution. I remember some children back then saying that “freedom” and “democracy” meant we don’t have to go to school anymore.
It so happened that the following three decades of my life would lead me to a similar conviction on freedom and schooling. For the past 17 years, my work has been focused on transforming higher education in Romania. After trying this from inside the system, I co-founded two alternative universities in Bucharest – The Alternative University and The Entrepreneurship Academy. In search of a deeper understanding of this work, I went travelling around the world to learn about other ways to reimagine higher education.
I came to dream of a world where young people create and govern their own universities instead of going to ready-made ones. I call the pattern at the core of this dream The Self-Organized University. It surfaced as a distinct pattern in contrast with four others that I encountered in my journey. First I was a student of The Mainstream University which led me to advocate for The Innovative University but after having little success with that I pivoted to co-create The Alternative University. Having some success with that brought a new level of questions and so I went traveling and discovered The Unlearning University as a deeper answer to my quest.
I am sketching this system of five patterns as a way to model the relationship between universities and freedom. My hope is that it will be helpful for some of the young people that are in the process of crafting their own path towards adulthood. I’m equally writing for people who do not intend to go to a university as for those who do. The mere existence of the university also influences the paths of people who don’t attend one and sometimes internalize the label of “less educated”. And I’m not writing only out of disinterested generosity for young people. Much is at stake for all of us. I believe that the future I care for – one that is Free, Fair and Alive1 – depends on a critical number of young people abandoning the mainstream universities to create their own or finding other ways to inhabit – in their journeys to adulthood – spaces infused with individual and collective autonomy.
Now let me go back to the years of my childhood to share the story of how I gradually lived through each of the five patterns while dancing with the ideas of freedom, education and learning.
Rollerblading: The Deep Origins
I spent the summers of my early years with my grandparents from my father’s side, who were subsistence farmers in a small village on the shores of the Danube river. Each of them had four years of schooling but they taught me how to read. Our house was made out of mud bricks, the toilet was outside in the courtyard and we pulled the water from the well with a bucket. I loved it there: the village was full of kids, we roamed and played in the unpaved street and in the forest, and we swam in the river each day. That boundless play is my first experience of freedom.
Both my parents grew up in villages and came to the city in their twenties. My mother worked as a kindergarten teacher while my father was a military officer. I grew up in a working class neighbourhood of Bucharest, going to school by myself while my parents were at work. When I was nine, my family moved to Moscow for two years. I was enrolled in a normal russian school and studied the romanian curriculum on my own. Because I started out by not speaking the language, the russian teachers were extremely easy-going with me. I could do whatever I wanted both in the russian school and with my romanian handbooks that I was supposed to study on my own. I enjoyed organizing my own learning and this early taste of self-directed learning forever changed my relationship with school. This is my first experience of reclaiming some of the freedom of my learning from formal schooling.
When my parents had the next opportunity to work abroad, I was just entering high school. I chose to stay in Bucharest with my sister. Therefore, during high school, I had much more freedom than my peers. I had confidence in my academic ability and I used it to get by at school with as little effort as possible. Classes were boring so my friends and I were often skipping them to hang out in computer clubs and cheap pubs. I loved to play computer games like Starcraft and to read science fiction novels and a particular science and technology magazine which had fascinating articles about quantum mechanics.
But more than anything, I was a rollerblader. I was part of a group of rollerbladers that was gathering teenagers from several districts around a marble monument dedicated to military heroes. We appropriated it as our skating spot. It had smooth pavement, stairs to jump over and long ledges to slide on. The bulk of us were teenagers, with a few children and an older guy in his late twenties. Our micro-culture was one of friendship, having fun and being cool. Looking back, it was the most intense culture of learning I have been part of.
Our daily routine was to try something new and more difficult or to polish an older trick. Tricks were either jumps or grinds (sliding on rails and ledges). There is no end to the range and difficulty of the tricks you can perform. A beginner would clumsily learn to jump over a few stairs and hundreds of jumps later, he might be able to jump while grabbing his feet and spinning 180 degrees. Further down the line, after countless attempts and hard falls he would be able to jump over 10-15 stairs while spinning 540 degrees and holding his feet. To perfect just one such trick involves hundreds of attempts of which many will involve falling, physical pain and sometimes injury. We were doing that with no training schedule and no coaches. There was no one to tell you when to “train” or what to practice. It was up to each of us to slack all day and obey fear or skate hard and defy fear. The ones who just wanted to look cool would quit easily. Those that kept at it were intensely passionate.
Even though it was a micro-culture of self-motivated teenagers each doing their own thing, there were also intense social processes at play. You just needed to try skating alone to realise how much energy was coming from the group. There was the feedback and encouragement from others and most important, there was somebody there to witness when you nailed a trick. We would talk about what we were attempting, observe and analyze others and give each other feedback. We sometimes played a game in which we took turns in challenging others to do one trick we did. When a new rollerblading video was out, we would have a watch party and intensely discuss it afterwards. We built our own ramp and rails and, before digital cameras, we found a way to film and watch ourselves. Everything was organized with no leaders or formal hierarchy but there was an invisible and fluid social system based on reputation primarily derived from how good at skating one was. There were absolutely no adults involved for a few years until a skatepark was built and the rollerblading scene moved there.
Slowly our group became recognized as the best rollerblading group in the city. Some competitions popped up and a company started sponsoring a few of us with equipment. During the summers, there were a few contests at the seaside and the organizers would rent a house for a few of us for a whole month. We crammed that house with as many of our rollerblading friends as could fit for a month of rollerblading and fun at the seaside. Over time, the culture changed towards more competition and some of us missed the old days of street skating just for the sake of learning and having fun.
Rollerblading, besides being the highlight of my adventurous childhood, was also the first time I experienced free and focused learning in a community. It is the source of my passion for self-determined learning and the original inspiration for what a vibrant learning community feels like.
Autopiloting into The Mainstream University
When the time came to leave childhood behind, I thought the way towards becoming an adult would be straightforward. I wanted to stay in Bucharest and university was
the automatic next step. For me, which university to go to was implicit in choosing to study either physics, economics or engineering. Each of these choices would lead me to a different public university. Any of these three universities would turn me into a professional and deliver me to adulthood.
Little did I know that the journey ahead was going to be a winding adventure and my destination would be further but more exciting than I could imagine. I was cluelessly entering The Odyssey Years.
The Odyssey is an ancient Greek epic poem about the journey back home of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca. It took him 10 years to return home after almost being eaten by a cyclops, imprisoned by a nymph for 7 years and narrowly surviving storms. An odyssey has come to mean a long, difficult and unpredictable journey. The journalist David Brooks1 coined the term the odyssey years, as a metaphor for that phase of life when one is no longer a child, but not yet an adult either. In that in-between age, one struggles to find a vaguely defined “place in the world”.
For me, an urban teenager saying goodbye to childhood, the idea of “odyssey years” might have been the big picture map I was missing. The map should have spoken in a Gandalf voice: “You are entering The Odyssey Years, an age of instability, exploration and possibility. You are at the start of a long, difficult and unpredictable journey at sea. As it was for Odysseus, it is a journey “back home” because, in a way, reaching adulthood is about settling down in a new home after you have left your childhood’s nest to explore what life can be about. You are now in Childhood Harbor. You leave the “mainland” as a child and you return to the mainland as an adult.The metaphor life at sea in a watercraft represents the instability and the possibility of the odyssey years, the adventure but also the strangeness of a place in between two homes. Be wise in choosing the watercraft, as the life on board will determine the man you will become!”
No Gandalf spoke to me and I did not pay attention to the watercraft I was boarding: Polytechnic University of Bucharest. I choose it from a shortlist of three, only considering what I will be studying. I didn’t see much of the “scope of exploration of life possibilities”. Freedom was to come from having enough money so the exploration to be done was around which interesting and well paid jobs I could aim for. My ideal scenario would have been to study physics and become a quantum mechanics researcher. The problem was that researchers in Romania were known to have lousy salaries and I had higher material aspirations. The money making option was to study economics and become an entrepreneur, but studying economics did not seem interesting. In the end, I went with electrical engineering, seeing it as a mix of studying physics and making money afterwards.
Now I understand that my Childhood Harbor had only three watercrafts of the same type: Mainstream University. Because I saw it as the only way forward, I was pretty much on autopilot while boarding one of them. I had no clue that life can be much more interesting than where I was heading and that my “my place in the world” was far off course.
Advocating for The Innovative University
The Polytechnic University of Bucharest was considered “the flagship technical university in the country”. The experience soon proved disappointing. It was already decided what courses to attend and in what order. Algebra, calculus and other such subjects seemed remote from the real world of engineering I was curious to discover. I found no useful help in my effort to connect what seemed like a random selection of abstract theories to be used someday. It didn’t take more than one semester for a feeling of futility to take hold. It was clear that rather than accumulating a lasting understanding to be used later, the theories faded away quickly after exams and more unrelated courses followed. Most of my colleagues agreed that we were not accumulating much else than credits. My deepest frustration was that I had no say in it even though it was my time being used up and as they said, “my future was at stake”. There was no way to quit boring classes, to make room for diving deep into interesting ones or to tailor my learning to my interests. It was all decided by somebody else on the assumption that they know better. There was little to no passion, agency or collaboration in that learning culture. Actually, it wasn’t even a learning culture, it was a culture of passing exams.
I tried to convince some of my colleagues to create an online forum where we might be able to express our discontent. My fellow students deflected me towards the student organization that was mostly inactive but happy to harness my enterprising energy. I joined and plunged ahead with a full commitment toward developing the organization, attracting more students and having our complaints heard. We wrote an open letter to the dean and built the online forum. Fast forward to my final year at university, I was coordinating a national student campaign in 17 universities. One of the stickers we were handing out said: “Ceaușescu is still here with us, teaching in university lecture rooms” hinting at the dictatorial nature of the relationship between professors and students. I was a student activist for almost five years, advocating for “a revolution in higher education”. We called for “student-centered” universities where students would be free to create their own learning paths. Now I would call the blueprint of that vision The Innovative University.
The Innovative University is The Mainstream University (1) augmented with technology, (2) enriched with extracurriculars and (3) made customizable for students through flexibility. Together, these three add-ons represent a complete upgrade for freedom.
Augmenting Innovations apply technology to the usual university learning process: degrees, courses, faculty, exams and grades. Some of the most promising ideas of the digital revolution are the Massive Online Open Course, open educational resources, digital micro certificates and e-portfolios. The top three MOOC platforms, Coursera, EdX and Futurelearn have close to 6000 courses to choose from. All these potentially create the freedom to access and mix courses at a lower cost or for free, with the flexibility to take them independent of location, at one’s own pace and even from universities you are not enrolled in.
Extracurriculars Innovations add a rich menu of new options in addition to the required academic curriculum like student organizations, innovation labs, contests, challenges, projects abroad, music groups or mindfulness centers. At University of California Davis, 26 students live in The Domes, a cooperative co-housing community where they resist consumerism by growing their own food, saving seeds, having communal dinners, composting and more. At Middlebury College, the Social Entrepreneurship Center offers grants, mentorship, training and space for students interested in social change. Extracurriculars create options not only in the form of courses but also as a wide range of experiences voluntarily chosen. Their texture is different in that it’s based on intrinsic motivation, it’s highly relevant for one’s present instincts, it holds the possibility to get together with like-minded people and to interact with them in a more meaningful way.
Flexibility Innovations remove some of the requirements from the academic curriculum, giving the students more power to create their own path. At Olin College you can self design your engineering degree having the flexibility to choose most of your courses. You can take a break for one semester, access 4 credits of self study each semester, work on your own idea in the entrepreneurship class and take multiple times the “Iterate Course” that is “a quick way to test a different question, hypothesis or assumption and get academic credit”. At Hampshire College, students design their own programs of study crossing all disciplinary boundaries and instead of grades, they receive narrative evaluations.
The Innovative University opens the way for experiencing freedom in creating your individual path. It shines in that it somehow shields you from the pressures of the world, providing support, resources and structure for exploration without imposing a path.
For this vision me and my fellow student activists marched, protested, issued press releases, organized roundtables, made policy proposals, ran awareness campaigns and developed the capacity of student organizations across the country. We succeeded, for example, in having students as equal members in the external evaluation teams of the Romanian Agency for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, after introducing in its methodology criteria for promoting the flexibility of learning paths. We even won the Best Education Project Award of 2006 at the Civil Society Gala. In spite of that – after five years of projects and campaigns – we had to admit that there were no signs of the deep transformation we fought for.
As I was graduating, I had found two life treasures that I did not look for. First, I found not only passion but also meaning and purpose in fighting for self-determined learning. To follow that became more important than money. Second, I had developed enough intellectual independence to be suspicious and critical of adults and their institutions and enough emotional independence to be able to take the risk of walking on a path that none of them endorsed.
Building The Alternative University
As it turned out, four of us – former student activists – graduated and left the formal system to start our own university based on self-determined learning. In the beginning it sounded unrealistic both to our parents and to our peers that were getting “real jobs” after graduation. A university was such a huge monolithic structure that creating one seemed to be reserved for old people with full credentials, experience, money and political influence. We were five friends with empty pockets.
Two years into the project my parents were at the pinnacle of pressuring me to quit “working for nothing” and “get a real job”. Somehow I found a way to continue for the next eight years, completely absorbed by the project. Instead of becoming an engineer, I became what many people refer to as a “social entrepreneur”. Unrealistic as it sounded in the beginning even to us, we were able to co-create a “university of the students” where over the course of a decade, more than 600 young people learned freely. The Alternative University was closer to the learning culture of a skatepark than to that of a regular university. It was based on passion and intrinsic motivation. Each one of us did their own thing, on their own terms, in an atmosphere of voluntary collaboration and play. There were no grades and we offered no diplomas, so everyone who stayed found that environment nurturing. I will go as far as to say that my life was among the many that changed in this environment that encouraged all of us to craft our own unique path. Other “students” started their own learning community for teenagers as a prototype for the first democratic high-school in Bucharest or quit their corporate jobs, went to travel for a year and stayed digital nomads ever since. Students creating their own unique and slightly non-conformist paths is the best way for us to evaluate our impact and there are plenty of examples of that. We also had some impact on occasional visitors. Perry Tims, a HR manager in London at the time, visited us and wrote this flattering account:
“It was in 2012 that I met some amazing people and came across an incredible organisation that changed my life forever. […] The Alternative University hit me like a collection of people never has before. A university RUN by students and ex students. Where there are no qualifications. People direct their own learning. Everyone’s a student and everyone’s a teacher. A place built from the love of learning. A place exuding hope that we — the people — can take control of our destiny.”
We set out to create an Innovative University but over the years, it turned out something of a different nature: The Alternative University.
The Alternative University type is a different approach of what a university can be. It invites students into contact with a radically different content or process of learning. Besides our project, I visited a varied range of such places. At Deep Springs College, you live on a cattle farm in the middle of nowhere, you drive tractors, feed the animals and do other work on the farm for four hours a day. At Minerva University, the “campus” moves to a different city in another part of the world each six months. At Schumacher College students grow, pick and cook their own food on campus. Thiel Fellowship, which I did not visit, gives young people $100.000 to drop out of university and start their own business. The Alternative University is a hybrid that combines radical elements of content and process (like no grades or diplomas, work on a farm, traveling campus) with more mainstream elements (tuition fees, liberal arts curriculum, grades and diplomas) into a synthesis that feels both different and familiar. In our case, the radical self-determined learning was combined with a financial model plugged to the mainstream thinking and practice. We existed so that our students could find purpose and meaning at the same time as being sponsored by companies like Coca-Cola or Unilever that hoped to hire our students in what we largely considered meaningless jobs.
The Alternative University invites the freedom of non-conformity by stepping outside of the standard model of learning. This is freedom from the usual structure of courses, degree, exams, maybe from the usual content, and overall, from the landscape of a regular university. By dislocating a few regular ideas about what learning is, it sparks imaginations as to what learning can be and even to what life and our world can be. Because they take the freedom to redesign learning and diverge from the mainstream, the fabric of the resulting learning cultures is more experimental and non-conformist, infecting everyone with creative rebelliousness.
Although it did not work for everybody, the learning model of The Alternative University (of Bucharest) did help many of us to flourish and find our own way. Our main weakness was the financial model which was always shaky and somehow in tension with our learning philosophy. Getting money from grants or sponsorships would defocus us from what our community really needed. Therefore, we tried to develop more the student fees revenue stream and fell into another trap: while our learning philosophy invited and needed people as co-creators, the higher the fees, the more it was drawing us into a consumer – service-provider relationship.
In 2014, the Alternative University had 178 students, a core-team of 9 people employed full-time and 12 part-time volunteers. The annual event where the whole community gathered – the Camp – was the most impactful moment of the year. It is a six-day camp in the mountains where each day is dedicated towards experiencing one of the six values of our community. That year, for the first time, a team made up of students were organizing this most important event. They decided to change the location we were used to. I feared the Camp would be a failure. Actually, I was sure of it. Three days into the event I realised it was the best Camp we ever had and I was experiencing a feeling of freedom long forgotten. Making the Alternative University happen had been consuming all of my energy for 7 years up to that moment. In a twist of irony, I had become self-chained to the freedom centered university. Seeing that the university could have a life of its own gave me the taste of the liberation that was becoming possible. On the last day of the Camp, in a big circle where each of us had to share one thing that he would dare to do the following year, I said that I would leave the core-team to travel around the world and write a book.
A chapter of my life was ending. The more obvious treasure I was taking with me was the creative confidence that was the by-product of having co-created a self-directed learning environment from scratch. On a more subtle note, leaving the Alternative University team was difficult but also a potent act of freedom. Detachment would prove to be a surprising treasure of life and a deep well of freedom.
Traveling to The Unlearning University
In August 2015 I left Romania and I was to return no sooner than May 2017. I traveled around the world for two years to 19 countries to visit more than one hundred projects: from formal universities like Olin College of Engineering in Boston to radical informal learning environments like Swaraj University near Udaipur, India.
It was a self-designed and crowd-funded research project to learn about how people all over the world are re-imagining higher education. I was focused on finding ways of making the learning process more self directed, more powerful and more self-organized. One of my puzzles was how a radical learning model can thrive while embedded in a cultural ecosystem where it doesn’t fit.
That puzzle would not be solved, but to my surprise, dissolved3. Dissolving a problem means solving it in the bigger system to which it belongs. In the case of universities, that is the cultural-political-economic system in which universities are embedded. At that time, I didn’t see too clearly how the structural problems of the money system, mass production and capitalism, industrial agriculture or our “representative” democracy were deeply and intimately related with universities and education. As I was traveling, my interest grew around questions of the nature of knowledge, different worldviews and ways of knowing and being. I asked myself what is individual and collective wisdom as we travel into the unknown. I started asking questions around how less privileged communities can develop their own learning and unlearning capacities. The issue of decolonisation and social justice became more important for me. My focus moved away from transforming just education towards a more systemic view of the transformation of our political-economic system and our broader culture. In the places where my perspective was expanded in this way they weren’t trying to solve education, food, democracy or the environment as separate pieces but re-imagining all of them at once and their connections. And they were not just talking the talk but also living in a new way, “giving birth to new micro-societies in the womb of the old one”4. I call these places Unlearning Universities because for someone like me, who has been immersed all his life in the dominant culture, unlearning is the base for being able to reimagine human life and its social and technical systems.
The Unlearning University is countercultural, almost alien as a whole. Rarely these places are even called universities or they resemble what we know as universities. If it is still defined as a learning project, it is embedded in a “dissident” culture that is intentionally distancing itself from the mainstream, trying to live an alternative to our current system. At Swaraj University in India, they don’t have diplomas and don’t want any. Instead, they run a playful national campaign titled “Healing Ourselves From The Diploma Disease”. Another of their provocations is to say that you are not allowed to teach at Swaraj if you have a PhD. Unitierra in Mexico also rejects the idea of diplomas together with the corresponding ideas of professions and experts hidden behind them, claiming exclusive rights to manage learning, or health or justice for everyone else. They have no curriculum, no application deadline, no induction, no yearly cycle, no journals or canvases to guide you, no residential camps. Their philosophy is deep but their method is simple: just doing. These “universities” are often rooted in indigenous and traditional worldviews and ways of knowing, or in communities that chose alternative lifestyles. They reject most elements of a classical university like courses, grades, degrees and curriculum. They are explicitly dedicated to help people unlearn, heal from and resist the various invisible structures of our times.
The Unlearning University invites a rare kind of freedom: a sort of “red pill” that Neo – the main character of the movie Matrix – takes to exit the simulation and see the world for what it is: a human farm. Whether the other worldview you access is the true and real one is less important than to exit for the first time from the illusion that the mainstream way of life is the only way. In contrast with The Alternative University, it stimulates imagination by seeing and living not just fragments of an alternative system embedded in the old logic but another world with a different logic entirely. The red pill is the freedom to disconnect so that you can experience a different way of seeing the world.
Metaphorically, The Unlearning University watercraft can leave the mainstream cultural waters and visit alternative ways of being human at the edges of dominant cultures. There exists a vast territory of cultural islands: ancient indigenous and traditional cultures, intentional communities, hackerspaces, art collectives, radical activists spaces, cyberpunk squats, anarchist communes, sects and cults, subcultures, countercultures and neo tribes in which misfits, rebels and hipsters found a way to collectively practice being human. Simply being in contact “as a tourist” with any of these cultural spaces is not enough. You don’t need a full conversion “to travel” there but at least you need to take off the cultural glasses that we don’t even know we wear and explore in a form of meaningful engagement that dislocates the dominant cultural story from its privileged position. Unlearning Universities are ways to respectfully engage with these fragile cultural spaces on their own terms, without adding to a constant pressure they face from the dominant culture.
Being a student, even for a brief moment, of some of the most radical universities that exist today left me with a lot to integrate into my life back home. As I returned to Bucharest after 636 days and 112,000 km, I aimed to be a revolutionary in my own daily life. I adopted a zero-waste lifestyle. I hardly buy anything that is packaged, I make my own toothpaste, deodorant and laundry detergent. I cook and I compost. I have only the clothes that can fit into a backpack. I spend five times less than before. I installed a GNU/Linux operating System, I quit facebook and started planning to move to a village. The more important changes are under the hood: learning not to achieve, to be slow, to not worry about money, to live with less, to feel worthy without a special social status, to dedicate generous energy to relationships and to unremarkable projects. My worldview and my emotional landscape have shifted and I find myself enjoying life more, having deeper connections and having the courage to take bigger social risks for the sake of walking my own path.
This freedom that comes from unlearning deep patterns is the unexpected treasure that I was given on the journey. Although I’m walking the same streets as before, I’m living in a radically different world.
Dreaming of The Self Organized University
In the summer of 2019 we celebrated the 10 year anniversary of the Alternative University. It was also the closing of the project. We organized our last Learning Day in a garden very near to our old Learning House. People brought their memories of Alternative University: t-shirts, bracelets, notebooks, pictures and we put together a sort of pop-up museum.
There was sadness but some of us also felt relief and joy. A fertile space for new adventures was being created. I am writing this during a time for reflection, rest and refreshment in our community. We dissolved the old organizing structure and 93 former students and staff co-founded the Alter/natives tribe – an informal cooperative where we will incubate projects and learn together. We had a few assemblies and wanted to rent a new community space but the energy for centralization was not there. Instead, various autonomous projects were bubbling and the life of the community distributed itself in a few connected nodes: a learning community for teenagers, a new agile learning center for kids, a series of connected home parties that gather in a secret place or a fast growing business started in our community. Some of us are in the process of starting a new zero-waste village where part of our community will live and raise our children closer to nature.
As for the Alternative University, the only way to save it was to close it. I asked myself what was deeply valuable of what we did, what was the secret ingredient? Our self-directed learning model was an achievement but I don’t think that was the magic.
The secret ingredient was that we did it ourselves. A group of young people looking for their place in the world, created their own university according to their instincts, making mistakes and expressing their own genius and their own limits. We, in the core team, believed for the whole time that we were doing a university for our students. Actually it was our dream university and it took us, the people in the core team, to the places we needed to arrive at. We were “the students” we were building it for. People who felt the same way just hopped in and we traveled together. It was the watercraft that we needed to reach adulthood and the rite of passage that nobody else could have created for us. We infused the place with the energy of the quest for one’s place in the world. Once we found our places in the world, the journey was over. As adults we no longer can infuse a journey with the same kind of energy. We have our next journey to make, on land.
The last treasure of my odyssey years was unlocked by closing The Alternative University. My place in the world is now a community that did not exist before and had to create itself. It is a community where I had the courage to ask for support to travel around the world and I recieved it. It is the community that I missed when I traveled and where I wanted to bring back everything I learned. It is a fertile ground for when any of us wants to start a business, a democratic school, a zero-waste village or a series of parties. Closing Alternative University ment freeing our community from a structure that it had outgrown. It empowered our creative capacity even more by creating an open field with no center and no shape. What is left from our first ten years is a community that has collective creative power and the freedom to take any shape. Our journey ahead continues because we found ourselves and learned to walk together.
We could not have reached this point as passengers in somebody else’s boat. I think we can’t offer this experience to other young people. If we wish more people to have our experience we can tell our story and offer our ship, but the journey is what counts and that must be created anew. This realization is what leads me to differentiate the fifth type of watercraft that sails to adulthood as offering another kind of freedom than the others. The Self Organized University‘ is created, owned and governed by its learners. Instead of having any number of knowledgeable adults being the host for the learners, it reverses the relationship: learners are their own hosts and the hosts for everybody else. When they are needed, adults are guests. Choosing to create your own university means declaring epistemological independence from adults. That means learning to discover the world on your own terms, (re)creating categories and meanings, re-asking your own questions and living the ignorance and wonder of your own questions. This is not a way to disregard the existing knowledge and wisdom. It could be a way to engage in a deeper way with it, so that old answers come alive when (re)discovered on one’s own terms. Not being distracted with old answers to other people’s questions makes room for asking your own. By not having an epistemological gravitational center you can really engage in a collective journey of pathfinding and learning together to give meaning to the world.
Self-organizing also involves collective actions and decision-making among equals so it is a way to see what you are capable of together and what do you value as a community. You learn to trust this collective peer to peer power. If our distinctive power as humans is not the individual power of our bigger brains but the collaboration that it allows for, then it might be that the ultimate creativity is not that of an individual creating a work of art or an individual life but the collective creativity of generating a communal way of life. The Self Organized University invites this freedom of collective capacity to create a micro-cultural space. It is the watercraft that naturally travels to the oceans of uncreated sub-cultures, a place of new syntheses of meanings, symbols, rituals, rhythms and habits.
Sharing my story and the model of the five types of universities is the closing ritual of my “odyssey years”, a chapter of my life that braids together four threads: (1) my own quest to find a meaningful place in the world; (2) the years of activism, trying to transform higher education in Romania as a student; (3) co-founding The Alternative University and in this context, being a witness and a co-traveler with hundreds of young people in their odyssey years; (4) traveling for two years to visit some of the most intriguing alternative universities I could find. I am sharing this way of making sense of the landscape of universities with the intention to help young people who, even at a subtle level, feel locked either outside or inside the university system. Each of the five patterns invites a different kind of freedom.
- The Mainstream University: freedom of being accepted in the world as it is;
- The Innovative University: freedom to create your unique story in the world as it is;
- The Alternative University: freedom to rebel while still being part of the world as it is;
- The Unlearning University: freedom to exit from the logic of the world as it is and become aware of other ways of being;
- The Self-Organized University: freedom to collectively create a new (micro)world around you;
They are aranged here in the order in which I became aware of them. Although it is tempting for me to propose a hierarchy of freedom, on a closer look I find more benefit in the oposite. In a real life context, any of these freedoms can be valuable and probably a unique mix of these patterns will offer the greatest freedom in one’s journey. I hope this model will be used by young people to reframe and adjust their relationship with the idea of “university” in their search for freedom and for a meaningful life. The – perhaps unreasonable – hope in my heart is that small groups of brave, freedom-loving young people, will be encouraged to do the unthinkable: create their own universities.
- Free, Fair and Alive is a title of the book by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich about the insurgent power of the commons; Both the title and the content of the book speak about the kind of future I am hopeful for but which requires a significant cultural transformation; https://www.freefairandalive.org/
- David Brooks, “Opinion | The Odyssey Years,” The New York Times, October 9, 2007, sec. Opinion, https://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/09/opinion/09brooks.html.
- This idea of dissolving a problem comes from Russell Ackoff’s 87th law from the book Systems Thinking for Curious Managers;
- Heard in a conversation with Gustavo Esteva, in Unitierra Mexico, referring to what Unitierra and the indigenous communities they are walking alongside are trying to do;
Traian has worked on reforming higher education in Romania for more than 15 years. He began by founding a student NGO, led the educational department of The National Alliance of Student NGOs in Romania and was a member of the Board of Romanian Agency for Quality Assurance in Higher Education. In 2007 he co-founded CROS, which later became the Alternative University, aiming to develop an alternative model of higher education based on self-directed learning, collaboration in communities of practice and real life projects. In 2015 he coordinated the start of a second university in Bucharest: Entrepreneurship Academy and then he went to travel for 22 months to discover how communities around the world re-imagine higher education. Now he is back in Romania to write a book about the possibility of self-organized universities to emerge in the next decade.