Summer experiment in alternative university off to a strong start
Over the last week, a new experiment in learning has begun in Vancouver, where participants split their waking hours between lectures about the history of capitalism and work placements that have them digging in the dirt. The occasion is the first ever Purple Thistle Institute, a three week long foray into alternative ways of learning and collaborative pedagogy.
Put on by many of the same people who work behind the scenes at the Purple Thistle, East Vancouver's only youth run centre, this month the Institute is playing host to over 40 participants looking to challenge their bodies and minds.
"There are lots of Thistle kids interested in university, but who are turned off by the corporatization, the tepid curriculum the gross cost, and the lack of employment at the end," said Matt Hern, co-founder of the Institute. The goal of the Institute is to pull the best parts of university out, says Hern, and create an accessible alternative to formal education.
"The conversation is the conversation," said Hern, who emphasized that the three week program, which includes morning lectures, afternoon work placements and evening events, "is a collective thing, not a concretized thing."
"There are a lot of things happening here," said Anthony Meza-Wilson, who described himself as part-participant and part-organizer of the Institute. He was particularly enthusiastic about the structure of the Institute, where participants shift between writing sessions and lectures in philosophy to work placements in kitchens and gardens at the service of local anti-colonial and anti-poverty initiatives.
Valuing manual labour and intellectual labour on the same playing field challenges the class system, says Meza-Wilson, especially in a society where divisions between these two types of labour are so significant. "Imagine if all schools were set up like that," he said. "It has powerful ramifications."
As participants, faculty and organizers hung around and ate a healthy meal of roasted potatoes, salad and zucchini bread this afternoon, there was a tangible sense that strangers were becoming friends.
"All the food is gluten free and vegan, so everyone can eat the same thing, and we can all eat together," said Marla Renn. Her job as head cook for the week is deemed a faculty position, on par with university professors who are teaching courses about urbanism or economics.
"Food plays a huge role in building community," said Renn. "Without sharing a meal together, we'd be missing an important aspect of learning."