In 2002, the French philosopher, author, lycée instructor, and self-proclaimed "Nietzschean of the Left" Michel Onfray founded a free university in the south of France. Funded in part through proceeds from the sale of Onfray's numerous books, l'Université populaire de Caen aims to "democratize culture and freely dispense knowledge to the greatest number." Onfray's idea was to provide a mass alternative to the "elitism of the universities and the offhandedness of the intellectual cafés," while retaining the best and most progressive features of both institutions. Like many standard universities, instruction at the Université populaire is offered by accredited faculty in the form of weekly seminars that divide time evenly between lecture and debate. But fees, enrollment requirements, exams, and degrees--the classic academic instruments of social reproduction--have been thoroughly dispensed with. According to Doug Ireland, who profiled Onfray in the Winter 2006 edition of New Politics, the majority of attendees at Onfray's free university are of working-class or minority background, and since its founding its example has been copied in nearly a half-dozen other French cities and one in Belgium.
Where, I wonder, are our free universities? Are they even possible here? At the same time, are they not also more and more necessary if we are to achieve true social progress? I say "true" progress for a reason: for more than a decade now, the postmodern left in the US has been steadily converging with the neo-liberal right in its fantasy of a democracy that operates through the spontaneous and untutored expression of individual desire, that "liberates" desire from the pesky elitist mediation of critically-tested knowledge and progressively-acquired skill. That's not liberation; it's repressive desublimation. The essential problem is not the content of instruction--it's access to instruction, and the complicity of our educational institutions, through their funding, their selection processes, and their certification rituals, in the reproduction of social and economic inequalities.
For those of you who can read French, I encourage you to check out the Université populaire de Caen's website, at:
In addition to stating the goals of the university, the website also includes schedules and course summaries, which give you a sense of the kind and quality of knowledge being made available to those who have been historically excluded from it.