When I wrote this post back in October about living in public, I had no idea how apt it would be! In the following weeks, the #Occupy movement made living in public a national issue and a powerful strategy for protest. Urbanists like the folks at #whOWNSpace made the public space itself an issue, shedding light on the politics of ownership and use. Saskia Sassen’s summer op-ed on open-source urbanism turned out to be prophetic, using the metaphor of technological open-source practices, where users and creators share, collaborate, and experiment in creating knowledge, to describe how our cities of the future will work. Occupy looked like a complete manifestation of this practice. And pop-up democracy even started to enter the broader vocabulary, as Occupy gave thinkers the platform to start talking more broadly about the importance of citizen-generated political action and civic discourse in public space. And with all this civic action, people started teaching and learning in public, too, in all kinds of exciting ways.
First, we saw the rise of Occupy libraries, giving a whole new meaning to public libraries. Radical librarians in Boston and beyond organized to share books of protest history, local history, economics and more with occupiers and visitors, as described in this New York Times article from the end of October. By the end of the year, the “micro-library ” phenomenon had entered the broader cultural sphere, profiled in the article “Occupy your Sidewalk” by Amenda Hess for Good Magazine. This article really made the rounds, and by equating the sidewalk library trend with the Occupy movement it solidified the idea that learning in public can be understood as a kind of political action. Even when the books being loaned or shared were not expressly political, the idea of appropriating public space for a use for which it was not originally intended — they’re called sidewalks, not sidereads — is understood to be a powerful civic statement.
Perhaps you see that growing consensus in another public learning trend, like micro-libraries, that the Occupy movement has brought into the more mainstream: teach-ins and alternative free universities. While radical education and collective learning is certainly a long and powerful tradition — as a Boston-area resident I know there are many collectives and organizations experimenting with non-hierarchical, experimental, non-traditional learning for both youth and adults, some of whom are listed on my blogroll — with public occupation came a new opportunity to showcase the fact that meaningful learning can take place outside academic institutions. Indeed, university responses to occupations around the country — UC Davis’s notorious pepper spray incident and the closure of Harvard Yard to the public, for example — showed us that new ways of sharing learning are often kept out of the powerful instutions of higher learning. So we saw the development of Occupy Boston’s Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture Series, large programs hosted by The Public School in NYC and more. Like the libraries, this alternative learning challenges normative notions for space and institutional control, and reinserts education and knowledge into its rightful place in civic and urban practice. These practices show the potential of public space for creativity, experimentation, discourse, and exchange.
Of course, we didn’t just see public learning in occupations and protests. One of the most incredible learning in public stories of the year, in my opinion, was the Iowa State Fair. No, I’m not talking about fried butter on a stick. In August 2011, all of the Republican primary candidates — and some others — spent time on the Soap Box at the Fair, speaking casually and sharing their views with citizens, who could ask them questions (and sometime get a surprising answer). Now, whatever you might think about the Republicans, their primary race, or whether corporations are people, how many of you have been able to ask a national politician a question, eat fried food on the stick, and watch cattle sales with your family on the same day? The idea that the serious business of governance can and should be part of community, recreational, heck, FUN events seems to me to be at the heart of how democracy ought to work, but you don’t actually see it happen too often. I found myself fantasizing about how voting and civics would look if every American knew their vote mattered as much as those Iowa primary voters. To me, that should have the same urgency as the Occupy protests.
So if that’s where we came in 2011, in 2012 my hopes are that some of these practices are brought into the mainstream. I don’t mean coopted by corporate interests or watered down by feeble government promises, but truly incorporated into the broader practices of our places and economies. In 2012 I’m interested to see if the micro-library can also be claimed and incorporated into the sharing economy or collaborative consumption movement. This was one of the other big breakthroughs of 2011, and if libraries and learning can be included in these practices alongside vacation rentals, time banks, and clothing swaps then I think we’d be able to really revolutionize how people provide for their own learning and build their own approaches to education.
In 2012 I’d also like to see the free university model join forces with the more staid public humanities institutions that do the work of telling the history, economic, scientific and cultural stories that are at the heart of our communities but are still struggling to figure out what the 21st century means for them. There are so many innovators in this field — the NY Historical Society writes amazing tweets, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum hosts programs that teach about the history of immigration in the neighborhood alongside conversations about immigration in the City today, and the Center for the Future of Museums considers the potential for technological and programming innovations to change museums for the better — but I can’t help feeling that there remains a disconnect between the traditional programming of most public humanities organizations and the clear groundswell of desire for public, non-academic education. I’d love to see more programs in public places on race, income inequality and protest history, for example.
I’d also like to see more programming committed to civic participation and education, for those of us who don’t live in Iowa or New Hampshire. While you might object to the idea that a stump speech actually constitutes real learning, I would agree, if the content of the speech was what I thought was doing the teaching. But rather I’m suggesting here that it’s the idea that you could listen to such a speech without expressly attending a political event that promotes learning: like a library on a street corner or a lecture in a park, a stump speech at a fair also suggests that engagement and the exchange of ideas is something that belongs in our everyday, and in public. Let’s make that our mission for 2012.