Athens Free School

Words by Laura Pendleton. Photos by Christy Rogers.

“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable.” –Kurt Vonnegut

The Athens Free School

athens free school

Heated debates surrounding the multi-digit price tags of colleges in the U.S. have engaged us to question the nature of education. Many do not view schooling as a self-improving venture but rather as a means to an end. Courses are frantically completed by students desperate for a validating undergraduate degree with a minimal amount of retained knowledge that can be employed for the sake of society. With upwards of $100,000 on the line for a university education, there is little wiggle room for enjoyment of the traditionally unproductive by the standards of our market-driven society.

This modern doomsday prediction of higher education is not necessarily inevitable nor is it permanent. We are not required to resign ourselves to a life devoid of novelty. Both the co-creator of the Athens Free School, Logan Shirah, and active member, Garrison Taylor-Bates, provided some words of encouragement towards the hope for a better future of learning.

athens free school

My Athens: Describe your particular affiliation with the Athens Free School.

Garrison: I’m friends with a lot of the people that organized it and teach classes. It’s definitely a community, but anyone is welcome. Logan told me that it was starting because of the Atlanta Free School that he was active in.

Logan: Lulu Lacy, Courtney McCracken, and I more or less founded this free school in Athens. I guess I have accidentally become the central organizer, or at least I’ve taken on a bit more responsibility than anyone else. I had volunteered with the Atlanta Free School when I lived there for about a year and a half. I heard about it by seeing a flier with the class schedule for a particular month and I was becoming interested in the idea of free schools.

MA: You modeled it after the school in Atlanta?

Logan: Yes. A couple of people who have become friends of mine had started the Atlanta Free School from scratch there. It’s a pretty long-running tradition. It goes back to the 60s and the movement of social radicals called “The Diggers” who were sort of associated with the hippies, but were maybe a bit more pragmatic and interested in direct activism: trying to get social change on a local level. They started some of the first free schools during social uprisings in the 60s. It’s never completely gone away but it has kind of faded in and out over the decades.

athens free school

MA: What has been your favorite class so far?

Garrison: My favorite is Mask-Making. It’s one of the only classes that are repeated. Most classes are a one-time deal. Mask-Making is my favorite because it’s just a bunch of people making stuff in a big room not for school, not for a specific project, just for fun!

Logan: It’s difficult to pick just one. We’ve had Basics of Audio Engineering, Hitchhiking, Banjo from Scratch, and Bread Baking all from the past month!

MA: What about certain materials needed for classes?

Garrison: Usually the teacher provides materials. For a lot of classes you are asked to bring something if you can, but there are always things provided.

athens free school

MA: What would you like to see in the future for the Athens Free School?

Logan: To be a free school it really needs to be a diverse network of friends and new acquaintances. It’s a big question and a challenge. I think diversity is a great next step to make that an intentional goal. I think it’s important not to take the project of the free school too seriously though – to make it an activist project first. I think that it is possible to do more harm than good with good intentions by imposing more structure than what feels right to people. There’s a balance.

Garrison: I’d like to see more people from the community and not just UGA students. I feel like so far it’s been a lot of specifically art school students. I’d like to see it be more inclusive of everybody who lives in Athens.

MA: Would you agree that art education is necessary for a successful society? How do you feel about education being more of a right than a privilege?

athens free school

Garrison: It’s really a way of approaching the world, coming at it with questions instead of answering things. It’s really important to acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers and that you’re learning. It’s good. It’s the only way that I know how to exist in this mode of creating while simultaneously being really frustrated.

Logan: I think that college education should be easily accessible. There’s a deeper feeling that there’s a lot of energy and resources going into a system that doesn’t always manage to inspire learning or a will to learn. I think a lot of people are becoming frustrated with the antiquated systems of education and realizing that to learn anything you have to first want to learn it. The point of the free school is a way to experience learning strictly on your own terms, on a zero-investment basis. It’s completely accessible to anybody who is interested in the subjects and can find the spare time to learn the way that they want to learn. Anyone who can make time for themselves can access this wealth of knowledge that is from their peer group. It is the people around you. Everybody, no matter who you are, has something to teach other people. There’s something you know how to do that not many other people know how to do well. I think that’s really the philosophy of the free school- to help people share their know-how and start enjoying learning again.

For more information and to attend one of the Athens Free School’s classes, please visit their Facebook page here.