Anti-University Now! festival comes to Shoreditch

A weekend of free activities from 20 to 22 November will re-live the spirit of 1968

THE Anti-University of London was an experiment in radical education. In 1968, Shoreditch was a working class area that had seen better days, many of the residents were moving away in search of work and decent housing. 

Young bohemians began moving in to take advantage of the cheap rent. In the mid-1960s, the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation bought a run-down building at 49 Rivington Street, now an upmarket boutique, and rented it to various counter-cultural organisations. 

First, they rented it to the Vietnam Solidarity Committee, a mainly Marxist group that organised several huge marches against perceived British complicity in the Vietnam War. Later, in the spring of 1968, the building was handed over to the Anti-University of London.

Its faculty list was a veritable who’s who of the counter-culture’s strange ascendency: R D Laing, the then famous anti-psychiatrist (pictured); Alexander Trocchi, a ‘junky revolutionary’ and novelist; John Latham, a well-known artist who had lost his job at a university because he returned a library book dissolved in a test tube of acid; and almost 50 more. Some 300 students came to meet their heroes and gain insights into the nature of the world, life, and society. 

The courses on offer ranged from the serious ‘Sociology of Guerrilla Warfare’, to the light-hearted ‘Jeff Nuttall is Fat’, and to the downright strange ‘Dragons’. Some of these were run like normal classes where a teacher lectured the students, but most were more discussion groups. Here people talked, on equal terms, about everything from religion to the possibility of overthrowing the government.

The Anti-University operated in Rivington Street until autumn 1968. In August, the organisers held a meeting of all the faculty and staff and convinced them that it needed to be reorganised so it would be cheaper to attend and more democratically run. Although some may have believed this, in reality they had to leave Rivington Street because the Peace Foundation was complaining about their many unpaid bills. After a few months trying to survive by holding classes in pubs and flats, the Anti-University finally dissolved.

Although short-lived, many of the ideas behind the Anti-University are still important. Organisers believed that in school people acted out roles, and that these roles stopped them from engaging with each other in any genuine way. 

Real education, they believed, needed to allow people to engage honestly with each other, rather than letting them hide behind roles such as the all-knowing teacher or the deferential, or troublesome, student. 

The Anti-University opposed the commodification of education, where a degree is seen as something that is bought with school fees, and then basically traded to get a job. 

Instead they believed that education is good in its own right and that everyone involved in it, including the teacher, learns from the lived-experience of the others in the room. Above all, they saw education as something created in the heat of the moment, when people converse.

In a collective experiment to revisit the Anti-University of East London, researcher Oisín Wall has been working with Hackney Museum, Open School East and other individuals, organisations and collectives to organise a weekend festival of events across the UK. 

From 20 to 22 November Hackney will be the hub of the ANTIUNIVERSITY NOW! FESTIVAL. Local cafes, bookshops, museums and galleries will offer workshops, walks, talks and discussions that take inspiration from the original courses offered during the first term of the 1968 Anti-University, and the people that organised them. Many of the original faculty members still have a legacy in Hackney today, the cultural theorists Stuart Hall and CLR James for example, have both inspired events that will take place over the festival weekend. 

Events at the ANTIUNIVERSITY NOW! FESTIVAL are open to all, but some must be booked in advance.

By Oisín Wall & Emma Winch