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Communiversity: The Free School From the 70’s That Changed The Way People Play

Chronology and history of The Suicide Club's "free university" at San Francisco State.

John Law

“People in free universities are usually those who have rejected traditional academic values.”
—University of Nebraska, Mini-Manual for a Free University, 1974

Communiversity was San Francisco State University’s second and last contribution to the dozens of “free universities” operating on state university and college campuses in the 1960s and ‘70s. There was no doubt that many of the free “teachers” and “students” of Communiversity would identify with rejection of traditional university education. Inspired by the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, Communiversity was one of the free universities popping up like mushrooms at colleges and universities around the country. The first free university at S. F. State, The Experimental College, was founded in 1965. The Experimental College stalled out by the advent of the next decade, to be succeeded within two years by an even less traditional organization.

The Free University Movement of the 1960s in the U. S. had roots in alternative theories of education going back to the 1890s. The influences of A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School in England in the 1930s (for children, not university age students) and Horace Mann’s Common School (the cradle of the US public school system) were mixed up with emerging radical student politics of the 1960s, producing great interest in the ideas and practical expressions of the free education ideal. University level educators around the US saw this experimental area of education as a way to engage a student constituency that was clearly skeptical, and even a bit hostile, toward more traditional educational agendas. Due in part to the upheaval of the period and a desire to engage students, these educators were able to secure official sanction, and, in some cases, basic funding, for free university experiments in colleges and universities large and small around the country.

The radical idea was simple: “free.” The implementation of this idea, at various schools, included a free exchange of education, skills, ideas, and work. Such a plan was certainly doomed, in the long run, in a culture that worships money, and values nothing that cannot be exchanged for cash. Even so, with Communiversity and many other free universities, the influence on individuals and subcultures proved to be lasting and influential, despite the relatively short run of the movement.

Communiversity, founded in 1971, was designed to fly free of the constrictions of formal university level academics, as were others of the free U’s that were sanctioned at colleges and universities across “Amerika” in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Conceived as an official adjunct of the administration of SFSU, with paid student administrators and an office in a mobile trailer on campus, Communiversity started in a relatively prosaic fashion. Ideas and schemes pioneered in this free school were to expand and morph into the mainstream in subtle ways that resonate today. Communiversity, though almost completely forgotten now, was one of the main fonts of original inspiration for contemporary social and artistic phenomena such as Burning Man, Fight Club (the novel, movie and loose knit male bonding subculture),flash mobs,Culture Jamming, street art, and more.

Perusing the class listings provided in the semester catalogs, it becomes clear that, being a vehicle of deep academic inquiry, study, and experimentation was a secondary concern to those who edited and published the Communiversity catalogs. The primary—if unspoken—goal was to connect people through conversation, similar interests, play, and geographical and psychic explorations. Despite the seeming frivolity of much of the curriculum, actual study and concentrated thought on scientific and academic topics, as well as hands-on trade and craft studies taught by folks with real experience in their topics, took place occasionally.

A typical cross section of Communiversity classes, circa 1975, could look like this: Madrigal Singing, Basic Mountain Climbing, Feminist Theater Workshop, Exploring the Bay Area and Beyond (hiking group), Preventative Medicine (Dr. Arnold Shapiro), The Tao of Mathematics (actual mathematician Alex Tourubaroff), Rap Group, Conversational French, Jitterbug and Ballroom Dance, Beginning Shiatsu Massage, Inner Sunset Food Cooperative, Western Secular Humanism, and the Art of VW Repair, Weavers Workshop, Shamanism Earth Religion and Celtic Witchcraft(!), and Child Psychology and the Alternative Education Movement.

One way Communiversity engaged the public and encouraged a free exchange of ideas was through a mechanism known as The Skills Exchange. Participants would submit their “needs” as well as their “skills.” For instance, “John Q. Public” would note that he was a finished carpenter willing to do small jobs and to teach people basic woodworking tasks. He also had a trailer and truck that was available for hauling. His needs were skilled bodywork (massage, acupuncture, chiropractic adjustment) and proofreading for term papers. Over a thousand people were involved in The Skills Exchange at its peak. Another barter-type community organization that operated concurrently with Communiversity and The Skills Exchange, and shared some personnel, was a small business network called Briar Patch. Members would trade information on legal and administrative aspects of running a small business. They could also barter services directly with one another, creating an actual “community of businesses,” while avoiding some small measure of government tithing.

< Communiversity members delivering the class calendars to coffee houses,
bookstores and taverns while dressed in costume 1977. Photo Bob Campbell.

The real value of Communiversity proved to be in the realm of the social, specifically the fiefdom of play. Restrictions of most any type, in regard to curriculum, agenda, location, qualifications of the instructors, indeed of anything, became less and less acceptable to the Communiversity facilitators as time went on. This push for complete freedom eventually created a schism between the administration of SF State and the students and citizens that comprised Communiversity by 1975.

The proverbial last bactrian straw was a “class” known as “The Pie of the Month Club.” When “students” signed up, they were instructed to compile a personal schedule and dossier, noting specific times during their days that they could not, for employment, educational, or legal reasons, be “assassinated.” “Instructors” collated each respondent’s information and then, through some arcane method, lost to the ear of history, created a secret hit list. Participants were sworn to secrecy. Assassins were randomly chosen from the group; these nascent killers were clandestinely activated. All members, wallowing in an increasing paranoia, waited to see who might be the first victims and how elaborate their demise might be; chaos, cacophony, and dark saturnalia ensued. SF State administrators were not amused when students and student instructors were pied in class—while lecturing, while at dinner with their parents, and in other mundane campus and off-campus settings. This event took on a mythic status at SFSU and beyond, proving to be one of the primary influences on the soon to emerge secret cabal, The Suicide Club.

The Communiversity Garage Sale - a fund raiser for printing the class calendars
which came out three times a year. All items for the sale were
donated by Communiversity members. Nothing was priced -
you could pay whatever you liked.
For every jerk that gave a dime for an expensive item,
a dozen people paid very handsomely for modest items.
The sale logo was a quote from American humorist and
critic H. L. Mencken: “Guilt is a terrible thing.” Photos by Bob Campbell circa 1978.

In 1976, Communiversity, with student administrator Gary Warne at the helm, left the comfy folds of academia and set up shop as a 501 (c)3 nonprofit educational organization. Gary Warne was the primary instigator of Pie of the Month and many of the more bizarre and, to some tastes, creative and playful classes. He and his cohorts, primarily Shirley Sheffield, Rick Lasky, Ron Sol, Rick Kerrigan, and others felt that the organization, it’s curriculum and established classes both serious and strange, deserved to continue on unfettered by conventional organizational restraints.

Gary Warne and cohorts, in establishing the parameters for facilitating Communiversity as an entity, escaped from the rigidity of academia and incorporated some of the tenets of the larger movement, particularly that of decentralized administration and collective decision making. Even so, they attempted to counter the potential mediocrity of communalism, wherein bold decisions and risks are collectively avoided, through what can be a brutal battle of attrition, as the point in question is pruned of any potential to offend. Anyone could list a class. Anyone could attend. Communiversity was in word and deed “free.”

From the fall 1976 until its final demise in 1984, Communiversity raised cash for three annual class calendars by organizing elaborate garage sales. These sales, necessary to fund the low rent school, were collectively organized, and evolved into the primary social event, where many people on the mailing list for classes might meet with the folks that organized the school and other members. The mailing list hovered around a thousand people for the rest of the ‘70s, slowly declining until the end in ‘84, so support for the sales would typically provide a good amount of usable pre-owned goods. Communiversity supporters donated all items sold at these sales, and the unique sales scheme was an influence for the eventual “Sharing Economy” touted by the Burning Man Festival. More and more “classes” challenged convention and in cases like this class, The Other Side of this Life – Hitching and Riding the Rails, challenged the law.

Although Communiversity continued to offer practical classes, the trend after 1977 always leaned toward play, pranks, and the newish field of urban exploration. Eventually, the potential of official repercussions, due to the extra-legal nature of some events, convinced Gary Warne and his nascent band of psycho-geographers to start a secret society for the express purpose of members challenging their own fears and to “live each day as though it were their last.” Many of the more adventurous Communiversity members signed up for the first Suicide Club Initiation as, of all things, a scary sounding new “class,” listed in the February-May 1977 Communiversity class calendar.

While The Suicide Club lacked in traditional academic vigor, it educated in ways that the university system failed. In a society that had grown increasingly alienated and divisive, it taught cohesive, shared experience. It championed exploration and adventure in a culture increasingly subdued by media. Its basic intention, to confront the fears that limit human action, was an antidote to the anxieties perpetrated through politics and television news. While students in traditional universities might forget the facts learned in required academic classes, the lessons learned in The Suicide Club empowered participants for life.

John Law was raised in the Midwest and dreamed about bridges from a very young age. He attended the first Suicide Club initiation a year after his arrival in San Francisco in 1976 and through his apprenticeship in that saturnalian cabal came to know many of the world’s greatest bridge spans. It is his great good fortune to be affiliated with singular organizations such as Survival Research Labs, Dark Passage, The Cacophony Society, PeopleHater, Seemen, Circus Redickuless, S.F. Cyclecide, and The Madagascar Institute to name a few. John Law joined Laughing Squid as a partner in 1999. Past projects include: co-founding the Burning Man Festival an event he parted ways with in 1996, and co-founding in 1977 and directing (for 35 years) The Billboard Liberation Front. He currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and spends time in Detroit, MI.
Copyright © John Law. All rights reserved.