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The New Flying University: Education Outside the Classroom

[Dramatic Opening: For Public Presentation Only!]

Speaker: [softly] “What follows, briefly, is a work of fiction. Do not be alarmed.

[Loudly] “Attention faculty and fellow students! If I may have your attention please. In lue of the scheduled presentation, I have some rather grave news. What I have to say may alarm you, so I ask that you please remain calm and hold your questions. Today, at XX:YYam, our time, a Chinese submarine fired upon the USS John C Stennis as it was conducting routine training exercises near the South China Sea. The captain of the aircraft carrier, following defensive procedures, returned fire by dropping a series of depth charges, destroying the attacking vessel. China has publicly denied responsibility, calling the Stennis’s response unprovoked and declaring a state of war against the US. Our president has responded with a 140 character declaration of war and is presently convening an emergency joint-session of the House and Senate to ask Congress to authorize the use of military force.

“Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards has also declared a state of emergency. He has instructed the mayors to begin placing each city under martial law: Due to safety concerns, all forms of mass assembly have been prohibited; mandatory curfews are being implemented; emergency banking protocols are being activated; and grocery stores are being secured by law-enforcement personnel. All campuses, statewide, are being placed under the supervision of the Louisiana National Guard. All classes are hereby suspended until further notice, and the faculty are being furloughed. All able-bodied citizens of military age are being asked to volunteer for active-duty.

[softly] “I would like to ask for a brief moment of silence. On behalf of our brothers and sisters in uniform, and on behalf of this great nation. May God see us safely through these frightful times.”

What you have just heard, thankfully, was a work of dramatic fiction. To my knowledge, the US is not presently at war with China. There was no attack, and we are not under either martial law or a state of emergency. However, I ask you, as you quickly raced through a laundry list of concerns in your mind, as you thought of your children, of your bank accounts, of your loved ones in the service, of your job, of the contents of your refrigerators, gun cabinets, and gas tanks, did the future of your education come to mind? Our academic careers are the critical bridge between our personal goals and our professional success. So what happens to those dreams and ambitions if our education is suddenly cut short by war, by natural disaster, by statewide budget failure, or by the oppressive tendencies of a hostile political regime coming suddenly and unpredictably into power? I believe the solution to such disruptions, in times of peace as well as war, lies in the history of the Polish Flying University.

For the people of Poland, such nightmare-scenarios have become existential realities many times. During the nineteenth century, Poland was partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Among many restrictions designed to eliminate the Polish identity, the teaching of Polish language, literature, and history was prohibited. In a socio-historical analysis of Polish educational movements, Gregory Lukasik describes the determination of the “Tsarist bring Poland to its knees and transform the Poles into ‘Good Russians’ and loyal subjects” (Lukasik 27). Lukasik explains that these policies “of russification,” which also included removing Poles from government and finance, were “aimed at weakening or, if possible, extinguishing the flame of Polish national consciousness, [and] ...creating huge obstacles for the normal functioning and development of education that would fulfill the aspirations of the young generation of Poles” (Lukasik 31).

These same restrictions appeared again under Nazi occupation from 1939 to 1945, and again under Communist administration from the 1960s until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. In an article in the 1979 Index on Censorship, Chris Pzenicki writes “during the [Nazi] occupation of 1939-1945, only elementary education existed for the Poles” and that “secondary and higher level courses,” by necessity, had to be “organized underground,” and were only “available on a limited scale.” (Pzenicki 19). According to Lukasik, “The tactics used by the communists... [were] based on police terror, intimidation, lies and deceit. All the non-communist pre-war political leaders were either killed, imprisoned, or forced into exile” (Lukasik 43).

In the 1970s, Polish Poet Kazimierz Brandys was among many authors whose critical works were censored by the state. In Warsaw Diary his recollections of that ‘intimidation,’ during the war and after, are unsettling. On one page, he described a lecture in 1978, hosted by Jacek Kuron, a “leading figure in the Polish opposition movement [who] was to become a key adviser to Solidarity…” On this fateful night, “a band of about thirty five men forced their way in...going about the apartment yelling, arguing, and raising hell. It was perfectly clear that they were looking for a fight...We’ve known such scenes in real life for about ten years now” (Brandys 48-9). On the following page, Brandys reflected upon the painful familiarity of violence:

“In the winter of 1940, shortly after the ruling that Jews had to wear armbands, I saw a gang of armed hoodlums…[who] threw themselves, howling, at all passersby with armbands, hitting them in the face and often mauling them bloodily...the word ‘pogrom’ came immediately to mind, and it was probably then that I first realized how the pogroms in Russia had worked, how they work in general. The populace doesn’t have to take part in them; a mass of hired lowlife is sufficient” (Brandys 49)

Professors and students in each of these periods assembled in secrecy and conducted their studies in defiance of the law, often at great personal risk of blacklisting, violence, fines, incarceration, and worse. These lectures and their participants, collectively referred to as the “Flying University,” demonstrate the will and courage and innovation of students who took ownership of their own educations during a time of profound social crisis. Hannah Buczynska-Garewics was one of the original signatories in the establishment of the Flying University in 1978. She later recounted the experience in the Harvard Educational Review in 1985, describing the origin and purpose of the clandestine lectures firsthand:

“The main goal of the clandestine university was to provide free academic instruction irrespective of the petrified bureaucratic systems of power and all political and pragmatic impacts...scholars can and should defend academic freedom by building new, independent communities that reach beyond the limits of established formal political and social structures.”

Buczynska-Garewics asserts that “the experience of the Flying University can contribute to the solution of many problems in contemporary academic communities.” (Buczynska 22). This observation forms both the inspirational basis and operational objective of my presentation. I believe the Flying University model can be adapted by contemporary institutions as a contingency plan for continuing education during a disruptive crisis, but I also believe that it presents exciting opportunities for improving and enhancing the character and quality of formal education during times of peace.

The Flying University offers a broad range of opportunities for non-traditional learning. The first of these, in the spirit of the original Polish models, is the protection and promotion of cultural education against an antagonistic state. While contemporary western students may have far less to complain about in terms of academic freedom than their Polish counterparts, it is important to note that just because certain kinds of material are not expressly prohibited, they may still be absent for other reasons. Colleges may neglect critical subjects for many reasons which are not necessarily malicious or oppressive.

For example, a given campus may not have the budget for an engineering program, or may desperately need African American and Latin American history professors, or Russian, German and Chinese Language courses. These deficiencies may be due to access to expertise in the field or even a lack of conscious awareness that such topics are missing, let alone important or desired. In any event, the consequence is that cultural gaps which appear in the education system are then reproduced and reinforced in the community. Students and professors are invited to fill those empty spaces with their own research and to share their work with other serious, like-minded scholars in a proactive and collaborative network.

The second crucial aspect of the Flying University model is the potential for reinvigorating the role of education as it is perceived in our culture. Consider the following observation made in the 1978 commencement announcement of the third iteration:

“The educational system serves pragmatic purposes by favoring increasingly narrow specialization both in teaching and research. This results in a dangerous disintegration of culture into instrumental and cognitive layers, a separation that is harmful to both pursuits. Another result is the transformation of an intellectual into a performer of tasks…” (Buczynska 21)

The sentiment could have just as easily originate during our time. The fact is, more and more students are being presented with this utilitarian notion of higher education in which the career-path determines the curriculum. The most glaring evidence of this sad phenomenon can be seen in the growing perceptual rift between die-hard proponents of the STEM subjects and the embattled Liberal Arts community. Students are bombarded with messages that as often associate engineering degrees and technological certifications with profitable and stable incomes as associate the humanities with food-service and bartending! The implication is that society needs technical competence and can do without literary training, historical perspective, and moral bearing.

The Flying University, counter to this narrative, existed on the assumption that education itself was the justification of its own pursuit. Students would not sacrifice their time and effort, let alone risk their own personal safety, just to find a job. They went to great lengths to understand their history and culture, not only to preserve it, but to understand and embrace their own role in shaping that history and culture. For them, knowledge was no mere means to an end, and coursework was more than just a tiresome gauntlet of readings and exams. For us, it is the same. Our education, like our faith and our trade, is a critical component of our identity. It binds our communities together and imbues us with the abilities to comprehend each other and to solve an infinite range of real day-to-day problems. By emphasizing “self-education,” the Flying University can contribute toward a cultural renaissance in which the community learns to take a leading role in the learning process.

The most exciting aspect of the Flying University model, in my opinion, is the opportunity for personal development. Hosting a lecture involves planning, coordination, confidence, and no small degree of scholarly statesmanship. However, the benefits surely outweigh the effort! Students can develop their own ideas among their peers. They can find and interact with others who share their interests. They can explore and be exposed to subjects outside their own fields. They can access areas of the community which cannot be reached on campus. Foreign students and out-of-state students, for instance, can learn about local customs, food, culture, and geography by attending a few lectures hosted outside of the classroom. Best of all, students can gain invaluable experience in public speaking and thereby gain confidence in their own voices.

There are also many modern applications which are possible to us but were not possible for our Polish counterparts. While they were confined to hosting their lectures in each other’s homes due to the need for secrecy, we can host our lectures in any number of public spaces. By using parks, restaurants, businesses, and other local points of interest, we can make our Flying University visible and engaging. While they relied on word of mouth, we can coordinate our efforts using technology. By using internationally recognized platforms like Youtube and Discord, we can make our Flying University a world-wide engine of cultural preservation and exchange. While their relationships with the formal universities were tenuous and antagonistic, we can partner with our respective campuses for support, guidance, encouragement, and resources.

What I envision is a new educational movement which transcends the traditional physical campus perimeter and brings students and professors from across many regions together in a much broader range of settings and circumstances. The species is tired of being trapped indoors, connecting from behind dull screens with dying batteries, beneath the heavy monotones of tenured professors, learning about the world while also somehow managing to be outside of it and apart from it. It is time we tried something new. It is time we carried our education into the community.

Speaker: [elevating; calming] “I hereby call into being the Flying University. I invite every serious scholar and fair-minded friend, present and hereafter, to assemble, arrange, promote, and routinely present their work in any nontraditional public or private space; to attend and review weekly, quarterly, or annual lectures hosted or presented by other members of the Flying University; to promote the Flying University among friends, family, and faculty; to subscribe and periodically contribute to a free multimedia community publication; and most importantly, to work with formal academic institutions to develop site-specific contingency plans for maintaining continuity of education during unforeseeable disruptions.

“For more information on the Flying University, visit

[ ] / [ ]

“To participate in this program, please sign up today. Just commit to giving at least one presentation at least one time in the first year. My goal is to inaugurate the Flying University in the Fall Semester of 2019 by giving an extended version of this presentation at other colleges in the region and by attending as many of your lectures as I possibly can. I will also regularly communicate with the publishers of magazines, news services, and journals to promote and expand this lecture network. I hope to see all of you at a Flying University event in the future!”


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