At the start of the 1920s, a couple of young silk merchants living in the mountains of central Japan decided that their community needed education to enable them to be active citizens and to shape their own future. The result was the Ueda Free University, a remarkable educational experiment which inspired the creation of other "free universities" in many parts of Japan. Although these experiments were quite short lived, they were the start of an enduring Japanese tradition of grassroots alternative education.
Today, universities across the world are in the midst of major transformations which pose huge challenges, particularly to the humanities and social sciences. Our own University, and our own College and School, are no exceptions. In this context, the history of the free university movement launched in Ueda can provide a valuable starting point for reconsidering the meaning and future of university education in the 21st century.
Professor Tessa Morris-Suzuki is Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow in the School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific. This paper arises from her Laureate project on informal life politics in East Asia.
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