“The Radical Summer University” (Róttæki sumarháskólinn) is being held again. Only in its second year, the school has received a positive response from students of all ages looking to learn more about subjects seldom covered in Icelandic universities—such as activism, feminism, and radical schools of thought—without a distinctly conservative or politically neutral perspective. Best of all, it’s totally free, and anyone can register. Where did this school come from? Who’s behind it? And just what are they playing at? We spoke to founder Viðar Þorsteinsson to find out.
What was the inspiration behind establishing the school? I have always been interested in the ideological aspects of radical politics. When I began my
studies at the University of Iceland in 1999, I was expecting to be able to do coursework in Marxism, for example. This turned out to be an absolute delusion. Most of the ideas that students in the faculty of humanities at the University of Iceland in the early 2000s were exposed to were either very conservative or apolitical. Also, there were no radical student groups.
So, it took me a long time to come into contact with radical thought at the academic level.
During my undergraduate years I opted instead for very ‘hands-on’ activism, especially around pro-Palestinian solidarity work, which attracted a lot of young Icelandic activists at the time.
But this is not to say that there haven’t been plenty of radical ideas around, both among activists and thinkers. I think of the Radical Summer University (RóSu) as a way of keeping a certain spirit of radical conversation and questioning open and, most importantly, accessible to both seasoned activists and younger people who are perhaps just beginning to be critical of their social environment.
What was the greatest challenge, logistically speaking, in getting it set up? Housing would have been a huge challenge, were it not for the generous help of the Reykjavík Academy, which has lent us their facilities for two years in a row. It’s great that the Reykjavík Academy has been willing to cooperate in this way, and it is also very fitting because it is no doubt the most critical and free-thinking centre of intellectual activity in Iceland.
I thought it would be difficult to get all the instructors to come together and coordinate their plans in order to make this happen. There are certain limitations to how much you can expect people to do as volunteers, but that has never been a problem at RóSu. There has been an almost bottomless willingness to help out and join us in solving practical tasks. For example, the Radical Soup Kitchen (Eldhús fólksins) has joined us out of their own initiative and will no doubt do a lot for the atmosphere at RóSu this year. Nothing creates camaraderie like sharing a meal.
The main challenge now, in my opinion, is to reach people outside of Reykjavík. Almost half of Icelanders live in the country and the rural villages. Also, there are certain political issues that relate especially to rural Iceland, such as environmentalism and the struggle for food safety. I would love to be able to make the university moveable to the country every two or three years.
But the biggest problem would be to find a place to stay and how to cover travel costs. I should mention that as of now, we do not have any income except voluntary donations.
Why does Iceland need this kind of school? Icelandic society as a whole needs to get rid of capitalism, patriarchy, the exploitation of natural resources, xenophobia and racism. This holds for other societies too, clearly; and some of these goals can obviously not be reached except by global action.
Can I not learn these subjects at, say, the University of Iceland? What sets your school apart? At RóSu you can definitely get into contact with ideas that are far from ‘mainstream’ academia.
For example, if you want to learn about Marxism or anarchism, RóSu is one of very few places that offers any kind of formal education on these topics. I should make clear, though, that this is not to downplay the ‘theorizing’ that individuals are doing, either by themselves or in informal reading groups and so forth.
Then, of course, there is the open format of RóSu. We don’t have any prerequisites: people do not need any prior education or experience to attend. There is no maximum number of participants, and most importantly, it is free. Also, many of the instructors are not trained as teachers. This has caused some people to ask, ‘Why do you call this a university?’ My answer is that this is precisely what a university should be like: a free, open, and critical community of people who sit down to think together on an egalitarian basis, in order to change society. ‘All men are intellectuals’—I think it was Antonio Gramsci who wrote that, and RóSu seems to support that claim.
I would be very happy to see RóSu strengthen, if only indirectly, our understanding of what it means to be a participant in an educational institution and to contribute to a politicisation of education. Universities in Iceland are very docile places. Can that be changed? I’d like to try.
What has surprised you so far? The massive turnout! After ten years of activism, I was prepared for disappointment in that department. But we had over a hundred people in some of the seminars last year, and ran out of every chair-like object in the building. Also, the atmosphere of solidarity and community was fantastic, and I hope to see a continuation of that.
Any plans on expanding the concept, either with more campuses or expanding it in a more abstract sense? I would love to be able to extend RóSu to the countryside. Also, it would be great to have foreign activists visit us. But our finances are very limited. For now I’m quite happy to keep RóSu relatively ‘lo-fi’ and based on volunteer work. But this will of course also depend on the size and strength of the activist movement in Iceland. I am pretty certain that the current talk about ‘the end of the recession’ will seem bizarre a few years from now, as the gross inequalities and imbalances of our market-run system will come to light again. There are surges of political indignation to come, and nothing breeds thought like activism itself.
Here’s a look at some of the courses offered
What Kinda Stuff Do They Teach At This School Anyway?
‘The Wire’ and Marxist social thought
This course examines the HBO television series ‘The Wire’ from a Marxist perspective. Social and economic aspects will be examined, as well as how different authority figures interact with the poor.
The Argentine economic crisis and Argentine film
Parallels have been drawn between Iceland and Argentina in terms of how both countries have dealt with their respective economic crises. What exactly happened in Argentina will be studied, followed by a critical look at the neo-realism movement of film in that country.
This class will take a look at radical ideas in education on multiple levels. This includes the encouragement of critical thinking and independent thought, developing the individual skills of students and creative expression as opposed to rote memorisation.
Feminism, activism and the Internet
This course, taught by noted modern Icelandic feminist (and occasional GV contributor) Hildur Lilliendahl, will take a look at how feminist activism takes shape online. From blog posts to social networking sites to the comment sections under news articles, discussion about feminism—and the subsequent transformation of feminist thoughts and attitudes—is taking place online. What influence the internet as a medium is having on feminism will be examined.
Environmentalism and civil disobedience
Radical direct action—civil disobedience—in the name of environmentalism is a relatively new arrival to Iceland, first appearing in a significant way during the protests of the building of the Kárahnjúkar dam. This course will take a look at how civil disobedience has played a part in environmentalism in Iceland, as well as the importance of critical thought and open discussion.
The Radical Summer University will be held from August 5–18 at the Reykjavík Academy on Hringbraut 121. For more information on classes and registration, visit