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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Vollaro

RV University

I've been thinking about the ending to Fahrenheit 451 lately. If you are over the age of 50, you probably remember this book because you read it in high school. Written by Ray Bradbury and published in 1953 at the height of the Red Scare, the novel is set in a dystopian future in which books are outlawed and "firemen" show up to burn them when they are discovered. One of these firemen, Guy Montag, undergoes a conversion to the power of books and reading, and at the end of the novel, while humanity is destroying civilization in yet another world war, he meets a group of outcasts who have dedicated themselves to preserving literary and cultural history by memorizing entire books, hoping to pass them on to a future generation of survivors. At first, they appear to be homeless men standing around a fire near the railroad tracks, but they are in fact a former occupant of the Thomas Hardy chair at Cambridge, a literary scholar, an ethicist, a reverend, and an author. They introduce themselves to Montag in this way:  

"I am Plato's Republic. Like to read Marcus Aurelius? Mr. Simmons is Marcus." 

"How do you do?" said Mr. Simmons. 

"Hello," said Montag. 

In some universe, perhaps even this one, I might end up like Montag, living with a tribe of literate rebels on the edges of society, sharing snippets of novels and poetry, keeping books and ideas alive. It is not so far-fetched to imagine some version of this future. This has been a very bad year for the liberal arts, and I see no renaissance on the horizon as a growing list of colleges and universities move to gut their humanities departments. I can see a future in which teaching the humanities will no longer command a livable wage. This is already the case for the many adjuncts and contingent faculty who staff humanities classes all over the U.S. I have done reasonably well so far, but the thing some call "progress" may yet steamroller me and leave me broken on the side of the road. 

I like to imagine that there will be a refuge for people like me — a little corner of utopia in an otherwise dystopian future world. I picture a sprawling RV park in a breathtakingly beautiful place, out West where there is a lot of public land and spectacular vistas — Monument Valley or the Painted Desert or Moab. There will be RVs and campers and vans converted into living spaces, a sprawling nomadland of portable dwellings topped with solar arrays and satellite dishes and the occasional telescope aimed skyward. But this is no ordinary assemblage of retirees, van lifers, and refugees from the straight life. This community has a theme, a purpose. This is RV University.  

There is no administration, hierarchy, or staff at RV University, and not many students under the age of 40 either except for the youthful societal outcasts who sojourn here on their own. They come to learn what they can from this pirate colony of marooned intellectuals, artists, and assorted creatives. These young visitors are a tiny fraction of those who become enraptured by books and art and ideas when they are teenagers but then find no outlet for these interests in higher education because the humanities departments were recently eviscerated at colleges and universities across the country.  

RV University is anarchic in the best sense of the word. Teaching and learning is going on everywhere, but none of it is being assessed or even coordinated. There are no grades or semesters. The mantra at RV University comes from the early 20th century Spanish educator Francisco Ferrer: "no punishment, no reward." You show up to learn because you want to be there, and the learning is usually fun and entertaining — an end unto itself. Ferrer, for his part, was executed by firing squad in Barcelona after a failed uprising in 1909. A giant mural of him adorns one side of an abandoned tour bus near the south entrance to the camp.  

There are a dozen book clubs in RV University — two devoted to science fiction novels, one to mystery novels, still another to "the classics," but that is a very loose descriptor. One book club focuses entirely on the novels of Italo Calvino. Another reads feminist literature. Still another reads twentieth century European psychoanalysts — Hermann Rorschach, Alfred Adler, Erik Erikson, Erich Fromm. etc. They expect you to keep up with the reading in RV University, and if you don't, you will be shunned.  

There are many former college professors living in RV University, and they run a wildly divergent, ever-changing list of courses, workshops, seminars, teach-ins, gatherings, salons, and bull sessions. Mostly, the residents teach these sessions for each other, but increasingly, other vagabonds and exiles from the dominant culture are showing up to partake in this unconventional educational program. A historian of the Gilded Age hosts a weekly salon-style discussion at the big communal fire pit at the Western edge of camp; it is the most well-attended regular event at RV University. A retired Harvard Law professor teaches constitutional law underneath the awning on his electric blue Couger trailer, but he also dispenses free legal advice to residents who are suing their former employers for retirement benefits. The foremost Dos Passos scholar in the country who was laid off from a state university in Utah runs the pot dispensary and teaches a great seminar on the modernism with a former art historian who long ago wrote her dissertation on the surrealist painter Valentine Hugo.  

The curriculum — if you can call it that — leans heavily on the humanities, though not entirely. The "astronomy department" (they call it that; they even have a wooden sign) has amassed an impressive collection of telescopes. They're up on the mesa almost every night for hours arguing about who has the best view of the ring nebula. A former ornithology professor who once built the largest database of birdsong in the world for an Ivy League university takes groups into the desert for three-day birding excursions. They have their own small fleet of five ATVs. He’s in RV University because he lost his funding one year and never got it back.  

Barter is the main currency at RV University. Capitalism was not kind to most of these people, so they have no loyalty to it. You might trade a mint condition original press of Miles Davis's Nefertiti to the guy who can fix your water heater or drive someone into town for their dermatology appointment in exchange for a homemade tres leches cake. Sometimes vendors show up at the edges of the camp hoping to make a profit, but they are usually driven off, except for a few excellent food trucks. So much is just given away for free at RV University. A renowned musicologist arrived in camp a few years back with a big, air-conditioned trailer filled with records, but she will give an album to anyone who sings her a song or recites a poem from memory. Walter Benjamin was right to say that capitalism is a religion, and it is possible for people to lose faith in it.  

RV University is a grand bazaar of creativity and free play. The Seven Samurai, a theatre troupe led by a Tony Award-winning playwright who was cancelled and driven out of the New York City theatre scene for a social media faux pas, stages pop-up performances all over camp — a series of original one-act plays one month, Shakespeare in the Desert the next, Digger-style street theatre the next. A muralist from El Salvador spends his days in the nearby junkyard painting flowers on dozens of scrapped automobiles. He wants to create the illusion of a blooming desert. A former flautest from the Boston Symphony Orchestra operates several stills behind her Globetrotter Airstream, making high quality gin. She taught herself how by watching YouTube videos and experimenting with parts she rummaged from the scrapyard.  

Three days a week down in the arroyo, a former film history professor projects movies on a flat sandstone wall, trundling his projector and a small generator back and forth in a rusty wheelbarrow. He runs weekly themes: one week, Sam Peckinpah; the next, Jane Campion; after that, Japanese horror films from the early 2000s. He’s in RV University because he was recently laid off with his entire department from a prestigious state university in Missouri.  

There are two string quartets, a brass band, a mariachi band that specializes in Pink Floyd covers, and several rock bands. A Nietzsche impersonator wanders around the camp quoting from Ecce Homo and The Gay Science. A dozen easels are set up on the east side of the camp at sunrise and they reappear on the west side at sunset. Yoga and tai chi at dawn. A seminar on Picasso’s portraiture and a lecture series on Octavia Butler.  

This messy bricolage in the desert has a bad reputation in the wider society. It's been called “Loserpalooza” or "Burning Man for eggheads," but the residents prefer RV University because it adequately describes their sense of community. They believe they have preserved the spirit of the university — the Socratic essence of it — much more so than the job training academies that didn't want them anymore. If you live and work in RV university, you still believe in educating the whole person, and you still believe in reading whole books.  

There is no special law in RV University—the laws of the larger society still apply—but there is a recognizable ethos. Everyone who lives here has some sense of possessing a soul. This is not necessarily a religious or spiritual idea, but everyone believes in some version of it anyway.  


The residents of RV University are divided over their fate. Some believe they are keeping a flame lit that can be passed on to subsequent generations, hoping that it will ignite a cultural reawakening in the future. The less hopeful are resigned to witnessing their way of life as it dies out like a spectacular sunset. Some of the pragmatists want to keep the place going and are making plans. They imagine the camp as a permanent haven for refugees from the screen-addled, semi-literate, hopelessly philistine civilization that has gradually taken over outside.  

I will likely not end my career in RV University, but as I watch college administrators turn against the humanities across the country, I can imagine a future in which such a place exists. The STEM-obsessed self-proclaimed pragmatists are setting the agenda in higher education now, but it won’t be easy to kill off the humanities entirely because they represent qualities at the heart of what it means to be human—storytelling, creativity, music, art, communication, free play, a sense of history, and the desire to know who we are and what is our place in the universe. These desires and aspirations cannot be stifled by the dullards among us in politics and college administration who think that the only purpose of a higher education is to turn every college student into an employee.  

If I do end up there, that won’t be such a bad outcome. Sometimes it is a blessing to be left behind.

Image has no copywrite and was acquired under Creative Commons


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