Stealing Your Education at Columbia: A User’s Guide to a Free Education in New York City

October 6, 2006 at 4:14 pm 1 comment

Stealing Your Education at Columbia:

A User’s Guide to a Free Education in New York City





You don’t need go to a university to get an education. In fact, it may not even be worth your time. Universities are corporations that sell stale, cut-rate ideas at a swindler’s price. They dress up the shabby, broken-down old ideas they sling by glossing them up with a thick layer of “prestige.” But a shitty car with a new coat of paint is still a shitty car. They’ve become so good at convincing us that their product is necessary that people eagerly line up to drive their lemons (and are thrilled for the opportunity.)

Some people will say, however, that universities are actually packed with radical professors spouting revolutionary new ideas. Granted, there are some smart professors with interesting things to say, and it’s worth your time to get whatever useful information you can out of them (which is why this pamphlet exists.) But don’t be fooled by these so-called “radical” academics. If they’re so radical, why do they spend all of their time writing books and sitting in their offices? Writing and reading and sitting around should support radical activity, not substitute for it. “Radical” professors, like all professors, are just intellectual bureaucrats without the courage to pursue a radical course of action, no matter what their ideas may be. Like all professionals, they’ve sacrificed their humanness for the supposed perks (more like curses) of a middle-class life. Approach them with caution.


Power, Privilege, and Prejudice


Universities, especially Ivy League schools like Columbia, are elitist institutions steeped in exclusivity. They are traditionally places that foster white privilege, male superiority complexes, and ardent Euro-centrism, among other prejudices. Nowhere is this more obvious than in their admissions policies. Students who are admitted to Columbia have generally gone to private schools, had SAT tutors, been advised on their applications by trained college counselors, and received innumerable other advantages showered on the children of the upper class and the very lucky. Clearly, this is completely fucked up. Education should be free and accessible to everybody, not the exclusive property of any class, caste, or selected group.

The obvious solution is to take it. Reformist movements have made significant progress in prying open the doors to higher education to a broader group, but the basic elements of elitism remain. Education is still a commodity that is bought and sold, or, if you’re lucky, given as charity. Neither option is truly acceptable. Education—the process wherein human beings interact constructively to create greater understanding—should not be owned by anyone, whether they chose to give it away to a select few or not. With this in mind, the term “stealing” takes on a new meaning. The world rightfully belongs to all of us and it is for all of us to use as we desire. When a few jerks declare that they have a monopoly on a particular type of human interaction, such as education, you should keep two things in mind: 1) they’re lying, you can do whatever they claim to own without their stamp of approval and probably better than they can, and 2) they have as much a right to make such a claim as you do (which is to say, none), they just have a bigger army than you do. To “steal” your education is just to take what rightfully belongs to you anyway.

Naturally, there is a hierarchy of power and privilege when it comes to stealing too. Expensively dressed white kids can get away with things that other people can’t. This guide is designed for everyone, but some people will find it easier to pull off some things than others. No one should have a problem sitting in on classes, otherwise this guide would be useless. But stealing from the bookstore and other schemes I describe will be more complicated depending on the privileges you may or may not enjoy based on your appearance. Unfortunately, African American and Latino people, and dark-skinned people in general, draw a great deal more attention from campus security guards (almost all of whom are themselves African American and Latino, see how fucking insidious racism is?) Although, again, this should pose no problem for attending classes, it may force you to think more creatively about other things.

One of the advantages of stealing your education in a group is that you can share resources amongst yourselves. White people or other folks who attracts less negative attention can use their privilege to the advantage of their group by stealing items for communal use and can take on the burdens of interacting with security guards and other authority figures. Negative prejudices can also be used to collective advantage. For instance, knowing that the bookstore security guard usually follows African American customers around can create opportunities for a group to work together at the same time, with some members distracting security while the others steal needed items to share later.

Stealing your education is taking direct action against educational injustice. By forcibly democratizing something a few people have stolen from the rest of us and doled out at their leisure (reflecting their prejudices in the process), you are chipping away at their grip on power. And if you think we can do better than what we’ve got now, the more people chipping away the better.

How to Use This Guide


You may decide that all you want to do is go to the odd lecture here and there and do nothing else. And that would be fine. You might learn something interesting and no harm would come of it. But I suggest that you be the proactive go-getter that you are (which is why you picked up this pamphlet) and make the most of this opportunity.

Stealing an education can be an empowering experience if you make it work for you. Instead of just attending random lectures by yourself (and receiving your education passively), find some other people who are interested in doing the same thing and form a study group. As Fanny Lou Hamer said, “The only lesson to be learned from our movement is that three people is better than no people.” Find the courses or lectures that interest you and make a curriculum together. Then, after you’ve decided which classes you want to attend, set aside some time when you can all get together to talk about what you’ve read and heard about.

Many college classes have mandatory “discussion sections” which are usually led by disaffected, bored teaching assistants and filled with unmotivated, bratty students. And they’ve all been forced to read the same thing, whether they are interested in it or not. Unlike these sad creatures, you and your co-thieves may decide that you don’t want to read the book assigned that week, maybe you want to take your conversation in a totally different direction, or maybe you’re all too busy with other things to meet that week. See, you’re stealing back your freedom too! When you start taking control over your own education it stops being a boring obligation that you’ve got to psych yourself up for. A stolen education is something you do on your own terms: as much or as little as you want, within your own parameters, at your own pace, and with people you feel comfortable with.

Stealing your education collectively provides numerous major bonuses. Talking to other excited, motivated people helps you gain perspective, forces you to defend your own thoughts, and usually leads to new ideas you never would have thought up on your own. Studies have shown that people only retain 10% of the information they hear in a lecture. Don’t just passively accept what you hear; instead, use it as a jumping off point to have your own discussions, wherever they take you.

Oftentimes, study groups become the platforms that other things are built on. Sometimes, in the course of conversations, people decide that something needs to be done, and then they go out and do that something together! In this fashion, study groups can become a space where inspiring, radical ideas are born and carried out with the help of willing accomplices. You’ve already stolen your education together. What else could you do together? What else is out there that’s worth stealing, remaking, destroying, or subverting? After all, if the only thing you do is read, it doesn’t matter if you’re reading Frantz Fanon or People magazine. Either way you’re still sitting on your ass.

If this whole scheme doesn’t sound too complicated, it’s because it’s not. All you need is yourself, a desire to educate yourself, and other people with the same desire. Add a university with open lectures (such as Columbia), a public library (to get course books or other books you may become interested in reading), and some creativity. Mix with a little game-planning and serve. Congratulations! You’ve just formed a study group and started getting an education for free! You’re already smarter than the kids who are paying for someone else to do it for them!

The key is to be flexible. Don’t just do the same thing the rest of the students do except without paying. Don’t force yourself to read a boring book just because it’s assigned, and don’t sit through a boring lecture just because it’s scheduled. Customize your education. Mix and match lectures to construct your own syllabus. Allow yourself to read books you discover that sound interesting. Spend hours debating big ideas with your friends, and then write down your thoughts when you’re feeling inspired. That’s what I’m doing right now. This sure as hell wasn’t assigned for any class!

Self-education can lead to amazing surges of creativity that you never thought you could have. Just trust your instincts and set off in whatever direction your mind takes you. Who knows what’ll happen next?


Planning Your Education


As mentioned earlier, attending university classes is a purely optional aspect of self-education. However, classes can be a valuable information resource that may help you find things you want to pursue on your own. Since you won’t be getting a degree (and, really, who the fuck cares about that? If you really ask yourself that question, you’ll probably think of some people you don’t really like anyway, people whose expectations of you have little to do with what you really want for yourself), it’s entirely up to you to decide when you’ve “finished” your university education. A good rule of thumb is to only do something as long as you find it useful. Don’t feel obligated to meet any abstract goals. If you decide you’ve found something better to do, go do it.

If you decide that university classes would be useful for you, the first thing to do is to find that classes that interest you. This is done relatively easily. The easiest way is to go to the admissions office in 213 Low Library (this is the giant domed structure in the center of campus, on 116th St. between Broadway and Amsterdam Ave, the office is on the left after you walk in the front door) and pick up a course catalogue, which is free. While you’re there you can also go on a campus tour, which is also free, and will help you figure out where things are. Tours are at 11AM and 3PM Monday through Friday except on holidays. If you need any more info call the Visitors Center at (212) 854-4900.

If you’ve got a computer you can also find classes on the Columbia website. From the Columbia homepage (, click on “Academic Programs” on the table on the left of the screen. There you’ll find a list of all of the different programs offered by Columbia, undergraduate and graduate programs. Explore these to find out about programs you may be interested in. To most efficiently explore the courses offered by the university, click on the link titled “Directory of Classes” on the right of the screen ( There you can find classes by subject, department, or keyword. Explore to your heart’s content.

When you click on a course that interests you, it’ll tell you when it is, what room it’s in, who the instructor is, and how many people are registered for it. Obviously, these are the vital stats. The words “Day/time” will be followed by something like “MW 10:35am-11:50am.” “MW” means the class meets on Mondays and Wednesdays. “TR” means the class meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Usually only introductory language classes meet on Fridays.

Once you’ve found a class that interests you, it’s time to get the syllabus. Some classes (usually big classes) have their own websites, which you might find on this page too, and they’ll probably have all the information you’ll need there. Most will not. To get a syllabus online, your best bet is to go to the website of the department that the course is in. There should be something that says “courses” on the department website, and oftentimes the syllabus will be posted online with the course names.

If you don’t have a computer, you can get a syllabus a couple of different ways. The first option is to go to the department office and ask the secretary for it. Have the course number, instructor, and course title ready; they should have it on file, even if the course isn’t being offered that semester (a handy tip: if you find a course that interests you but it’s not being offered when you want to take it, you can get the syllabus and read the books on your own or with your friends.) Another option is to attend the first day of class and get it then; professors almost always hand out the syllabus on the first day of a class. If you can’t make it to the first day, just show up later on and ask one of the other students if you can copy theirs, or ask the professor if you can have a new copy (unless this will attract undue attention to yourself.)

So now you’ve got the syllabi for all the classes you’re interested in. These will be your roadmap to the classes you want to attend. Go to all of them or none of them, it’s up to you. But first, here are something important things to keep in mind about attending Columbia classes.


Getting into Columbia Classes


It’s relatively easy to go to most classes without being a registered student. In most large lecture classes (any class with over 100 people in it), the students are completely anonymous to the professor and absolutely no one will notice if you start showing up or come and go as you please. However, it is highly recommended that you do your best to avoid drawing attention to yourself. Causing disruptions, dressing or smelling outlandishly, reading the newspaper during a lecture, and other attention-getting activities will all work against you. Almost all classes at Columbia have middle-aged and elderly people in them, so you’re presence will not raise any eyebrows. I’d also recommend not speaking in class if you can avoid it. If you just sit there taking notes or listening, it is extremely unlikely that anyone will take notice.

There are quite a few professors at Columbia that will not care and may even encourage you to attend their class regardless of your registration status (there is a list of amenable professors and recommended classes at the end of this pamphlet.) Professors generally love it when students go to their office hours, and you should take advantage of this option too if you feel comfortable (office hours are generally listed on the syllabus or announced in class.) This can be a good way to develop a friendship with a professor which may lead to a more lasting intellectual bond than mere class attendance. Superstar professors and obvious jerks probably will not devote much time to you and may be less excited about your educational approach, so be cautious about who you approach. The same goes for other students. Some of them may think you’re awesome for stealing your education and want to help you out, others may be obnoxious spoiled brats that will try to turn you in. Again, it’s best to feel out the situation as thoroughly as possible and then be sufficiently cautious.

In medium-sized classes (30-100 people), it is likely that during the first class or two the professor will try to take attendance to figure out how many people who are registered for the class have actually shown up. You can usually just sit there without saying anything and not draw any interest, but more attentive professors will ask if you’ve registered. Their primary concern is with how many students they will have to grade and how many discussion sections they will need to create (since classes are given a limited number of teaching assistants.) If you are forced to speak, the best thing to say is, “I’m just sitting in, I’m not taking this for credit” which will almost certainly be fine with them as long as they think you are a student and there is not a shortage of classroom space. This will nullify both of their major concerns. If they don’t want you in the class after you’ve said that, it’s probably best to move on, unless you think you can convince the professor some other way (like meeting with them after class or at their office hours.) To avoid scrutiny entirely, simply skip the first couple of classes.

In a small class (less than 30 people), you’re options are more limited. You will probably be asked by the professor at some point what your deal is. It probably makes sense to get to a small class early on the first day and ask the professor if it’s okay for you to sit-in on the class without taking it for credit. If you tell them that you’re really interested in the class but there is some reason why you can’t take it (like you have a very heavy course load, or something similar; be imaginative but reasonable with your excuses), they will probably be okay with you sitting-in. Sitting-in on very small classes, like seminars, can be tricky though. Some seminars have competitive processes for admission and the professors probably won’t let you sit-in. It is certainly worth asking though. Many seminars are simply unpopular and the professor may be delighted to have another student. This will make it harder to explain why you’re not registered, unless you just show up to one particular class session you want to attend, in which case you should get to class early and introduce yourself to the professor. Explain that you weren’t able to take the full course, but you really didn’t want to miss this one class. They’ll probably be fine with you attending as long as you don’t make yourself a nuisance. Regularly attending a seminar without registering will be harder to explain, but if you strike up a conversation with the professor and they take a liking to you, they probably won’t care, even if you tell them the truth. Who knows, they may even respect you for it.

In all classes, be respectful of the professor and unobtrusive to the other students. Walking into classes late, especially small classes, is a great way to draw an entire room’s attention to yourself. Talking to other students, making frequent comments, or generally screwing around will have the same effect. Remember, the goal is to avoid detection. Behave accordingly.

Don’t take any of the tests or hand in any of the assignments. Tests and homework are stupid to begin with, but it would be a doubly bad idea in this situation. If you want feedback on your work, ask someone whose opinion you trust to go over it with you. Or better yet, develop mutually beneficial collaborative relationships with your co-thieves.


Food, Books, and Other Necessities


Columbia is an expensive place to get a degree and the services at the school and in the neighborhood have been tailored accordingly. The area is almost entirely owned by Columbia, which gentrified it in the 1950s and 1960s by forcibly evicting all of the working class African American and Latino tenants in the neighborhood and moved in a bunch of upscale, yuppie businesses. Consequently, everything in the area caters to the upper-middle class and their children. Services provided by the university itself, such as the bookstore and the cafes, are similarly priced. Fortunately for you, there are ways around this problem.

Food can be obtained from a variety of locations on and around campus. Café 212 is a small deli-type place located in the front part of Lerner Hall (the student center.) They have many different kinds of sandwiches, salads, fruit bowls, smoothies, sodas, and other such items. These are all located in two large refrigerators on your right when you enter from the front. All of these items are easily stolen. The line to pay often stretches far behind the refrigerators themselves and out of sight of the cashiers. It is exceedingly simple to take what you want and simply walk out without being noticed. If the line is shorter and there are fewer people walking around, it is advisable to take whatever you want (most of the sandwiches fit perfectly into a large jacket pocket or slip easily into a book bag), and then get in line to pay. Buy an orange or a banana (50 cents each) and you can easily walk out with a few pockets full of loot. Be aware that there is a camera in the Café and keep your eyes on the staff, but in general no one is watching nor do they care much either way.

Just as useful and not even illegal to take are the free condiments. To your left as you walk in is a large stand with thermoses of free milk, cream, and soy milk, boxes of sugar, salt, and pepper, and unlimited napkins, stirrers, and straws, among other items. Go ahead, stock your kitchen.

Another good spot very similar to Café 212 is the Uris Deli located on the first floor of the Business School (the hideously modern building located behind Low Library.) Although laid out a little less favorably than 212, Uris is almost always busy with many people coming and going. This makes it much easier to slide an energy bar or smoothie into your pocket or bag even if you have to buy the occasional banana to avoid detection.

Slightly trickier but potentially more bountiful is the student dining hall. Located on the first floor of John Jay (one of the freshman dorms), the dining hall is stocked with unlimited supplies of mediocre food. In addition to the prepared food, the dining hall usually has lots of readily available peanut butter, jelly, bagels, bread, lettuce, cereal, soy and dairy milks, coffee, fruits, various deserts, utensils, plates, and trays. Meals are served everyday from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. for brunch and 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. for dinner.

The hard part is getting in. Pretty much the only reliable way to get into the dining hall is to stand by the entrance during a busy mealtime and ask someone to swipe you in with one of their guest meals. You can tell them you forgot your card in your dorm and you’re too lazy to go get it or whatever excuse you like, but the key is to appear normal and unthreatening. Remember, these are probably freshmen you’re talking to and they tend to be timid and easily frightened. It’ll probably take you a few tries before someone says yes, but once you’re in you’re good to go. Bring a large backpack and plenty of containers because you’ll want to load up for the week. It is best to do this as inconspicuously as possible; dining hall management is pretty uptight about students leaving with food.

For a full list of dining locations on campus, helpful maps, and other relevant food info, check:

There are plenty of other free food sources in the neighborhood. The Garden of Eden supermarket on Broadway between 108th and 107th is a prime New York dumpstering location. They make their money selling immaculate, very expensive food, so that means a lot of edible things get thrown out. The “trash” gets taken out everyday at 9:00 and left on the curb. There are a number of other upscale supermarkets in the neighborhood with similar set-ups, including Gristedes (Broadway and 110th), D’Agostino’s (also Broadway and 110th), and Morton Williams (Broadway and 115th). Needless to say, all of them are chains that exploit the shit out of their workers and charge absurd prices, so feel free to take whatever you like. The employees are generally demoralized and getting out with a few items is usually easy. Keep your eye on the security guard.

Books are also obtainable without the use of money. The Columbia Bookstore, which stocks many of the text books, is owned by Barnes and Noble and is thus fair game. It has the standard corporate set-up: lots of cameras with no one watching them (most of them are pointed at the employees anyway), completely disinterested employees, and minimal security. The store has one security guard that always wears a suit and almost always stands next to the alarm thingy you have pass through when you’re leaving. 9 times out of 10 he’ll wave you through if you set off the alarm. Most of the books will not set off the alarm at the door, but almost all of the computer and electronic items will. A great way to walk out with a bunch of free books is to buy the cheapest Ethernet cable they sell. The Ethernet cables always sets off the alarm, much to irritation of the staff, and you will get waved right though without a bag search.

The best time to visit the bookstore is at the beginning of the semester, especially in the fall. It is invariably packed with anxious students and their parents and the alarm goes off incessantly. Use the chaos to your advantage.

Many of course books, especially in the humanities, are ordered from Labyrinth Books on 112th St. Labyrinth is a fabulous independent bookstore, easily the best academic bookstore in the city, and in direct competition with the corporate chains. Stealing from there would be a mortal sin. Almost all of the books at Labyrinth are available from the New York Public Library (, to find books, so stealing is completely unnecessary anyway. If anything, Labyrinth is the place to shell out for those one or two books you really want to own.


The Rest is Up to You


So now you’re going to classes, reading books, and discussing ideas with your group of like-minded companions, all for free. Where you want to take this and what you hope to accomplish is entirely up to you. Good luck.

But allow me to propose some questions to help you figure out where to go from here. There is not one right answer to any of these questions. Find the one that is right for you, that comes from your own experience and use it as a guide to move forward with your education:

Why does education cost money in the first place? Who benefits and who misses out when people have to pay for education? What opportunities are lost when people have to pay for education?

Who decides what gets taught in classrooms? What gets ignored at most universities? What gets included? What qualifies something to be taught in a university classroom?

Who gets to become a professor or an administrator? How are professor and administrators different from the people who, say, clean the classrooms or work in other parts of the university?

What do you really want to learn? What do you want to teach? What’s useful to you? How? Why?

What makes you want to learn in the first place? How do you learn best? Under what circumstances? In what kinds of interactions? With who? What can you do to create those conditions more often?

What else can you get without paying for it? What are things that you need that you have to pay for? What would happen if you started taking those things? Who else needs those things too? Can you take the things you need together?

What’s stopping you from taking them now? Are there ways to get around the things? Should people be allowed to stop you from getting the things you need? What would happen if there was nothing to stop you?

What would happen if everybody stole their education, like you and your friends? What would happen if they didn’t just steal their education?

What if they stole everything?

Entry filed under: activism. Tags: .

Calling all feminists, equality-lovers, transfeminists, stereotype-breakers, role haters, and/or gender-fuckers! Gender Studies?

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Sandra Davis  |  October 28, 2008 at 1:34 am

    Can you please tell me the author of this and or any contact information. I absolutely love it! I want to email him/her.

    thanks for posting this


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