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Matthew Freedman, the pre-eminent New York educator, poet, photographer, and activist whose candid accounts of the classroom and harsh criticism of a bureaucratic educational system changed the academic landscape for generations to come, died yesterday at Kuopio University Hospital in Central Finland. He was 92 years old and split his time between upstate New York, and Finland. He is survived by his wife, the poet Alana Reynolds, son Lowell Spencer, daughter Willa Reid-Freedman, and three grandchildren.

His son Lowell said the cause of death was complications of dementia, contradicting the autopsy performed by Finnish authorities claiming that Mr. Freedman had suffered a massive stroke after attempting to break Finland’s long held Under 99 Nordic sauna record.

Born the son of a doctor and teacher, Mr. Freedman grew up in Oakland, California, devoting his time and attention mostly to the sport of rugby instead of the books. His passion for the game was unrivaled by any other activity in his life. He was fond of saying “give blood, play rugby,” to which his mother, an avid critic of rugby, would respond, “You’re a damn idiot for playing that barbaric game!” It was their often rocky relationship that would be the inspiration behind his prize-winning first book of poems, The Neuralgian.

Tragically at the age of sixteen Mr. Freedman would lose his older brother to Leukemia; it was this loss and his sudden rise to fame, he admitted to the NY Times in 2035, that gave him a greater understanding of what he called “life’s temperamental ebb and flow,” a term he made famous in his last book of poems, Predictable Surprises. It was the loss of his brother to which he often attributed his obsession with human behavior: “Man lives in a state of fear if he lives without a sense of urgency.”

Mr. Freedman graduated from Brooklyn College, received his MFA in poetry from the New School for Social Research, and then took the hardest English job he could find in NY City’s public schools. It was at Park West HS in Hell’s Kitchen that Mr. Freedman experienced for the first time how truly segregated and broken the institution of education was in America. It was there that he immediately began accumulating the experiences that would fuel his lifelong advocacy for student’s rights in America.

In 1999 Mr. Freedman quit his job as a teacher, filling instead the job of screenwriter for a friend’s documentary about the religious sect of Indian men known as Sadhus. It was on the banks of the Ganges that Mr. Freedman began reading the works of Rab Tagore, the 20th century Hindu mystic, poet, and thinker that would have an everlasting effect on the way he perceived the pains of the world. However, this job was short-lived, as Mr. Freedman suffered severe injuries from a bus crash in northern India. It was this experience which inspired the poem “Patankot,” the city from which he’d departed:  Chewed over / Like decomposed steel / the value of life wanes in the eyes of your taker.

After a long and grueling rehabilitation, Freedman took up teaching again, this time in Brooklyn. A year later he married Alana Reynolds, his long time partner, editor, and fellow writer. In 2004 Ms. Reynolds gave birth to their first child, Lowell, introducing into his mind for the first time the possibility of moving out of the city. In 2006 Mr. Freedman relocated his family to Beacon, NY, taking a job teaching English at Newburgh Free Academy in Newburgh, NY. The following October their second child, Willa, was born.

In 2018 Mr. Freedman received the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching to Finland. It had been his dream to move his family for a year to a Nordic country, an area so completely removed from what he called his “American habit” that he would be given a unfiltered glimpse into the ever-evolving chaos of education. It was in a Finland where Mr. Freedman performed his ground-breaking research on what he called “3 Space Humanitarianism”, and began to compile a body of work that would eventually take the name of The Paradigm House. It was this collection of essays and photographs that brought Mr. Freedman international acclaim as a writer and educator, and ultimately job offers from numerous institutions around the world. Over the next twenty-five years Mr. Freedman taught at such institutions as UC Berkeley, the University of Helsinki, Howard College, the University of Chicago, and Brooklyn College where he held the prestigious Albert G. Whiteside chair in Social Visual Media.

On top of being a guest professor and lecturer, Mr. Freedman won numerous awards for The Paradigm House, the most prestigious being the MacArthur Human Rights Award. Initially, this attention and financial security brought him much gratification, though it soon became a distraction, and ultimately the reason he stopped teaching altogether. “Success,” he once wrote, “shackles the mind and spoils the soul.” The last teaching position he held was in a small village in upstate NY. He was 67.

Not much is known about Mr. Freedman’s life after teaching, but it’s been well-documented through the poems and photographs he published up until his death that student and teacher rights were two dominant themes in his work. Of his family even less is known. Mr. Freedman was deeply private in his later years, sharing only the smallest of details with his students and co-workers.

His eccentric hard-boiled sense of humor, cutting intellect and devotion to basic kindness will be missed.


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