Low Cost Higher Education Has Always Been an American Tradition

Until recently I had thought that free tuition at the University of California and City College in New York had been a part of the Cold War, that the American ruling class decided to fund higher education in order to compete with the Soviets.But then I read this passage from John Muir’s autobiography about just how easy it was to attend the University of Wisconsin back in the 1860s and 1870s. It’s not free college that’s the exception to American history. The current neoliberal system of extortionate tuition and massive student debt is quite simply “Un-American.”

One day I chanced to meet a student who had noticed my inventions at the Fair and now recognized me. And when I said, “You are fortunate fellows to be allowed to study in this beautiful place. I wish I could join you.” “Well, why don’t you?” he asked. “I have n’t money enough,” I said. “Oh, as to money,” he reassuringly explained, “very little is required. I presume you’re able to enter the Freshman class, and you can board yourself as quite a number of us do at a cost of about a dollar a week. The baker and milkman come every day. you can live on bread and milk.” Well, I thought, maybe I have money enough for at least one beginning term. Anyhow I could n’t help trying.

With fear and trembling, overladen with ignorance, I called on Professor Stirling, the Dean of the Faculty, who was then Acting President, presented my case, and told him how far I had got on with my studies at home, and that I had n’t been to school since leaving Scotland at the age of eleven years, excepting one short term of a couple of months at a district school, because I could not be spared from the farm work. After hearing my story, the kind professor welcomed me to the glorious University–next, it seemed to me, to the Kingdom of Heaven. After a few weeks in the preparatory department I entered the Freshman class. In Latin I found that one of the books in use I had already studied in Scotland. So, after an interruption of a dozen years, I began my Latin over again where I had left off; and, strange to say, most of it came back to me, especially the grammar which I had committed to memory at the Dunbar Grammar School.

During the four years that I was in the University, I earned enough in the harvest-fields during the long summer vacations to carry me through the balance of each year, working very hard, cutting with a cradle four acres of wheat a day, and helping to put it in the shock. But, having to buy books and paying, I think, thirty-two dollars a year for instruction, and occasionally buying acids and retorts, glass tubing, bell-glasses, flasks, etc., I had to cut down expenses for board now and then to half a dollar a week.


2 thoughts on “Low Cost Higher Education Has Always Been an American Tradition”

  1. There’s dark lining in every rainbow. In 1862 President Lincoln signed the Morrill Land-Grant Act which provided the means to found colleges that taught the practical arts. The money came from the large scale sale of land stolen outright from the natives. These colleges were for whites only. Later, Congress provided further funding that made small provision for segregated black colleges. So, the subsidy, which did indeed favour poor white boys (also Not girls) is somewhat notorious.

    During the New Deal years, the federal and some state governments ponied up dough that permitted more poor white men and some women and even some blacks to enter a college. Again, during the Great Society time, governments again eased or subsidized the admission to university of those less well off. I was a beneficiary of this phase of largess.

    However, all this was periodic and limited. And you are quite right that the current state of affairs is deplorable.

    1. True on all counts. It also puts Bernie’s proposal for “free college” squarely in the tradition of American big government liberalism. It’s not incompatible with socialism but you don’t even need socialism to make a similar proposal. It’s also a testament to the effectiveness of propaganda that the right wing of the Democratic Party has also managed transform the racial contradictions inherent in land grant colleges and the New Deal into the idea that extortionate neoliberal education is somehow anti-racist. The reality is that CUNY started charging tuition precisely at the moment their student body became less Jewish and more black and Hispanic. Not exactly sure about the University of California but it was clearly defunded under Reagan because it had become a center of the anti-war movement. The working class (and the unions) made a mistake not fighting harder against Reagan’s and Jerry Brown’s tuition increases.

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