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.