Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Public / private

An interesting topic which came up during my tutorial advising group's discussion at Radiance: higher education as a public or private good. (Okay, so that's the language I proposed for it, but the topic arose organically from the conversation.) Like many students at our school, they find a contradiction between our "progressive" aims and our price-tag. If a kind of education is accessible only to wealthier students, how progressive can it be? One of our number, a Canadian, sees progressive liberal arts becoming something like its opposite under these circumstances, entrenching privilege by giving upper class students the illusion that they have encountered the excluded rest.

Too true. As our dean says, the "business model of higher education is broken." I'm excited to be at a place where efforts are being made to do something, but there's not much we can about the structural constraints of a labor-intensive small-class curriculum in an expensive city reliant for funding on its students - "tuition-driven," we tend to say, but "debt-driven" is the more difficult truth.

What made yesterday's discussion different from similar discussions I've had (believe me, the topic is on everyone's mind) was the international perspective my group brought. One is, as I've said, Canadian, and was in Montreal during some of last year's student protests against tuition raises. Another transferred from a big-lecture state school in New England, but by way of study abroad in Turkey, where several friends recommended he finish his studies in a state-subsidized European university. To the others the idea that public education might be free, or substantially subsidized by, was eye-opening. I told them of my British classmates at Oxford who (how things have changed!) not only paid no tuition but received a stipend for living, almost like a wage for being a student.

The day when higher education will again, or at last, be a universal right the way K-12 schooling is, isn't coming any time soon. But it's worth appreciating one of the ways in which our current system fails us. Since students and their families have to pay, or borrow, so much for an education, they naturally think of what they get as something that's theirs, something they scrimped and saved for, worked hard for, spent years paying for. It's a private good. Caught in this system we can hardly imagine that society might invest in you, making your education a public good.

Question of the day: is liberal arts, as currently configured and imagined, constrained by - even as it challenges - the idea of higher education as a private good?

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