Free college for all is simple democratic realism

A good thing to come out of the so-called “college admissions scandal” is recognition that it’s not a scandal at all, in the sense of especially shocking or outrageous. The wealthy using their money to get their kids into colleges that will enhance their chances of continuing the family tradition of being rich? It may be news in some of the legal corners cut, but the basic phenomenon is just more of the same.

I admit that I’m a lifelong strict-construction idealist when it comes to democracy. I grew up inspired by the founding documents that seemed to say that we are all born equal and that the reason we were starting this particular sort of government was to guarantee a level playing field in life. If it was not always that way (I learned in school about notorious examples of corruption), those documents provided support for thinking that it should be that way.

And believing in the fundamental fairness of the American Way of Life, I believed in the almost godlike, above-the-fray fairness of key institutions such as the august Supreme Court and the public library. And when it came to applying for college, surely a large and ancient institution like a university would base admissions only on merit. (It seemed inherent in those ivy-covered walls of old brick) As a smart kid, I would of course be accepted based on my public high school diligence and test results.

My parents had no extra money lying around with which to boost me into that exalted world of higher education, so I was totally dependent on the kindness—and fairness– of those admissions strangers. And as it turned out I was accepted to an Ivy League college and got through the four years on a combination of scholarship and bussing dishes in the dining hall. As seemed only fair.

I was aware of certain guys whose de rigueur cordovan shoes seemed always shined and their crew neck sweaters cradling their collars in a way that seemed beyond me. My underdeveloped class sensibility went no farther than awareness that there were such things as prep schools and some of these “preppy” kids had gone there.

It was only decades later that I read in the alumni magazine that a new president of the university (as it happened the university’s first black female president, daughter of sharecropper as I remember) was pushing for income-blind admissions, implying that it had not always been income blind. I was taken aback. What? My youthful belief in the fairness of the game I had been playing had been unfounded?

Two of our favorite ideas as a culture are that we’re all about upward mobility and that education is a key to it. Education equals freedom from the prison of class. So it is especially upsetting to find out that education is itself part of the class system. But 45 years ago a prominently published book, “Schooling in Capitalist America” (Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis) argued with statistics that the link between education and upward mobility just aint so. The effect of education, on the contrary, is to keep people in their places, ratify class structure and inequality.

So: Bernie Sanders’ proposal of free college for all, so radical sounding, is not radical at all, not as it’s being portrayed by some, including many Democrats,wild-eyed socialist idealism. Rather, it’s a perfectly realistic extension of the logic of public secondary education, one of the things, like roads, basic security, pure drinking water, healthcare, etc., government of, by, and for the people should do for ourselves.

Let the rich find other ways of maintaining their hold on power.

My youthful confidence in fairness may have been naïve, but it was not wrong. I was simply taking seriously the spirit and promise on which our democratic government was founded.


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