The Pragmatism of Free Higher Education

Eva Watson-Schütze - Scanned by uploader from Menand, Louis (2001), The Metaphysical Club, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. 317, ISBN 0-374-52849-7. Original photograph from the John Dewey Photograph Collection (N3-1104, N3-1109), Special Collections, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.  John Dewey at the University of Chicago in 1902.

I stood in the small corral wedged in as close as possible for a couple hours. Then a large man in a nice suit stood in front of me on the other side of the fence, and I know my waiting was done. Well, at least that was the wisp on the fall air as Tim Kaine stepped onto the podium at UNC-A. There was nothing particularly spectacular about his speech, just broad strokes and bad jokes. Instead, what stands out was an odd statement he seemed to add off the cuff. He asked how many in the crowd had been told to wait their turn, to be patient, and less idealistic. I'm not sure what he said after that, because I was so struck by the memory of the Clinton campaign using that exact rhetoric against Bernie Sander's supporters that I couldn't help but answer the rhetorical question with a sharp, "Of course, we voted for Bernie," causing laughter, cries, and actual crying from the crowd (many wore a Bernie shirt). I was told over and over again that things like free higher education were simply not pragmatic, and that I should abandon my ideals.

In fact, at my Congressional Convention I was advised by other delegates that I shouldn't use the word "free" if I wanted to pass a resolution supporting free public colleges. Specifically, I had quoted the North Carolina State Constitution, Article 9, Section 9: The General Assembly shall provide that the benefits of The University of North Carolina and other public institutions of higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense. Needless to say, a party resolution calling for reaffirming support of this positive right would necessitate the word "free". Still I was called too idealistic, and then during debates I was accused of "only supporting Bernie issues". This underhanded "not a true blue" argument was quickly silenced by the presiding officer, but it hurts none the less. Now I believe it is time we had a conversation about what pragmatism is.

To be pragmatic is to concern oneself only with matters of fact, and so called practical affairs. That is sort of nebulous, but such is the nature of language. Should this come at the exclusion of morals? Does the speaker mean "too hard to try" or "you can only approach perfection"?

To answer the first question, no. There is even an entire field of ethics called pragmatism. In its simplest form it can be said that pragmatism means applying the scientific method to morality. Morality is an emergent property of society and can be argued to be objectively true (as opposed to moral relativism), but it can be refined for further inquiry. Here we begin to return full circle, because the State Constitution explains in rather pragmatic terms why free education is so crucial, "Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools, libraries, and the means of education shall forever be encouraged," (Article 9, Section 1).

Hopefully, at this point you can see why I find myself a bit annoyed at being told free education is not pragmatic, but there is more. The eminent philosopher in pragmatism is a man named John Dewey, but who is John Dewey? John Dewey is a democratic socialist from Burlington, Vermont. He is perhaps best known for his book Democracy and Education, which is a philosophical examination of public education in democracies. Quoting the summary of the first chapter, "What nutrition and reproduction are to physiological life, education is to social life."

"What an interesting coincidence, but this is socialism and that will never fly today," you say, but besides pointing out that access to education is a right according to Article 1, Section 15 let me digress a bit. Socialism is an economic theory opposed to capitalism, so allow me to quote one of the founders of capitalism, Adam Smith, "The expence of the institutions for education and religious instruction is likewise, no doubt, beneficial to the whole society, and may, therefore, without injustice, be defrayed by the general contribution of the whole society," (Wealth of Nations, Book V). Interestingly, he goes on to say that it could be argued the other direction, but it was a moral argument and we already covered John Dewey. So is the "Father of Capitalism" really a socialist, and what does that make his "invisible hand"? Perhaps you are now angrily saying, "But Adam Smith is from Scotland, you can't compare Europe to America!" Well, in between Adam Smith and John Dewey was a man named Thomas Jefferson. I imagine most readers will be familiar with him, but less familiar with his proposed bill for Virginia entitled, "A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge."

Now that I've hopefully convinced you that calling free education "not pragmatic" is on par with calling Thomas Jefferson a socialist, let's move on to real pragmatic progress.

Currently, North Carolina General Statute, Chapter 116 - Article 14. General Provisions as to Tuition and Fees in Certain State Institutions states, " ... it being the purpose of this Article that all students in State institutions of higher learning shall be required to pay tuition, and that free tuition is hereby abolished."

Clearly this is at odds with our state constitution's explicit call for the ideal of free higher education. We must take pragmatic steps towards this goal, and the first is reinvigorating our rights. "The people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the State to guard and maintain that right," Declaration of Rights, Section 15.

We ought to petition Roy Cooper, Josh Stein, and the State Supreme Court to contest § 116-143 as being an unconstitutional infringement on the rights of the people of North Carolina. This is only the beginning, but it is a necessary first step. Even the Community College plan Obama originally proposed has no chance until this first step is taken.