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Free Stuff = Free Society

Waiting in line to get into the Bernie Sanders rally in Brooklyn the other day, an interesting conversation about the relationship between colleges and democracy caught my ear.

Corey, who was more than a little skeptical about the economic feasibility of Bernie Sanders’ platform, was saying that it didn’t make sense for a society to provide free college. Free college, he maintained, would benefit the youth at the expense of everyone else.

That’s just not true at all, his interlocutor, Ramona, responded. It makes perfect sense. Not only is an educated society good for its own sake, the thing that doesn’t make sense (unless you’re one of the few people making money off of it) is an educational system that results in debt peonage. Relieving debt is good not just for students, but for society in general.

Corey replied by suggesting that, among other problems, free college would lead to surges in enrollment. After glancing at his smart phone, and appearing to tap out a text message, he asked whether or not Ramona thought, as he did, that if everyone had free access to college no one would work and the entire economy would collapse.

On the contrary, she rejoined. Just think about all the problems such an arrangement would actually solve. Colleges have medical clinics that provide health care for students, right (not to mention some of the most sophisticated hospitals in the country)? If everyone were a student, and all students had access to this health care, this could help to correct our health care crisis. Also, universal enrollment in colleges could help fix society’s housing crisis – because everyone in a free college could theoretically live in free housing. All these buildings around here, she said, pointing to the rows of four and five floor walk-ups, this whole part of town could be part of a new campus. You could just nationalize it all, or inter-nationalize it all, and this could all be free housing. All of these empty shops and spaces could be classrooms and workshops.

Oh come on, said Corey. Who would work in these medical clinics?

Who? repeated Ramona. Why, the people that live here. The students – and the professors and researchers – who live in the community would work in and maintain these things. Why not? Students at the medical schools could run the clinics as part of their clinical education. If there’s some problem with a pipe or the electrical stuff that the people in some building didn’t know how to fix, they could just ask students in the engineering department, or the architecture department, or some other relevant department. The Con Ed plant across the river, she said, pointing to the smoke stacks in the distance, that could be run by the colleges, too. There are a lot of ways to go about developing a community college economy. And because no one would have to pay rent or tuition or anything, people wouldn’t be compelled to get shit jobs producing garbage. You’d just have to do a couple hours a month helping with the transportation or sanitation systems or something, like a co-op. This would all be very good for the general ecosystem, too.

I don’t know, said Corey, taking a sip from his paper coffee cup. You can’t have a whole economic system based around colleges. What about food? Who would grow it? What about national security?

Are you serious? Colleges grow food all over the place! Agriculture departments grow food. This is even done in elementary schools. It wouldn’t be difficult at all for each college to grow its own food – in fields, greenhouses, rooftops, wherever – these streets. You could even grow food on the East River by creating floating gardens that would be watered from the bottom up by evaporating river water. I was just reading about this community college in Greenfield, Massachusetts that has this program creating food security for the entire community. There’s your national security (or maybe we should call it human security). The various campuses, you know, could trade whatever surpluses they have among one another, so you’d have more variety. The various film schools could have festivals and competitions showing their best stuff. You could have a whole international – or post-national – network of colleges around the world. I’m not saying it would be simple; but it would be a more fair, and healthy, and fun way of doing things, in my humble political opinion.

Actually, Ramona continued, there’s no reason that the college (the public, community college, within a global network of colleges, or something like that) shouldn’t be the basic organizational form of a society that’s actually democratic. Even the word college, you know, is derived from the Latin collegium, which means society, or community. So, you see, so-called free college isn’t about free stuff; ultimately, it’s about a free society, a self-governing society. Isn’t that what this is all about?

Corey took another sip from his cup, then said: I can’t tell whether or not you’re joking.

Because the line started moving, I wasn’t able to hear Ramona’s reply.

More articles by:

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com and on twitter @elliot_sperber

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