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  • Kenneth Jacobs

Democracy & Tuition-Free Public College

Updated: May 9

The purpose of education––its means, its subject-matter, and its ends––depend upon its society. In Democracy and Education, John Dewey (1916) said this of education:


"Any education given by a group tends to socialize its members, but the quality and value of the socialization depends upon the habits and aims of the group" (p. 79).

According to Dewey (1916), the habits and aims of a group are marked by common interests and the amount of cooperative intercourse with other groups. Dewey (1916) had this to say:


"Now in any social group whatever, even in a gang of thieves, we find some interest held in common, and we find a certain amount of interaction and cooperative intercourse with other groups"(p. 79).

A "gang of thieves" may hold a common interest in plunder, but such will limit their amount of cooperative intercourse with other groups. Cooperative intercourse with other groups can have the effect of variation: changing minds, breathing new life into old ideas, or inspiring ideas de novo. When the amount of cooperative intercourse between groups is limited, we miss out on The Diversity Bonus. That is, the bonus of having found solutions to human problems because a diverse group of people worked together.


Democracy needs Education


Work-together, within and between groups, is a democratic notion. This is especially true when that work-together is free and equitable. Democracy is a shared undertaking, so the free and equitable exchange of ideas is necessary for its survival. Members of democratic societies, therefore, often hold education as an interest in common. Education socializes its members to work-together for the purposes of maintaining and directing the free and equitable exchange ideas. Education increases the number of individuals who can participate in such cooperative intercourse. As Dewey (1916) said:


"The extension in space of the number of individuals who participate in an interest so that each has to refer his own action to that of others, and to consider the action of others to give point and direction to his own, is equivalent to the breaking down of those barriers of class, race, and national territory which kept men from perceiving the full import of their activity" (p. 83).

As a shared undertaking, democracy is itself a shared interest. Participation in the interest of democracy involves our having to make reference to the ideas and actions of others. Without an education, however, the significance of others' ideas and actions will be imperceivable. For example, the long-term consequences of climate change are often imperceivable to those who are not climate scientists themselves. This is to say that the ideas and actions of climate scientists are often imperceivable; not because they work behind closed doors, but because their work is highly specialized and incomprehensible to those who are not climate scientists. If people other than climate change scientists cannot perceive the long-term consequences of climate change, then the free and equitable exchange of ideas––a marker of democracy––has failed.


Higher Education is an Unattainable Education


Barriers to the perception of others' ideas include the divisions already mentioned by Dewey (1916): "class, race, and national territory." Those artificial divisions are also barriers to education, and they are increasingly exacerbated by the increasing costs of higher education. In the words of Dewey (1916):


"Obviously a society to which stratification into separate classes would be fatal, must see to it that intellectual opportunities are accessible to all on equable and easy terms. A society marked off into classes need be specially attentive only to the education of its ruling elements" (p. 84).

The current state of higher education is not "accessible to all on equable and easy terms" because the costs for a 4-year degree-granting public institution are upwards of $24,300 on average. In this current state, society is further "marked off into classes" and is "attentive only to the education of its ruling elements." In other words, society is attentive only to the education of those who can afford the debt incurred by an increasingly necessary education.



In order for people to engage in cooperative and fruitful intercourse with other groups, a common interest in education must be taken seriously. That cooperative intercourse is currently limited to a privileged few who are not in constant contact with the circumstances of those who cannot afford a college education. The prospect of tuition-free public college is that the privileged and underprivileged might meet, and through varied intercourse, solve the problems for which the ruling elements of society were unaware of or ignoring. To reference and understand one another's ideas and actions, as a means of directing our own ideas and actions, is to live in a democratic society. In the absence of a college education, though, those ideas and actions will be all the more difficult to reference and understand for our practicable and long-term needs.


Tuition-free public college is a democratic ideal that is necessary for its own survival, and it is safe to assume that Dewey (1916) would have been in support of it:

A society which is mobile, which is full of channels for the distribution of a change occurring anywhere, must see to it that its members are educated to personal initiative and adaptability. Otherwise, they will be overwhelmed by the changes in which they are caught and whose significance or connections they do not perceive. The result will be a confusion in which a few will appropriate to themselves the results of the blind and externally directed activities of others" (p. 84).
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