What Joe Biden Didn’t Mean to Say

Unlike the GOP, the Democratic presidential hopefuls seem united about education policy, to the point of boringness.  In his promise not to join the race, however, VP Joe Biden made some odd historical claims about schooling.  Surely he didn’t mean to imply what my nerdy ears heard.

Say, it ain't so, Joe...

Say, it ain’t so, Joe…

The Democratic leaders seem to have rallied around the promise of free or reduced college tuition for all.  That was the point Vice President Biden made.  “We need to commit,” Biden intoned,

To 16 years of free public education for all our children.  We know that 12 years of public education is not enough.  As a nation, let’s make the same commitment to a college education today that we made to a high school education 100 years ago.

With apologies to the SAGLRROILYBYGTH, let me clarify at the outset: I am no Biden-basher.  I will be voting Democrat in the upcoming presidential election.  Guaranteed.

But that doesn’t mean that Democrats get a free pass to Stupid.  Let’s politely ignore for the moment Biden’s implication that students in the USA now receive 12 years of public education.  For most kids, the real number is thirteen years, including kindergarten.  In many states, it is fourteen years or more, including pre-k and preschool.  But let’s not focus on such details.

The real stumper in VP Biden’s claim is that the United States committed to free high school for all in or around 1915.  That just doesn’t fit, for two reasons.  First, the history of high school attendance and tuition is much more depressing and complicated than Biden implies.  Second, there is a much more obvious parallel that he and other leading Democrats could draw.  Why don’t they?

To take them one at a time: Every nerd knows that a majority of 14-17-year-olds did not begin attending high school until the 1930s, not the 1910s.  Moreover, most so-called “public” high schools—the line between “public” and “private” schools as we know them was vague—stopped charging tuition by the 1870s, not the 1910s.  As historian extraordinaire William J. Reese has demonstrated in his book The Origins of the American High School, the high school has had a long and jagged path from elite finishing school to mass institution.  There was no obvious transformation 100 years ago.

Here’s the worst part for Biden: The reason more kids began attending high school in the 1930s was depressingly obvious.  The Great Depression crushed the economy and squeezed the most vulnerable workers out of scarce jobs.  For young people, there was often no viable option outside of school.  I know Biden didn’t mean it, but his promise to revisit America’s commitment to high-schooling for all implies a desire to return America’s economy to the dumpster.

Nerds have another question for Democrats: Why don’t they make the more obvious parallel?  This great nation has a long history of free college tuition.  Some of the best of our public institutions began with free (ish) tuition for locals.  If we want to go back that far, The University of Pennsylvania was opened as a radical new vision of higher education, one that would be attainable to all.  Cornell University, too, promised that students could work their way through without worrying about tuition costs.

In more recent and relevant history, the University of California system—still home to our country’s most prestigious public universities—long promised a tuition-free education for residents.  The City College of New York, too, was built on the idea of free elite college educations.

Of course, students still paid in one way or another.  School was not absolutely free but rather a mish-mash of fees and living costs.

When they talk about free college, why don’t Democratic leaders talk about this history?  Maybe they do and I just haven’t paid close enough attention.  But in recent debates and speeches, Secretary Clinton, Senator Sanders, Governor O’Malley and now VP Biden all repeated this dream of free college as a new thing, an innovation, a shiny promise.

Why don’t they sell it instead for what it is: One of America’s most cherished traditions of higher education?

I have a hunch.  Democratic leaders don’t want to be seen as old-school leftists, rewarming the failed policies of the 1780s, 1860s, 1930s, or 1960s.  Instead, they want to appear to offer the public something new, something bold, something untried and remarkable.

I’m all for it.  My beloved university is not tuition-free for all, but it fulfills the promise of affordable public higher education for many of our students.  I believe in the American tradition of affordable and attainable higher education for those who want it.

But I also believe in learning from the past.

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