Thursday, September 29, 2016

Tuition-Free College

Listening this year first to Bernie Sanders and now to Hillary Clinton advocating for tuition-free college education, I am reminded of how we actually used to have that in this country - at least in some fortunate places. I am reminded too of how fortunate I was to live in such a place and so was able to get a quality college education, that I could never have afforded had I had to pay for it.

My alma mater - The City College of the City University of New York - was the oldest of what are now The City University’s 24 schools and was long considered the system’s flagship campus. Founded as the Free Academy of the City of New York in 1847, it was the first free public college in the United States, intended to provide access to free higher education based on academic merit to the children of New York’s poor immigrant and working-class families. And for over a century many second and third generation immigrant and working-class families made good use of the great opportunity which City College (commonly called “CCNY” or “City”) provided. Because of its high academic standards, City was sometimes even called “the proletarian Harvard.” No other public college has produced as many Nobel laureates as the 10 whom City graduated between 1935 and 1954, for example. During that same period, City was also well known for its left-wing political radicalism and activism, a place where Trotskyists debated Stalinists in the Shepard Hall (photo) cafeteria! That was before my time, of course, but when I started at City in 1968 it still enjoyed both an excellent reputation academically and a popular political perception as Berkeley East (from even before Berkeley became Berkeley)!

The unfortunate Mario Procaccino (a City College alumnus and John Lindsey's Democratic opponent in the 1969 mayoral election) famously said "City College is what New York is all about. ... That school is the soul of our city."

City College is located in Harlem, in a section known as "Hamilton Heights," on a hill north of Columbia University. When I was an undergrad there from 1968 to 1972, its two campuses spanned several city blocks from 130th to 141st Streets along Convent Avenue. The beautiful Gothic-style buildings on the North Campus had been built with intensely folded metamorphic rock taken from the excavations for the IND Subway line earlier in the century. Until the early 1950s, the less impressive, but greener, more campus-like South Campus, where I would end up taking most of my courses, had been the campus of the Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart. (Manhattanville’s alumnae included Rose Kennedy, Ethel Kennedy, and Joan Kennedy.)

In 1969 (in the spring of my freshman year) a student takeover of part of the campus caused the administration to promise early implementation of “Open Admissions.” In the future, any graduate of a New York City high school would be eligible to enroll at one of the schools in the City University system. (This benefited me indirectly in 1972, the summer after I graduated, when I worked at City as a curriculum counselor for incoming students who were academically unprepared and required remedial classes.) In time, this changed state of affairs would change people's perceptions of the school. And at a time of urban social breakdown and diminished financial resources, one tragic result would be an end to the tradition of free tuition in 1976.

That, however, was all in the future when I enrolled as a freshman in September 1968. There were, of course, core curriculum requirements in math and science that had to be met. So I studied geology and astronomy, subjects that even a non-scientist like myself found somewhat interesting. (This was, after all, the great decade of space exploration that ended with the July 1969 moon landing!)  More to my liking, I took introductory courses in history, economics, sociology, and American Politics, and advanced to courses in International Relations, Russian history, Soviet Politics, and Sociological Theory. I also studied philosophy, literature, and Classical Mythology, and German.

Eventually, I chose to major in political science. Politics had always fascinated me. And, after all, this was the late sixties, when the very foundations of the conventional post-war political order were being undermined everywhere in the West by student protests and serious radical movements. City College, with its stellar faculty full of World War II era European refugees, was a perfect place to pursue such interests. I studied International Relations with a Czech refugee, who had served in the Czech Government-in-Exile during World War II. I took Comparative Politics with a Romanian-born expert on Central and Eastern European politics, who had made his scholarly reputation studying the Holocaust’s impact on Romania and Hungary. I studied Soviet politics and Marxist Critical Theory with an old German socialist, whose “New Trends in Marxism” seminar exposed me to the Frankfurt School and other contemporary “New Left” and psychoanalytic appropriations of Marxism. City also had some wonderful American-born faculty. There was Joyce Gelb, who taught American Politics, Marshall Berman, who authored The Politics of Authenticity and with whom I studied Ancient and Modern Political Theory, and George McKenna, who taught American Political Thought. Of course, I had never previously read a word of Plato or Aristotle, let alone Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, or Freud. So I had a lot of intellectual and even more cultural catching up to do. But I was an avid reader and an eager learner.

Both on and off campus, those were turbulent, violent years, not just in the United States but around the world. Student demonstrations and campus takeovers disrupted my spring semester in both 1969 and 1970, my freshman and sophomore years. If “Open Admissions” was the long-term consequence of the spring 1969 campus closing, the much less consequential effect of the spring 1970 campus riots was the administration’s decision to close for two weeks before the 1970 election, ostensibly in order to give students more of an opportunity to participate directly in the electoral process.

I don’t know many students really got very actively engaged in the election campaigns that fall. I did briefly volunteer to pass out leaflets for Arthur Goldberg, the Democratic candidate for Governor, who was challenging Nelson Rockefeller’s bid for a third term as New York’s Governor. Rockefeller had once unwisely said something to the effect that the Long Island Railroad would become the best in the nation. So, on a day when the LIRR was on strike, we passed out anti-Rockefeller leaflets to Long Island bound commuters caught in massive traffic jams. Rockefeller won anyway.

The late sixties and early seventies may not have been the best of times in human history, but it was a wonderful time to be a student. And I was able to be one because - and only because - of the existence of a tuition-free college. I was grateful then, and am, if anything, even more grateful  now!

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