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Two cheers for socialism
The best thing government ever did
I have taught Texas college students for more than thirty years. Half of that time was spent at Texas A&M University, the other half at the University of Texas at Austin.Texas is a conservative state, and most of my students bring fairly conservative views to the classroom. They know the difference between capitalism and socialism, and almost without exception they believe that capitalism is much the better way of organizing a nation's political economy.
"Then why did you choose to go to a socialist university?" I ask them.
They respond with puzzlement. What in the world am I talking about?
I point out that Texas A&M and UT are owned and operated by the state of Texas. I, their teacher, am a state employee. Their tuition goes to a branch of the state government. There could hardly be a better example of what constitutes socialism.
This leads to an examination of what kind of political economy the United States actually has. It is more capitalist than socialist, but not that much more. Government spending amounts to around 40 percent of GDP. So as a first approximation, the United States is three-fifths capitalist, two-fifths socialist.
I point out to my students that most of them probably had the option of taking their higher education in the capitalist sector. That is, they could have gone to a private university. But they did not. I ask them why. Some have Aggies or Longhorns in their family trees. Some heard that Austin was a cool place to live. Most, however, eventually come around to the explanation that Texas A&M or UT seemed like the best value for the money.
I remark that millions of their predecessors and contemporaries have reached the same conclusion in their own states. Then I go so far as to say that public higher education is one of the best things United States has ever done.
Until the mid-nineteenth century, higher education in America was conducted almost exclusively in the private sector. But in 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Act, awarding federal land to the states for the purpose of supporting colleges that emphasized agricultural and mechanical arts. This was a revolutionary idea in education, reflecting a revolutionary change in American politics.
Before the advent of democracy, most Americans saw little public interest in the education of children and young adults. Families who could afford the expense paid tutors or private schools to teach their kids, mostly boys. But once ordinary people began to be entrusted with decision-making political authority, common sense dictated that they be educated enough to make wise decisions. The education of children became everyone's business, and before long it was seen as everyone's responsibility. Thus were born public schools, which spread from the elementary level to the secondary and then to colleges and universities. An additional, economic motive entered the picture in higher education: better farmers and mechanics (engineers) contributed to the prosperity of all.
Public colleges and universities greatly expanded access to higher education. Even so, until the mid-20th century higher education was something only a small portion of the college age population took advantage of. The second boom in higher education occurred after World War II. The GI Bill funded college for millions of veterans of the war.
The Sputnik scare of the late 1950s opened a new spigot of federal spending for scientific research and the education that underlay it. In the process the government money made American universities the envy of the world. In no other country did so many people have access to such high quality education.
One measure of this was a large influx of foreign students to the United States. Most came for the formal education but while here learned about the American way of life, a lesson that did more to help the United States win the Cold War than almost anything American diplomats or soldiers did. The term "soft power" was coined to characterize this informal influence.
Yet nothing good lasts forever. Even as the United States was winning the Cold War, a new philosophy of education was catching on in conservative circles. Following Ronald Reagan's inaugural declaration in 1981 that government was America's problem rather than the solution to America's problems, the Republican party took aim at nearly every kind of nondefense spending. Attitudes on education shifted backward, toward the eighteenth century.
Rather than a public responsibility, education—especially higher education—was increasingly seen as a private responsibility. Education was an investment in an individual's own future, and therefore the individual should pay for it. States curtailed appropriations for public universities, causing tuition to skyrocket, in some cases multiplying ten times over a generation or two. Students and their families were left to make up the difference, often with borrowed money. By the early 2020s student debt constituted the second largest form of household (nonbusiness) debt in the United States, after only home mortgages.
The same trend toward reprivatizing education became apparent at the secondary and elementary levels. Charter schools—publicly funded but privately operated—proliferated; home schooling grew popular. Many public school districts found themselves losing pupils and the funding linking to attendance numbers, in a trend that spiraled downward.
No one expected public schools or public universities to disappear. But much of the country was forgetting what the public investment in education had produced over two centuries. Public education played a crucial part in making the United States the wonder of the modern world: wealthier and freer than any other large country in history, and a beacon of hope and opportunity to the many millions who came to America as immigrants.
Maybe the private sector could do as well. But the burden of proof was on the privatizers, and they had a formidable act to follow.