Monday, April 1, 2013

Counting the Spoons

Rummaging among some old papers the other day, I came upon a draft of a letter I composed apparently in the spring of 1962. The draft has no date, but by the letterhead on the paper, I can be confident that it was written no earlier. The draft also does not state who I was writing to, but I assume it was the editor of the New York Times. The issue I was addressing was the recommendation by a commission appointed by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and headed by Henry T. Heald, president of the Ford Foundation, that the City University of New York abandon its long-standing practice of offering students free tuition. (It is worth noting that before Mr. Heald went to the Ford Foundation, he was president of New York University, a private institution in direct competition with the four-year colleges that comprised the City University system at that time: City College, Brooklyn College, Hunter College, and Queens College.) As a graduate of City College, I had no desire to see those who came after me be deprived of the great gift that the City of New York had given me--a free college education.

Here is the text of my letter. The only alterations I have made is spelling out the abbreviations in the original draft.
Dear Sir:
I should like to offer a few comments on your stand for tuition at the City University of New York. Like Mr. Heald, whose committee favored the imposition of tuition at the senior colleges of the University, you seem to believe that free tuition is unprincipled. I derive that conclusion from the fact that you claim, together with Mr. Heald, that it is time to introduce the “principle” of having the City University students pay a token amount of money for their education. The money involved is, of course, not important, for the token payment is not even related to the cost of the student’s education. The token—the “principle”—is the be-all and end-all of the press for tuition. Reason does not dictate the token offering, since the deficit would remain and would still have to be borne by the City and State governments. Were the proponents of tuition to argue for reason, they would have to ask the students to pay all the cost of their education (and not only the students at this one university, but also at all others, public or private). That, I should imagine, would be the only “reasonable” position.
If reason does not dictate the token payment (since it is only a token), what does propel the “principled” proponents of tuition? If I am allowed to make a guess, I should state that tuition is a reflection of the Weltanschauung of its proponents. That is, the tuition-pushers believe that America’s business is business and that “money talks.” Money rules our social, artistic, and governmental spheres—as well as most of our educational scene. The great holdout—the nay-sayer to our commercial jungle is the City University of New York. Money may dictate what books will be published and what plays will be produced (leaving us with commercial wastelands). But money cannot dictate the educational policies of at least one great educational institution. The City University confounds those who believe that everything must have a pricetag and that nothing is good in and of itself. The education received by the undergraduates of the City University must not, despite the efforts of the tuition-pushers, ever be reduced to a commercial standard. The search for knowledge must always remain valuable for intrinsic reasons, not for business ones.
The students at City College, Brooklyn College, Hunter College, and Queens College must never be seduced into believing that it is better to be rich, gross, and business-minded than poor, virtuous, and truth-seeking. Money morality may or may not be in itself evil, but the belief that everything good, true, or beautiful must first pass commercial muster is.
Need I say that the letter—wherever it was sent—was never published, and that the campaign to maintain free tuition was another of the battles that I was on the losing side of.


Ralph Waldo Emerson once commented about a dinner guest:

“The louder he spoke of his honor, the faster we counted the spoons.”

I think we might update the remark to:

“When they come at you speaking of principles, guard your wallet!”

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