I have of late seen many variations on the meme of free higher education. I am, as of right now, neither for nor against it. I think it is something that needs to be considered very carefully beyond pictures with slogans, although perhaps these memes may be a place to start.
There is, for example, a meme featuring a picture of Bernie Sanders with words saying that students should get all the free education they need. I think, before this position is endorsed or rejected, it should be examined, particularly since there are two terms in there that are very open to interpretation.
The first and most obvious is "need". In the meme, the concept of need is divorced from any context, and the obvious context for 'need' would be 'need for what?' But more than this, we also must confront the fact that, for us in the West at least, our ideas of need have been confused and manipulated by advertisers for decades, to the point that the word is misused. A friend of mine's father who was a recent non English speaking immigrant used to tell my friend and I just how messed up the English language was. The example he used was a waiter coming to him in a restaurant and asking him if he 'needed' some ketchup. No one 'needs' ketchup, he'd say. We only want it. But we have been trained by advertisers to confuse our wants with our needs.
We can look a little further into this example Food is clearly a necessity, but no particular one kind of food is so. No one 'needs' ketchup, but neither does anyone need hamburger, nor filet mignon, nor broccoli, nor kale. There are many cultures that lack these foods, but get along fine, as long as they have other foods they may eat.
So when we say that people need an educataion, on the one hand that is true, but on the other hand, what education do they need? How much education do they need? And- here's where things go ugly, at least in my opinion- who decides?
The answers to those questions lie in how one defines the second highly open to interpretation word: education. What is an education? What purpose does it serve?
One of the original foundations of education in the West was the Seven Liberal Arts- geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, logic, music, grammar, rhetoric. These were, in ancient times, the arts deemed necessary for a free man (hence the phrase Liberal Arts) to partake in the life of his city. With these arts he could conduct his business, know the seasons and festivals, partake in public debates, and properly speak the praises of his ancestors and the deeds of the city's heroes. That was then. What purpose does an education serve now?
The paradigm has shifted many times over. What an education is supposed to achieve now, I don't know, but whatever answer you give will also determine how much education you need, and what kind. If education is to prepare us for a job, then we must accept that the vast majority of university programs fail at that requirement. We must also confront the fact that seventeen and eighteen year old kids are, by and large, terrible at picking out their programs of study to achieve this goal. Does that mean someone should do it for them, in order to fulfill the goals of education, or does it mean that the public is on the hook to fund their terrible decisions? After all, given the purpose of education, no one needs those programs. If the purpose is to find oneself- how can we tell when this has been achieved? What should be done with the perpetual students- those who spend years at university, forever changing their courses and programs, who never seem to finish a course, much less a degree? Shall they have a free education forever? And- it always comes back to this- who decides what the goals of education are, and when they have been achieved?
These, it seems to me, are at least some of the ideas that need to be examined in any debate about whether or not an education should be 'free'. I think it is nuts that kids are going into government funded debt as they study in programs that will never, ever produce a career or an income that can pay back the debt, but, at the same time, fixing that problem requires a hard look at some very deep and difficult problems for which there are no easy answers, and pretending that there are easy answers will only lead us on a short and ready route to disaster.