Friday, May 29, 2009

The Strangest Conversation

Recently, I posted what I thought was a zippy little off-hand comment on someone's Facebook status which mentioned the need to have free university tuition. Then others started to respond and things kind of got out of hand. Here is a lightly parodied version:

Me: Free tuition would be bad for universities. People value what they pay for, so manageable tuitions, that don't unfairly burden graduates with debt, would be better than free tuitions.

Another person: How can you say that! People should not be kept out of university because they can't afford it! You obviously know nothing about education.

Me: Actually, as a university professor I know something about it, and I worry that free universities would lead to university standards slipping as they have done in high school -- because people would come to see universities as just another level of education to get through.

Someone else: You're obviously one of those free-market, right-wing elitist shitheads who think only the rich should go to university. Why not try selling your crap to someone who wants to go to university but can't afford it?

Me: No, you've missed my point. I think university should be much more affordable, just not free. There's surely a middle ground. Students could all afford $5 for the year, right? And for that matter, probably $100 or even $1000.

Still another person: With ridiculous ideas like these, you have no business being a university professor. Your arguments don't make any sense and are not backed up by sources. It's not appropriate for university professors to make these kinds of statements and you should really take some time to learn what good intellectual writing looks like since you clearly have no clue.

Me: What? This is a Facebook comment section! In a scholarly article, I would cite sources, but this is a casual conversation. As for my qualifications, if you are worried that I don't know what academic writing looks like feel free to check out my book which is held by libraries around the world.

Yet another: Ooh, he thinks just because he published a book, he must be right about everything! I could have published a book if tuitions weren't so high, but since you think high tuitions and massive debt are just great, you obviously don't care about people like me!

And so it went.

What struck me most about this strange conversation was that nobody seemed interested in reading what I had actually written or answering it on those terms. People continually assumed that if I were not in favour of free tuition I must be in favour of high tuitions and all that mean-spiritedness that presumably went along with that.

Now, maybe free tuitions are not such a bad thing. Many countries have free university tuition, and maybe they have found a way to keep standards high. I would be interested in knowing more about that. But not many people in the online conversation I've reconstructed above seemed willing or even able to see any of those complexities. It was either you are a fair-minded human being who beleives tuition should be free, or a selfish monster who believes students should suffer as much as possible.

I wonder if this is the way all political discussions are becoming: a series of binaries: pro-life or pro-choice, pacifist or war-monger, right or left, cultural relativist or racist. If so, our democracy is in for a rough ride.

And I should probably keep my thoughts off of Facebook.