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.


Adam B. said...

I feel your pain. I ran into the same sort of brain-dead closed-mindedness around the whole governmental "crisis" we went through recently with the Liberals, NDP and Bloque threatening to reform the current government as a coalition. People kept hearing everything I said as meaning "I want another party to unfairly steal power from those who were duly elected." Or even, "I had no respect for the MPs other people had voted for." They refused to hear anything resembling, "the other duly elected people would like to join forces" let alone "our Democracy covers, and embraces, this alternative." (It didn't help that the Conservatives were outright lying to the public about that last part.)

I think, in the end, people hear what they want to hear. For those of us who actually want to hear what you're trying to say, there's the opportunity for intelligent discourse. I, for example, can respect that other people disagree with my choice for who would best run our country.

But most people simply want others to reinforce their opinions and are unsettled by the need to re-evaluate their positions. I can sympathize, but I also loathe the self-enforced ignorance that people are more comfortable sticking to. I think everyone has the obligation to at least fairly consider the undesirable alternatives.

And, for what it's worth, I agree with you. I don't think University should be without any sort of cost as I think it loses its value if its completion becomes trivial. But I do want it to available to everyone. So perhaps, when appropriate, the cost can be, in part or in full, non-monetary. Just a thought...

Jason_burke said...

Wow. It's like your comments were not even read at all.

"but since you think high tuitions and massive debt are just great"

I myself didn't see that written in any of your comments. It really baffled me that they respond to you by saying that YOUR comments don't make any sense. It was written there in plain English.

But as Adam B. said, in the end people hear what they want to hear.

SC said...

I find myself curious about the demographic profile of the community momentarily crystalized around the person whose status update hosted this 'debate.' If you or I had posted a status stating that "free tuition would be bad for universities," I suspect we would get discussion, not ad hominem attacks, but perhaps that simply speaks to our 'elite' circle. Most of my f-friends are people who could afford to go to university where they learned, for example, the basic rules of logical debate. The respondents you've parodied, despite appearing to value education, don't seem to have benefited from exposure to it: the ability to read carefully and present rational arguments is a foundational aspect of most university level education. They also seem unaware of the realities of digital communication. Most people who maintain a presence online quickly learn that flaming is poor etiquette, the sign of an inexperienced or immature internet denizen. On the other hand, as you point out, the problem may be with the kind of communication Facebook encourages. Status updates, comments, etc are about competing for attention, and they promote quick, witty - or, failing witty, polemic - showmanship (showpersonship?). You don't win audiences by being thoughtful and exploring ideas in depth.

But hey, we're not out there to win popularity contests. I think that one of our jobs as publically funded intellectuals is to 'stir the shit' - to challenge the binaries (and the ideologies those binaries reinforce) that keep people from considering issues in their full complexity. I don't think these binaries are new; I just think that facilities like Facebook make us more aware of what demographics other than our own think. When that exposure shows us that some people lack skills central to a healthy democracy, then it reinforces the importance of what we do as teachers and scholars.

For the record, I agree - paying tuition contribute to the sense that a univeristy degree has value. I think there should be a facility in place, however, to have tuition waived on the basis of financial need combined with merit. Of course, the whole point is moot unless governments commit to secure institutional funding. Now there's a facebook debate I'd like to see!

Ankhanu said...

Ya know, I've been a supporter of free tuition for years, but I can certainly see your point about standards and education being worth what we put into it. That said, I do see the slip of standards even with our current high tuition rates; university IS seen as just another thing to get through like high school, these days. I'm not sure that tuition rates relate to the perceived value of education in today's mindset.

As far as I know in the nations with free post-secondary education systems standards are maintained by offering free tuition granted that certain academic standards are met. If grades slip, the student starts paying or simply is denied further education. This model offers education to those willing to work for it, or gifted enough to excel without effort. Requiring effort rather than cash may be a better way to instill a sense of worth, but I don't know if there's any data on the subject.

As for your actual Facebook discussion, it's all too common a phenomenon. People like binary concepts, they're easy to think about. Oversimplifying ideas is a fantastic way to jump to conclusions and miscommunicate... and what do people love more than a self-righteous fight? Unfortunately there aren't too many cures for the problem, and most are somewhat unethical.

Dina S. Cintron said...

Harvard University began its free university program, for students of excellence, whose families are from a middle class income. MIT offers its undergraduate courses free online and you can even download the books free, however, you cannot get a degree on this route. I believe that free education for excellent students is the way of the future in the United States. Harvard seems to think so, at least. Too bad we can't send this information to the Professor with a false sense of entitlement. Cheers!