Poster issued during the Great Depression by the Works Progress Administration (WPA)

As the plan to consolidate Connecticut’s public colleges moves forward, there is one thing the Board of Regents must do: take some remedial history courses.

Their “Students First” scheme (so named without apparent irony) has no intention of canceling student debt or cutting the ever rising costs of college, which have increased over 1,000% since I attended the University of Connecticut.

Our state’s history points to a better approach, based on the tradition, purpose, and vision of free and equal education access, promised to all American since the Founders. This approach was known as the Federal College.

It has long been a common belief that free public education is the bedrock of democracy. Thomas Jefferson knew an educated citizenry was vital for our survival as a free people. “Light and Liberty go together,” he wrote.

The 1848 Seneca Falls women’s congress declared that male society had created an “absolute tyranny” over women ensuring “all colleges closed to her.”

The father of public education Horace Mann believed that education should be universal, non-sectarian and free. John Dewey wanted higher education to foster a “social consciousness for social reconstruction.” In 1908 the great socialist and union leader Eugene Debs insisted that we should be “teaching for American democracy rather than American aristocracy.”

The 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, ratified by the United States and 47 other countries, established that “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”  The landmark 1955 Brown v. Board of Education case affirmed that “Education is perhaps the most important function of state and local government.”

The Regents must have missed the semester that covered this material.  Their “big box” theory of higher ed administration means that we will see college costs skyrocket and campuses close in five years.

The Great Depression wreaked havoc with government budgets and workers’ lives. All the more remarkable that Federal Colleges were constructed at the time for unemployed youth and adults. From 1934 to 1939, they operated in Hartford, New Haven, Winsted, Bristol, and Farmington, serving many of the state’s citizens. As their popularity grew, the colleges added night school and summer school programs. Tuition was free. Curriculum was comprehensive. Books cost no more than four dollars in total.

Thanks to the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and local efforts, thousands of teachers found work, to the benefit of a half million students, young and old, across the nation. The existence of the Federal Colleges reinforced the concept of higher education as a right, not a privilege.

But of course, not all Americans have supported democratic higher education. Trinity College professor Edward F. Humphrey admired Benito Mussolini’s radical destruction of Italy’s public no-tuition system. Free schools “spoiled” young people, Humphrey said in 1924. Il Duce “decided that the state ought to educate only those worthwhile,” the professor declared with great approval.

Likewise, the president of Yale University warned against “collective control” (publicly funded) education. Charles Seymour wrote in 1944 that financial help would mean “ultimate control from the outside.” Government aid would become “the basis of totalitarianism,” Seymour insisted.

Fortunately, the lessons of history overshadow those elitists and today’s technocrats.  Will there be education for the few or for the many? On which side of history will the Board of Regents land?

Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer for District 1199/SEIU. His latest book is Good Trouble: A Shoeleather History of Nonviolent Direct Action (HardBallPress.com).

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