Two philosophers on the student protests in Quebec
May 30, 2012
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NewAPPS draws attention to this piece in Dissent Magazine, written by Carlos Fraenkel (McGill) and Adam Etinson (Montreal).
Shouldn’t one insist on a fair distribution of burdens as much as on a fair distribution of opportunities? Most citizens don’t go to university; so isn’t it wrong to ask them to pay? Replies to such sentiments appeal to ethical reasons—the importance of guaranteeing equal opportunity through accessible higher education—but also to the self-interest of citizens: higher education benefits society as a whole, through, for example, scientific research, technological innovation, and economic growth—not to mention by allowing the most talented, not the richest, to become our doctors, judges, and engineers. Moreover, university graduates who go on to become high-income earners will soon repay their debt to society through Québec’s progressive tax system.
But should public funds also pay for studying Plato, Shakespeare, and Foucault, or the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and the cultural practices of Indian tribes in the Amazon? These may well be valuable things to do, but so is, arguably, going to the museum, the opera, and the theater, or to a rock concert or a hockey game. To come back to Plato and Spinoza, one can counter that knowledge is in itself a good that should be made available to all citizens according to abilities other than the ability to pay. Or one could argue that the humanities convey critical and intellectual skills that are indispensable for true democratic citizenship, and that studying the literatures and histories of other cultures conveys the kind of insight and empathy required of citizens in a multicultural society.