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Higher Education Should Be Free -- And We Need a Movement to Make It So

Why not take the meritocratic promise of this country at face value and try to make it real?

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This sort of vision -- combined with demands that may sound more "reasonable" and be easier to achieve quickly -- attracts young people to a movement. Asked what drew him to organize for the City College walkout, Jason King recalls coming to a meeting in the Morales/Shakur center -- controversially named for two City College radicals accused of involvement in political violence in the 1970s. "I saw mad revolutionary type of shit," King says, pointing to the banners celebrating rebels around the globe. "I'm in a very Renaissance stage of life," he muses, "trying to figure out how the world works. Learning about this tuition increase, I realize I've been very naïve."

For those not inclined to revolutionary flourish or philosophical exploration -- although, of course, these in themselves are arguments for a college education -- there's always the democratic idealism of a Townsend Harris. Or the equally old-school American Dream. As student rep Gionni Carr puts it: "We are just trying to better ourselves." Whatever the rhetoric, it's about time we educated everyone.

Obama's proposed reforms are a long way from this ideal, but they reflect a widespread hunger for affordable education. While no movement has yet emerged to force the president to be a real visionary, it's not too bold to hope that his election signals a more thoughtful turn in American politics. Obama seems to embody, especially in contrast with his predecessor, the virtues of a great education. It is, then, a promising moment to make a case for higher learning and for universal opportunity. Says Wulkan, "There's been a slight change in everyone's understanding of the world." That's not a bad place to start.

Liza Featherstone is a New York City-based journalist. She is the author, most recently, of "Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers' Rights At Wal-Mart" (Basic).

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