Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Higher Education: A Railway to Peonage

One of the many things that resonated with me the first time I read Howard Zinn’s A Peoples History of the United States was the idea that our institutions of higher education in this country, particularly the Harvards, Yales, Stanfords, Carnegie Mellons, and Vanderbilts of the system, were established not so much to further the goal of an educated populace, but to spit out a class of professionals and semi-professionals who could and would at once both serve the elites and act as a buffer against the unwashed and uninformed masses. In less refined terms, Zinn’s suggestion (or at least my interpretation) was that these degreed and credentialed folks were being groomed by our nation’s top colleges and universities to function as the plutocracy’s bitches. Being a bitch myself in that regard (i.e., a degreed professional), I’d really never consciously considered that possibility, although the idea certainly was intriguing. In fact, it was more than intriguing. Now that Zinn had challenged my conventional view on the matter, I had to admit that the theory just might have substantial merit.

Perhaps because I subconsciously didn’t want to confront it, or maybe because I was just being intellectually lazy, I didn’t follow Zinn’s strand of thought any further. The idea remained, however. In fact, it still comes to the forefront of my thinking every once in awhile, but I always let it slip back into the obscure recesses of my mind where it lays dormant until something triggers another flare-up.

Well, this morning I had a flare-up (call it an epiphany) of major proportions that has given me the clarity of sight that Zinn must have had. The catalyst for my new found vision was an article by Brian McKenna published at Counter Punch titled Student Loan Fury in the Occupy Movement. In a nutshell, the article lays bare the societal and parental lie that burdening students with loan debt in order to obtain a higher education, particularly in the more academic and esoteric fields of study that have no perceived “market value” (i.e., cannot be readily exploited by business to increase profits), will markedly improve one’s position in life. To the contrary, the article demonstrates in rather bleak terms that in many cases, a Masters or Ph.D degree is nothing more than a train ride to peonage, self-doubt, and misery.

Without getting into the reasons for this (the article hints at a general hostility toward certain disciplines and the continued and steady de-funding of our public educational systems), McKenna’s article caused me to immediately think of John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hitman. As Wiki accurately describes it, Hitman is a mea culpa in which Perkins confesses to having been an “economic hit man” for a global engineering services firm that paid him handsomely to:

“convince the political and financial leadership of underdeveloped countries to accept enormous development loans from institutions like the World Bank and USAID. Saddled with debts they could not hope to pay, those countries were forced to acquiesce to political pressure from the United States on a variety of issues. Perkins argues in his book that developing nations were effectively neutralized politically, had their wealth gaps driven wider and economies crippled in the long run.”

And then it hit me and the scales fell from my eyes. The story of higher education in 21st century America is nothing more than the Hitman narrative playing out in a different context. The uneducated students who are misspending their youth by foregoing a misspent youth for a lottery’s chance at attending an Ivy are Perkins’ underdeveloped countries. The universities and the banks which are reaping huge financial returns from the desperate students who can never hope to repay their student loan debt are Perkins’ World Bank and USAID. The political, social and financial elites are the United States in Perkins’ tale who can and will exert leverage on the wage slave graduates in order to effectively neutralize them both politically and economically. And we parents, who have bought into the hype and the promise of success that is supposed to flow magically to our kids from a blue chip educational pedigree, we are Perkins. We are economic hitmen.

I should have seen it before now, but I just didn’t. Up until this moment, I dutifully played the role expected of me by cheerleading for my kids to go the best college they could get into, even if that meant “investing in their future” by loading up on obscene amounts student loan debt. With the assistance of Zinn, McKenna and Perkins, however, I have come to realize the folly and danger of this way of thinking. As a result, I will no longer be complicit. I will no longer propagate the lie that a college degree is worth any investment regardless of amount. I will no longer be an economic hit man for the student loan industry.

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