Swans Commentary » swans.com January 16, 2012  



Beggaring Student Life


by Manuel García, Jr.





(Swans - January 16, 2012)  A morally bankrupt society beggars its student life. Both college student loan relief and the adequate funding of K-12 public education are social justice and moral issues couched evasively as purely financial problems. They require forthright national attention -- and action.

"U.S. Student loan debt set to hit $1 trillion; already outpaces national credit card debt," reads the headline of a June 9, 2011 news article in Consumer News (http://news.consumerreports.org/money/2011/06/us-student-loan-debt-set-to-hit-1-trillion-already-outpaced-national-credit-card-debt.html).

"College seniors who graduated in 2010 carried an average of $25,250 in student loan debt. Meanwhile, unemployment for recent college graduates climbed from 8.7% in 2009 to 9.1% in 2010 - the highest annual rate on record for college graduates aged 20 to 24," declares the The Project on Student Debt, which publishes statistical details on student debt for each of the 50 states (http://projectonstudentdebt.org/state_by_state-data.php).

Brian McKenna wrote a searing and heartbreaking article that focused on the human face of the student debt situation as exhibited within the field of anthropology, and which appeared recently (http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/11/25/student-loan-fury-in-the-occupy-movement/).

In response to the student debt crisis, I published a proposal for a National Students' Recovery Bank (http://www.swans.com/library/art17/mgarci33.html), which includes the following ideas:

"The nation should 'recover' this youthful population in the same way it recovered the bankrupt Saving and Loan Industry in 1989, and the bankrupt commercial banking industry in 2008: a public bailout in the form of a federally-funded bank that lifted the troubled out of their distress by refinancing their existing debt into far gentler terms... The NSRB would refinance the education loans of students over a long term and without interest. Payments would be limited to a low fraction of monthly income (under 10%), so periods of low-paying employment, or unemployment, would not cause loan penalties. Incentives for prompt repayment could include forgiving the remainder of the loan if 50% of it were repaid within ten years, or some similar formula. The purpose of the NSRB would be to remove... the debt liability of a student loan in its originally contracted form. A generous nation could just forgive all such debts... A less generous nation might still be practical enough to establish a NSRB, so this young generation could... begin a productive engagement with the nation's economic, political, and social life."

I sent a letter describing my NSRB proposal to my U.S. congressional representative. (More on this at the end).

Besides the hobbling of young lives by student debt, I have been disturbed by the erosion of public K-12 education, which is driven by a combination of mean-spirited attitudes and unrelenting funding contraction.

My lens into the turbidity of US public education is the situation of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) in California. While the local situation here will never exactly mirror that of other school districts, OUSD is still a sufficiently large and diverse school district to display many of the same trends seen elsewhere. I think it reasonable to move from the specifics of OUSD's problems to a general critique, nationally.

In my view:

- California spends far too little on K-12 education, a consequence of a dysfunctional tax structure (Proposition 13, on personal and corporate property taxes); and

- OUSD, like many other school districts, is sometimes wasteful with its current budget (i.e., spending "outside the classroom"), but one must remember the exculpatory fact that OUSD is saddled with many expensive obligations from both its own past mistakes, and failings passed down to it from the state (when OUSD was under state receivership in 2003-2008); and

- both the state funding stinginess (reduced funding for music, physical education, humanities, "enrichment") and the OUSD "waste" spending (for teacher training, pensions, consultants) generally reflect the contradictory consensus of the public, despite its many emotional and vociferous complaints about "quality" and "waste," as voiced by parent-taxpayers and local residents of all types.

Depending on the point-of-view, one could say about the funding situation of public education:

- the consensus shows the public is confused, wanting it both ways, or

- everybody wants something for nothing, or

- there is too little sense of community beyond local enclaves and economic class.

I think all are equivalent statements.

Considering the entire scope of the "money troubles" for U.S. students from kindergarten through college, I conclude that our society today is beggaring education in three significant ways:

- assaulting public education ideologically by hateful neoliberal propaganda;

- steadily throttling the funding of K-12 public education, eroding its diversity, depth, and potential to awaken critical thinking in children, by obsessive time-and-motion-type packaging of "learning" into a scheduled production of conformed minds;

- to culminate with the insult of shackling the socioeconomic potential of the young adults who enriched their conformed high school graduate minds in colleges and universities, on borrowed money to be repaid from supposedly richer futures.

The fundamental fallacy of the arguments about economizing on public education, and repaying student debt, is that they attempt to reduce a moral issue by monetizing it as a financial problem.

The moral issue is the cyclical process where the adult population of a society ensures the proper socialization of the younger generation, so they can all be prepared to assume productive roles in that society, and in time replace their elders and then renew the socially regenerative cycle.

The practical implementation of this moral social imperative will involve financing, but that financing is a servant to the process, not its master. There is no financial "bottom line" point to education, nor should we ever imagine one. Its purpose is social renewal, ensuring that no part of society's young is ever "wasted."

From an adult's point of view, it is in my interest that all children today be well educated and productively socialized, because they will define the society I will live in during my later years. Earlier generations did this for me, and my only way of repaying that debt is to pass on the benefit.

Only if I strip off the spiritual and moral aspects of my concepts of "self interest" and "benefit," and reduce them to a purely monetary quantity, could I say I would "benefit" by allowing society to degrade into isolated enclaves of prosperity, so long as I was in one of them.

So, the proper way to discuss the funding of public education is to ask: What is the right school system for the students of district X? What is the correct level of funding for that system to operate fully, assuming reasonably efficient management? How do we spread the burden of this necessary funding most evenly throughout the society?

It is a false and immoral efficiency to cut effective portions of an inadequate public educational system (e.g., reduce curricula, close schools) in an attempt to reduce its cost to the under-funded levels we (as public consensus) would prefer to pay. We all agree administrative waste should be cut, but we will never cut our way to general educational adequacy, let alone excellence.

The dilemma facing school districts like OUSD is that their past errors and present shortcomings are held up against them as an excuse by the public (state, national, and especially corporate), to avoid facing up to its own moral responsibility to adequately maintain the larger society, to exhibit both intergenerational and non-local solidarity.

By the same moral logic, we would ensure that our young adults not only graduate FROM their schools with "skills" and "knowledge," but more importantly INTO productive lives where they can exercise their creativity with unrestrained energy and unfettered imagination. They are our champions reincarnating our civilization.

What follows is a sample letter to a congressional representative on the issue of student debt relief (based on one I actually sent). Offering this sample may prompt others to draft their own letters to Congress, and generally add some counter pressure in defense of social democracy and against "The Blob" (http://youtu.be/XhyRpvgm03g) of expanding neoliberalism.


Dear Congressman/Congresswoman X,

Please help bring relief to students suffering with education loan debt, which many view as being caused by deceitful lending practices by banks, as well as colleges and universities.

Please review these 2 articles, which succinctly describe the magnitude of this now $1T problem, and offer a specific solution:

"Student Loan Fury"
by Brian Mckenna
(web link)

"A National Students' Recovery Bank"
(web link)

I submit to you that much of the fury of the Occupy Movement arises out of this issue. Were student loan forgiveness -- or at least discounting plus humane refinancing -- to be implemented, this relief would quench much public anger, plus help stimulate economic recovery with the subsequent work gained by the released human potential of these young adults.

Such a reform would be like the introduction of Social Security in 1935, which did much to quell social and labor anger and unrest as expressed in the famous sit-down and factory occupation strikes during the Great Depression.

I assure you the two articles are brief enough to read quickly, and they are not merely polemics devoid of substantive information and concrete problem-solving ideas.

Also, I ask that you discuss this issue with your economic advisers and staff experts, because I know that financial professionals can devise realistic program proposals based on the general idea of student debt relief -- the unlocking of a vast socioeconomic potential counterproductively trapped by indebtedness.

Any program that clearly shows the superiority of the potential socioeconomic gain against the obstructing debt will easily gain a wider supportive audience among your peers.

While the issue is a social-moral imperative, one can add this political point in its favor: it would help everybody's student-age children: Democrat, Republican, and of every other political persuasion.

Let me briefly note about myself that I am a [profession] and have lived in [town/"your district"] for XX years, and [volunteer, or am a parent of X-type student, or ..., keep it brief. No potshots.]

Once again, student loan relief is a social justice and moral issue couched evasively as a purely financial problem. It requires forthright national attention -- and action.


Charles Edward Chipping


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About the Author

Manuel García, Jr. on Swans. He is a native of the upper upper west side barrio of the 1950s near Riverside Park in Manhattan, New York City, and a graduate engineering physicist who specialized in the physics of fluids and electricity. He retired from a 29 year career as an experimental physicist with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the first fifteen years of which were spent in underground nuclear testing. An avid reader with a taste for classics, and interested in the physics of nature and how natural phenomena can impact human activity, he has long been interested in non-fiction writing with a problem-solving purpose. García loves music and studies it, and his non-technical thinking is heavily influenced by Buddhist and Jungian ideas. A father of both grown children and a school-age daughter, today García occupies himself primarily with managing his household and his young daughter's many educational activities. García's political writings are left wing and, along with his essays on science-and-society, they have appeared in a number of smaller Internet magazines since 2003, including Swans. Please visit his personal Blog at manuelgarciajr.wordpress.com.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published January 16, 2012