It’s not your imagination. The system really was designed to keep you down.

I think that education should be treated as a public good. It should be free at the point of service, like healthcare, and it should be available in some capacity throughout a person’s life. I also think that we should stop viewing childhood education as job preparation. The current system seems designed to train us all to be happy working for the wealth and power of someone else, and to be accustomed to having no control over our lives. Some schools push back against this, to some degree, but it’s not nearly enough.

The current system also presents student loan debt – the only debt that cannot be discharged through bankruptcy (thanks Biden) – as a regrettable necessity for getting higher education. If you don’t go to college, your poverty is your own fault, and if you do, you debt is also your own fault. Looking at it from the outside, it might almost look as if the system was designed to either keep poor people from education, or to trap those who do get educated in debt bondage, forced to work for a member of the capitalist class until the debt is paid off.

It might look that way, because apparently it is that way. Remember how it came out that the U.S. War on Drugs was a political project to use the government to repress black and left-wing people? That was not an aberration.

In 1970, Ronald Reagan was running for reelection as governor of California. He had first won in 1966 with confrontational rhetoric toward the University of California public college system and executed confrontational policies when in office. In May 1970, Reagan had shut down all 28 UC and Cal State campuses in the midst of student protests against the Vietnam War and the U.S. bombing of Cambodia. On October 29, less than a week before the election, his education adviser Roger A. Freeman spoke at a press conference to defend him.

Freeman’s remarks were reported the next day in the San Francisco Chronicle under the headline “Professor Sees Peril in Education.” According to the Chronicle article, Freeman said, “We are in danger of producing an educated proletariat. … That’s dynamite! We have to be selective on who we allow [to go to college].”

“If not,” Freeman continued, “we will have a large number of highly trained and unemployed people.” Freeman also said — taking a highly idiosyncratic perspective on the cause of fascism —“that’s what happened in Germany. I saw it happen.”

That last claim is depressingly familiar. It makes me think of the various right-wing pundits who insist that the Nazis were left wing, while those same pundits work tirelessly to build fascism in the United States. It also makes me think of all those who have spend the last few years insisting that U.S. fascists are being FORCED to become violent bigots, because the left is just going too far with their evil demands for things like universal healthcare or food for children. In the end, it feels like it always come back to literal class warfare waged by the rich.

“For a strong and healthy working class is the thing that I most fear”

In terms of the health of the working class, a combination of predatory capitalism, a sadistic healthcare system, and corporate pollution make sure that nobody can be sure of their future. In terms of strength? Well, they say knowledge is power, so they had to either block access (the traditional way), or find some other way to guarantee obedience.

The success of Reagan’s attacks on California public colleges inspired conservative politicians across the U.S. Nixon decried “campus revolt.” Spiro Agnew, his vice president, proclaimed that thanks to open admissions policies, “unqualified students are being swept into college on the wave of the new socialism.”

Prominent conservative intellectuals also took up the charge. Privately one worried that free education “may be producing a positively dangerous class situation” by raising the expectations of working-class students. Another referred to college students as “a parasite feeding on the rest of society” who exhibited a “failure to understand and to appreciate the crucial role played [by] the reward-punishment structure of the market.” The answer was “to close off the parasitic option.”

In practice, this meant to the National Review, a “system of full tuition charges supplemented by loans which students must pay out of their future income.”

In retrospect, this period was the clear turning point in America’s policies toward higher education. For decades, there had been enthusiastic bipartisan agreement that states should fund high-quality public colleges so that their youth could receive higher education for free or nearly so. That has now vanished. In 1968, California residents paid a $300 yearly fee to attend Berkeley, the equivalent of about $2,000 now. Now tuition at Berkeley is $15,000, with total yearly student costs reaching almost $40,000.

Student debt, which had played a minor role in American life through the 1960s, increased during the Reagan administration and then shot up after the 2007-2009 Great Recession as states made huge cuts to funding for their college systems.

Of course, if you want to avoid debt peonage, you can always sign up for the U.S. war machine. Maintaining the global capitalist order requires a lot of bloodshed, and since the draft became politically radioactive, our ruling class has found other ways to find new cannon fodder.

It really seems as though the election of Donald Trump was a signal to all of these people that they no longer needed to wear those uncomfortable masks. No, not the COVID masks, the ones they wear to pretend they value life, freedom, democracy, or any of those other hippie fantasies. That said, COVID really did seem to be the last straw for these people. It was breathtaking to watch them openly tell the world that they wanted to sacrifice the poor so they could keep getting richer.

Biden’s small debt relief will help a lot of people, and the changes made to interest rates will help many more; but as ever, we must use our celebration to underscore the simple fact that this is not enough. It can never be enough until we long longer live in a system designed to prevent freedom and democracy from ever becoming a reality.

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  1. consciousness razor says

    The current system also presents student loan debt – the only debt that cannot be discharged through bankruptcy (thanks Biden) – as a regrettable necessity for getting higher education.

    I don’t think it’s very widely known that Biden’s 1994 crime bill* had banned Pell Grants for anyone who was incarcerated, the only purpose of which is of course to keep people down. (The ban was only recently lifted by the giant omni-bill in Dec. 2020. Thanks Trump? Nah, he probably didn’t read a word of it.)

    *You know … the same crime bill that provided seemingly endless grants to expand prisons everywhere, as a tasty little treat for states that used mandatory sentencing, the one that has dramatically increased our prison population ever since. It also mandated drug testing for released prisoners (more chances and more reasons to send people back to prison), invented new federal crimes like “being in a gang” and even new death penalty offenses, and so forth. So, okay, it’s sort of understandable why the Pell Grant thing was not at the top of everyone’s list for so long, but it is good they finally nuked it.

  2. says

    One of the things that I like about our post-communist era is that our governments under the leadership of our libertarian Thatcherite-Reaganite-climate change denying sociopathic asshole Václav Klaus has not managed to dismantle our education, despite trying to do so. That motherfucker has done his best to introduce extortionist fees on higher education when he was a prime minister and later on when he was a president, but luckily he and his cronies have failed so far to do that. He has done enough damage to our country even so, and still there are people who praise that damage as a good.

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