Most people know that student debt is a problem, and most people agree that “something should be done about it”. The consensus view seems to be that something should be done because it is “not fair” to young people. According to a recent poll conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust, 80% of Americans believe that “the government should make it easier to repay student loans.”

Even so, it is very difficult to understand why student debt has become so annoying over the past decades. It’s as if we think student debt is an unfortunate fact of nature, like a weather front that has passed leaving us no choice but to put on a warmer coat if we can find one, and if we don’t. can’t find one, it’s welcome to the Brave New World of Cold and Indifference.

And yet, not so long ago, things were very different. I was born in a working-class suburb of San Francisco in 1951. At that time, public education was good, teachers still had some social prestige, universities were affordable (cheap indeed), and few students graduated. with debts. It was possible for me to get out without the threat of bankruptcy from a young adult.

In other words, at this time, students were more free to choose what they wanted to study and more free to explore careers. As for me, I was free to be a student of literature and philosophy at the University of San Francisco. I learned to play classical guitar up the hill at Lone Mountain College. I was also a long haired war resister and a recruiting advisor in the chaplain’s office. And I was mostly sure that I would not be punished for these decisions, or not punished anytime soon.

Unfortunately, the university as I knew it no longer exists. Through the decades of Reaganomics and neoliberal austerity, an elite decided that the state should no longer pay for public higher education; henceforth, universities would be financed by personal debt. Tuition fees at public colleges and universities have become inflated “user fees” for accessing a government-affiliated service, such as accessing a parking lot. New arguments gained in strength: students were just another kind of consumer, and “student demand” should determine the content of the program. What was lost in such a market logic was the fact that arts and humanities programs – not just at universities but at all levels of education – had become the primary means by which we were allowed to think about who we are, where we are, how we got here and what, if anything, we would like to see changed. In place of this worthy process, we ended up with what David Harvey described succinctly: “Traditional university culture, with its strange sense of community, has been penetrated, disrupted and reconfigured by the power of raw money.”

In the public and private sectors, the corporate university has grown slowly for many years, but now it has become more brazen in its destructive tendencies. For an example that is personally close to me, the Illinois Wesleyan University (IWU) Board of Trustees in Bloomington, Illinois, announced in May 2020 that they are considering the elimination of many long-established programs that were all in the liberal arts. and social sciences. I say it’s personal because my wife, Georganne Rundblad, taught sociology at Wesleyan for twenty-five years, and many teachers were among our friends.

Without the consent of the faculty, the board of directors sent pre-dismissal letters to twenty-five faculty members and teaching staff in philosophy, anthropology, music, foreign languages, sociology, art and religion – in total, about a quarter of IWU faculty. A liberal arts university without philosophers is a contradiction in terms, but a Wesleyan university without a religion department is an exercise in self-mockery. There is no doubt that the IWU will continue to claim that its “main purpose” is “to open the minds of students,” but the business school will have to do most of the opening.

This too is already happening. Departments that have not been removed would need to be “transformed”. Provost Mark Brodl told faculty member Scott Sheridan that “philosophy will support business and accounting, computer science and data science.” In another example of what Harold Bloom called the betrayal of clerks, the president of Georgia Nugent University (classic by training) said that the art department “will be more oriented towards art and design”, including graphic design and product design. In other words, before the arts can transform students, commerce will first transform the arts. Andy Warhol saw it coming: art is a can of soup.

Of course, there is no reason to think that this is the end of those transformations, of those last thrills of what Bill Readings called “the university in ruins.” (Reads: “The contemporary university is transforming from an ideological arm of the state into a bureaucratically organized and relatively autonomous consumer-driven society.”) The remaining faculty and programs cannot sleep comfortably, wondering who and what will be cut next, in a year, in five or ten years. University boards can wait – they have waited patiently for fifty years. For fifty years, American universities have evolved towards a sense of mission that a businessman can recognize, respect and, most importantly, donate.

But from the perspective of the liberal arts themselves, a liberal arts university that does not recognize the value of the liberal arts should transform nothing. He should close his doors, fold everything up. Better than to become what the Illinois Wesleyan has become: a watery version of the Wharton School of Business.

Wesleyan administrators did not feel the need to justify their actions beyond the crude idea that the programs concerned were unprofitable and that the financial requirement threatened them in the near future in some way or another. another – not to mention the university’s $ 200 million endowment. They offered no educational reason for the changes, and no argument as to how the changes were consistent with the values ​​of the institution. Like the bandits in John Huston’s “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” they said, “Reasons? We don’t need stinky reasons.

The feelings of the professors and the elders are sharp now because they feel, and rightly so, betrayed. A member of the IWU Alumni for the Liberal Arts, Molly McLay, wrote to me:

I am exasperated by the lack of humanity and empathy in this process. Most of my professional work revolves around understanding, responding and preventing trauma. I really think this experience at IWU was a collective trauma.

Affirming McLay’s thought, Scott Sheridan, professor of French and Italian at Wesleyan, commented to me:

I feel like I’m just caught in the middle of an administration that has lost its bearings, that changes the rules for me at the end of my career. I bought the ivory tower model, did everything I was asked to do, and now that the economy is collapsing, the Covid is blazing, higher education is collapsing and the ‘University has tarnished my professional reputation, I find myself completely cast aside, looking at the need not only to retool my professional goals but to rethink my life.

Professor Sheridan has signed up.

Finally, and elegiacally, English teacher Michael Theune commented to the Chicago Tribune: “It’s a bad day. Faculty control of the program has been withdrawn.

The motto of the Wesleyan portal should no longer be “Scientia et Sapientia”, knowledge and wisdom. I suggest that it reads like Dante’s Hell Legend: “No Admittance Except on Business. “

After World War II there was a huge investment in public education. For the first time, children of the working class had the opportunity to study subjects, such as literature, which were once a privilege for the children of the rich. We studied the humanities and social sciences, and in doing so, found ways to criticize and resist corporate culture and all of its murderous inequalities. In the 1960s, universities became more famous for their “student protests”. The protests may now be taking place on the streets and not on campus, but many of today’s protesters, marching with Black lives matter, or against sectarianism, or against the world as it is organized for the benefit of the oil companies — obtained their intellectual knowledge in universities by taking courses like “Sex and Gender in Society” or “Race and Ethnic Relations” of the Professor Rundblad.

But during all this time, our teachers have been attentive, and they have seen clearly and correctly: for many, many students, going to university was and remains an experience of liberalization (thus the experience of Biden huge lead on Trump among graduate voters). Our plutocratic masters concluded: “So this is what happens when you let the working class and minorities go to university. They study things of no value to us, and they learn to hate us.

As a result, slowly, decade after decade, universities starved and students went into debt. During this time, the rich came to the rescue and became university administrators. In these fallen days, the ideal trustee is someone who has money or knows people with money, ideally both. (The Chairman of the Wesleyan Board of Directors is Timothy Szerlong, former President of Global Field Operations at CNA Financial Corporation.)

The ultimate benefit of all of this for our oligarchs, the 1%, is a new but very powerful form of social regimentation. Their message to the students: “If you want a job, you will study what we want you to study, otherwise you will live in debt. We might call it naked coercion, but for college students, this is their first adult taste of American non-freedom.

In 1969, the year before I entered the University of San Francisco, I was working at a McDonalds in East Bay. The franchise owner liked me very much and offered me a scholarship to McDonald’s Hamburger University. I laughed. I should not have.


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