Real Talk (Education Week, Continued)
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OK, so, first things first: between his half-assed health care plan, his fucking over the LGBT community on every possible issue including immigration, his failure to crack down on corporate fuckery, and his apparent ambivalence about education, Obama has proven a disappointment on every single issue I actually care about. I’m glad I don’t have the option of voting in November, because it would be a bitter pill.
Now, on to the subject at hand.
There are two points to be made here.
The first point is pretty straightforward, and can be summed up as follows: Fuck. You. Specifically, this bit here:
The death of subsidized loans was sold to student advocates as a necessary sacrifice to save the Pell Grant Program, which provides 9 million undergraduates with grants of up to $5,500 a year. “Congress now views all spending as bad, and we wanted to make sure the Pell Grant didn’t get cut,” recalls Rich Williams at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s Higher Education Project. “Unfortunately, the money had to come from other programs in the higher-education pot.”
Uh, no. The money doesn’t have to come from other programs in the higher-education pot. According to this article, the projected savings from hammering grad students is going to be about $18 billion a year. Can we talk about farm subsidies, which cost the US government about $20 billion a year, a fully 17% of which goes to the largest 1% of farms? Can we talk about the fact that a so-called “5th generation” jet fighter, like an F-22, costs $100-150 million per unit, and the fact that the US Air Force has almost 6,000 aircraft in active service? (Do the math). Or maybe we could, I don’t know, make pharmaceutical companies actually pay taxes? For that matter, it appears that in the fiscal year 2011 the Department of Homeland Security was budgeted $98.8 billion…but apparently only spent $66.4 billion. Could we maybe have those extra $32.4 billion back to spend on education, if you don’t need them?
A dollar is a dollar. It doesn’t say “education dollar” on it, it just says “In God We Trust.” There is only one economy. Congressdecideshow much of its money will go to education, just like it decides how much goes to defense spending, homeland security, and corporate tax breaks. Politicians in every country love selling us this bullshit line about how “the education budget is only so big.” No, asshole, the education budget is as big as you make it. Make it bigger, and you’ll be able to add things without cutting things. That’s called logic. Cut some money from your expense and travel budget and give it to a starving graduate student.
That’s the first point. The point is this: the government is choosing to save money by fucking over graduate students. Don’t try to give us this hand-wringing, I-have-no-choice-we-all-have-to-tighten-our-belts routine. Go fuck yourself. You spent $135 billion in 2010 bailing out the scum that issues those loans, but you don’t have any money to help the students who are strangled by those same loans? Have I mentioned go fuck yourself?
OK. The second point is much more complex and much less pleasant to think about. That is the awkward question of why all that student debt is there in the first place.
To begin with, using the phrase “graduate school” so broadly is a serious economic error. There’s a huge difference, in financial terms, between being a “graduate student” at a professional school that makes you a lawyer or a doctor or any other profession that, presumably, the market actually has a demand for, and between being a “graduate student” at, say, an English department, which mostly trains you to be unemployable. OK.
Just as importantly, and as painful as it is to admit this, we can’t pass judgment against government budget cuts without also recognizing the extent to which everybody, including professors and students themselves, participate in the ideological soap bubble that is higher education. It basically boils down to this: did anyone force you to take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt? No. No they did not. Yes, it sucks that the government is going to start making you pay interest on those loans. It sucks hard. But we’re just talking about the interest. We’re not talking about why those loans are there in the first place.
As the Gramsci quote above neatly points out, educational oversaturation has serious economic implications. And as all of Gramsci’s work on education shows, it is an absolute error to regard intellectual or educational activity as somehow above or beyond circuits of capital and material production. As the second of the two articles linked to above suggests, for the last few years there’s been a growing awareness of the student loan issue. But the fundamental problems behind the student loan issue have been brewing for a long, long time. I’m going to focus here mostly on the humanities, since that’s where my experience lies.
Let’s be perfectly honest here. As a form of professional training, graduate school in the humanities has been in decline a long, long time. The debt issue has worsened sharply in recent years, as has tuition. But the slashing of budgets, the cutting of tenure-track jobs, and the systematic replacement of fully employed faculty with benefits by adjunct myrmidons has been going on for decades. Despite this fact, for most of the last 10 years, graduate school application rates have set record highs. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why.
Now, is there, to some degree a clouding of the truth? Yes, perhaps. It’s stupid and irresponsible of professors to be unfailingly encouraging of undergraduates who want to apply to grad schools, instead of explaining to them the realities of the job market. It’s stupid and irresponsible of academic departments to admit more students than they can fund and place. The reasons for this bullshit is obvious - professors and departments both need graduate students to serve as cheap teaching labor so they can offset the slashing of full-time faculty. Duh. But guess what? Academia operates within the same chains of ideology and economics as the rest of the capitalist machine. You’re naive enough to be surprised that the labor market is trying to fuck you over by squeezing you like a ripe orange and then throwing you away to rot once the juice has been squeezed out? The real question isn’t why your professors painted you a rosy picture or why your department fudged their placement numbers on the admissions offer they made you. The real question is why you believed them to begin with.
If we are ever going to fix higher education, the first task is to rid ourselves of the absurd idealization of intellectual activity as somehow exempt from market forces and basic economic principles. I’ve already dealt with this issue in this post. Graduate students and potential graduate students alike must confront the possibility that their own investment in their profession is sharply out of line with the market value of their profession. And this disjunction is absolutely not news. To anybody. Bluntly stated: yes, the economic burden of grad school has worsened in the last few years. But it’s not like there was any possible economic math according to which getting a Ph.D. in English was a really smart financial decision in 1999, either. What are you so shocked about? Were you planning to repay your loans to the bank by offering to give lectures on Edmund Spencer in the foyer?
In other words, it’s absolutely not enough to wring our hands about interest rates and act like we’ve suddenly found ourselves in an untenable situation we couldn’t possibly have predicted. If we want our intellectual activity to be worth something not just to us but to the market, we need to work collectively as an institution to raise the value of that activity. In other words, we have to stop saying bullshit like this:
"The burden on graduate students is growing, and this makes a bad situation worse," says Eli Paster, a Ph.D. candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the head of legislative concerns at the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students. "We don’t want a disincentive for people to pursue a graduate degree."
That is absolutely not correct. We absolutely do want a disincentive for people to pursue a graduate degree. Because graduate degrees are not decorations. They’re supposed to be indicators of a particularly high level of qualification and training, making you a valuable asset worth hiring. Graduate school should be difficult to get into. Graduate degrees should be difficult to obtain. If there’s a glut of graduate degrees on the market and the cost of the education exceeds the market value of the degree, then something is seriously wrong with the system.
The problem, of course, begins before the graduate level. It used to be that a good number of people dropped out of high school and started working at 16. Once that was no longer the norm, and everybody had a high school degree, you started needing a college degree to get a decent job. Then once everybody had a college degree, that became meaningless, so you needed a master’s degree to get a decent job. And so on. But like Gramsci says, oversaturation creates a loop of devaluation. Pretty soon the US will be like Italy, where every other business card says “Dottore” on it. And the inevitable and unfortunate correlate of this phenomenon is that the greater the number of people who pursue graduate degrees, the more socially acceptable it becomes to get a graduate degree simply for the sake of having one, or simply because you don’t know what else to do with your life. And with all due respect to your upper-middle-class existential anxiety, I don’t think your indecision should be a collective social burden.
The only solution is to forget about the American dream and adopt a model of education more like the French and German models, where the kind of education you get is closely related to the kind of job you’re expecting or expected to hold. Obviously, those systems have profound issues of their own. But the bottom line is this: a democratic society is one where everybody has the possiblity of obtaining a higher education, not one where everybody actually has one. We must fight tooth and nail to ensure that everybody can go to college. But it’s completely ludicrous to work towards a society where everybody does go to college. What for? And it’s even more ludicrous to work towards a society where people have the luxury of spending 5-10 years acquiring a useless graduate degree and expecting someone else to pick up the tab. Sorry. But no.
It really comes down to the simple fact that, as of right now, nobody can force you to take up that kind of debt burden. There are pressures, yes, and lies and ideology involved. But unless you sign that piece of paper, you’re not going to end up tens of thousands of dollars in debt. The first step towards reducing the student debt crisis is for students to reduce the amount of debt they take on.
Leaving aside the more complex question of undergraduate degrees, it is absolutely and categorically imperative that people becomes more pragmatic about their decision to pursue graduate degrees. In fact, when undergraduates ask me about grad school, or when they ask me to write letters of recommendation, I tell them flat out and in no uncertain terms: only go to grad school if the career you want to pursue requires a graduate degree. Period. End of story. If it is remotely possible for you to do what you want in life without a graduate degree, good. And if you don’t know what the fuck you want to do with your life, take a year off and work at a record store while you figure it out. Or borrow $10,000 to travel and hang out for 6 months, instead of borrowing $70,000 to go to grad school for 5 years. You’ll end up with much less debt, much less anxiety, and a much clearer sense of yourself. But by taking up space and resources in graduate school just so you can figure out your life, you are not only fucking yourself over, you are helping the system to fuck over all the people who genuinely want and need the degree. You are devaluing everybody else’s degree and saddling yourself with a lifetime of debt that will almost certainly prevent you from making the kind of life choices you were dreaming off when you applied to grad school in the first place. Being on an academic schedule and having 4 months off a year doesn’t mean very much when you have to wait tables between semesters to pay off your Ph.D.
As Gramsci says in the same text I quote above, “The democratic-bureaucratic system has given rise to a great mass of functions which are not all justified by the social necessities of production, though they are justified by the political necessities of the dominant fundamental group.” The first step towards fixing the higher education system isn’t governmental, it’s personal. Stop serving the interests of the dominant fundamental group and start serving your own damn interests. Should the government help students crawl out from underneath their massive mountains of debt? Yes, it absolutely should. But the best way to escape graduate school debt is not to borrow money in the first place.