Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are already vowing to do something about student loan debt. This is why the $1.6 trillion issue could play a big part in the 2020 election.
College is more than a launch pad to the middle class. It demands intellectual growth and the critical thinking needed to defend against disinformation.
Marching in the rain during our strike a few years ago, I passed a young man standing against a school gate handing out wet copies of a communist newspaper. Why, he asked the striking teachers, waste our collective energies and outrage on salaries and working conditions when the whole global capitalist system needs obliterating?
We marched right past him. We just wanted a little more pay and slightly smaller classes and were eager to return to our students and motivate the apathetic, counsel the emotionally fragile and mitigate adolescent rage.
I think teachers tend to be mostly more pragmatic than ideological. At least I am. When I hear about the battle within the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party, I always expect to find myself on the side of moderation.
At this moment, though, I really don’t. More accurately, I don’t find much of what progressives are pleading for terribly radical, and I don’t find opposition to it very moderate — or pragmatic.
Health care without bankruptcy?
Urban policing without atrocity?
Human activity without climate catastrophe?
Why is any of this controversial? Have politics and morality and even self-preservation become so infected with emotion and so misinformed that so many among us can no longer make rational choices or understand their own self-interest?
Timing is everything and often unfair
Which brings me to another inexplicable controversy: affordable college education.
The latest iteration of that debate is the proposed cancellation of federal student loan debt, opposed loudly by those who’ve already paid off their college debts or worked their way through college, or whose parents mortgaged their houses or borrowed on their retirement to pay tuition.
Call it the “Why now?” argument — and it applies equally to the more meaningful question of subsidizing free college options in every state in the country. Would that be fair to those of us, students and parents, who’ve invested thousands, in some cases hundreds of thousands, in college education?
Of course it’s not fair. Nor is it fair that in 1975, annual tuition and fees for the University of California were about $630 (which adjusted for inflation is over $3,000) and UC tuition and fees now are over $14,000. Timing is everything in college tuition and job and housing markets — and no one gets to choose the economic conditions into which each of us or anyone else is born.
Nonetheless, the cost of college impacts all of us. And if Democrats, whatever the accompanying adjective, want to expand their base and maybe win back the Senate, and keep the House and White House, they ought to consider that Republicans in general and Donald Trump in particular have a wide advantage with noncollege-educated voters. The power of the Democrats could well rest in how many people get a post-secondary education — and the prohibitive cost of a college education might well be a political liability.
Beyond that, making college accessible to everyone could be essential to preserving our democracy. In the 21st century economy, a college degree is increasingly connected to individual economic mobility and sustainability. That’s a reality highlighted by disparities during the pandemic, when most of the unemployment and other hardship have stricken those without a college degree holding jobs that most likely cannot be performed remotely.
The alienation of long-term unemployment and underemployment, poverty and food insecurity is a direct threat to democracy. If we are ever going to return to the stability of a thriving middle class, we must make college more accessible. College is more than a potential launching pad to the middle class. At its best, college demands — and sometimes inspires — intellectual growth, an understanding of science and history, and critical thinking.
If you don’t believe any of that is in short supply, look at the grim COVID-19 data and ask yourself why so many people still won’t take it seriously, listen to scientists or understand the exponential math of how a virus spreads.
Critical thinking is our best defense
Self-governance requires an electorate made up of people who can think for themselves, especially at a time of increasingly sophisticated disinformation, spewed from the highest levels of our own government and from the troll farms of our enemies. The only reliable defense against these attacks might well be our collective critical reasoning.
We can reasonably question how effective college is at developing the critical reasoning of all its students; higher learning can almost certainly do better. We can reasonably question why anyone needs college to learn how to think and why high schools aren’t doing a better job.
High school teachers actually do teach critical reasoning, and what I’ve observed is that we are most successful with students who have college ambitions. Not because they are smarter (they aren’t), but because most of them are the first in their family with the goal of a post-secondary education. The fear that they might not be prepared compels them to learn to think on a higher level and to aspire to an informed understanding of the world around them.
The more affordable that goal is, the more young people can believe in it and the more motivated they will be to study science, understand history and the Constitution, and develop the self-defense skills of distinguishing between reliable information and propaganda.
If free college or loan forgiveness is a radical idea, then let’s not forget that so is democracy itself.
Larry Strauss has been a high school English teacher in South Los Angeles since 1992. Twitter: @LarryStrauss
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