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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Anti Intellectualism: A Rampant Problem

"Greed is good". This well-known line is from the fictional character Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film Wall Street. I was reminded of this line after reading about what Mitt Romney told a group of engineering students at Otterbein University. As many will have heard Romney suggested young people take risk. He said "Take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business". And how much did Romney suggest students borrow? $20,000. This amount was not pulled out of thin air--it was how much the owner of a sandwich chain, Jimmy John's, borrowed from his father to start the business. As expected people have blasted Romney for being out of touch--and for good reason.  The vast majority of parents are either broke or in debt by the time they are finished paying tuition costs. What the vast majority of people have missed is an even more objectionable comment Romney made at a round table discussion with students. Thus the statement about borrowing $20,000 is a red herring.

Speaking to a group of engineering students he told them they were in high demand. High demand meaning they will likely get jobs upon graduation. Romney then speculated about the value of other areas of study and prospects for employment. He stated: "you really don’t want to take out $150,000 loan to go into English because you’re not going to be able to pay it back. You might want to think about something else that meets your interest”.  Romney believed he could make this claim because he was an English major. I could blast Romney as many Democrats have done on borrowing $20,000 from one's parents. Instead, I will comment on why his statement r.e. English majors is significant. Romney clearly believes an degree in English is not worth $150,000 of debt. You can't pay it back. So who can major in English? Only those that can afford it. This is bad enough but Romney's statement I take to be most damning is his suggestion those that cannot afford to major in English study something else. And what would that something else be? Business, engineering, computer science and other majors with perceived "value".  Perceived value here meaning a reasonable chance to get a job and start a career.  By implication majors such as history, anthropology, sociology, english, art history and others have no value. They are not worth $150,000 of debt.

Romney's take on the value of an education is not unusual. To me, it is an indication of a corporate mentality that has firmly gripped higher education, parents and students alike.  Higher education is no longer valued. It is a means to an end. Universities hire people like me--highly educated day laborers with no job security or benefits. Good luck finding a professor with tenure. They are a rarity. More classes are now offered at night than during the day as the vast majority of students are working at least 20 hours a week to pay for tuition. Many of my students miss class because they are forced to work late. Every class I teach has at least one student sitting in the back who struggles not to fall asleep. Students are simply too busy working to put in the needed time and effort to do well in class. I cannot get angry at students--they are likely accumulating major debt to pay for tuition. They are understandably worried.

What I worry about are the broader cultural implications.  That is what does it say about American society when a person like Romney thinks a degree in English is not worth $150,000 of debt. This statement is grossly misleading. I want to know why a college degree is so expensive. I worry about the fact tuition for a four year college education has increased an astounding 827% since 1980. I want to know why student loan debt has increased by 511% since 1999. I want to know why no one is discussing student loan debt that exceeds $1 trillion dollars. When I read these statistics I can think of only one thing--capitalist society is creating a permanent class of people deeply in debt. Worse yet, students in my classes are apathetic. They know exactly what they are doing. They realize the long range implications. The constant refrain I hear from them is always the same: "there is nothing we can do. That's just the way it is".  This sort of deep depression about the future reminds of the origin of Punk music in the 1970s in the UK. In college when depressed I would play the Sex Pistols song God Save the Queen over and over.  It was the unofficial Punk rock anthem. The lyrics seem particularly relevant today:

God save the queen
The fascist regime
They made you a moron
Potential H-bomb

God save the queen
She ain't no human being
There is no future
In England's dreaming

Don't be told what you want
Don't be told what you need
There's no future, no future,
No future for you

God save the queen
We mean it ma'am
We love our queen
God saves

God save the queen
'Cause tourists are money
And our figurehead
Is not what she seems

Oh God save history
God save your mad parade
Oh Lord God have mercy
All crimes are paid

When there's no future
How can there be sin
We're the flowers in the dustbin
We're the poison in your human machine
We're the future, your future

God save the queen
We mean it ma'am
We love our queen
God saves

God save the queen
We mean it ma'am
And there is no future
In England's dreaming

No future, no future,
No future for you
No future, no future,
No future for me

No future, no future,
No future for you
No future, no future
For you

Is there no future? I do not want to believe this but will readily admit I am worried. I am worried about my students and worried about my son. What will their future hold? These worries are connected to the implications of a Republican victory in the upcoming presidential race.  If Romney wins I fear he will be given a mandate to wage a war on the poor in this country of historic proportions. Republicans, galvanized by a presidential victory, will not just slash the social safety net for the poor but eliminate it entirely. I have no doubt those close to me, people with a disability, will be among the first to be targeted. These are troubling times and we need an educated public that refuses to be misled. Perhaps that English degree is worth it.

2 comments:

Becs said...

Many years ago, I majored in English in college. I was fortunate that my parents picked up the tab for my tuition to my state school. I made the money for any extras.

Immediately after graduating, I realized that unless I wanted to be a secretary for the rest of my life, I would have to find a trade. I went to programming school.

Nothing now would make me pay $150k to go to college.

I don't think it's anti-intellectualism as much as it's class division. The rich go to school. The poor do not, without huge sacrifices or enormous luck.

william Peace said...

Becs, When we were in school tuition was expensive but not over the top. Like you, my parents were generous enough to pick up the tab. For this, I am forever grateful. I think class is a major issue now as is anti-intellectualism. Majors such as English are simply not respected. In fact given cost of college many parents tell their children what they are allowed to major in. This makes sense in a perverse way. The point I am trying to make is that a college education is valued as a means to a career. Nothing that is actually learned is respected, the education itself.