To Be an American Student in 2012

Cartoon by R. J. Matson: Weighed Down by Massive Student DebtMassive indebtedness changes a person, maybe even more than a college education does, and it’s reasonable to suspect that the politicos who have allowed the tuition disaster to take its course know this. To saddle young people with enormous, inescapable debt – total student debt is now more than one trillion dollars – is ultimately to transform them into profit-maximizing machines. I mean, working as a schoolteacher or an editorial assistant at a publishing house isn’t going to help you chip away at that forty grand you owe. You can’t get out of it by bankruptcy, either. And our political leaders, lost in a fantasy of punitive individualism, certainly won’t propose the bailout measures they could take to rescue the young from the crushing burden.

What will happen to the young debtors instead is that they will become Homo economicus, whether or not they studied that noble creature. David Graeber, the anthropologist who wrote the soon-to-be-classic Debt: The First 5,000 Years, likens the process to a horror movie, in which the zombies or the vampires attack the humans as a kind of recruitment policy. “They turn you into one of them,” as Graeber told me.

Actually, they do worse than that. Graeber relate the story of a woman he met who got a Ph.D. from Columbia University, but whose $80,000 debt load put an academic career off-limits, since adjuncts earn close to nothing. Instead, the woman wound up working as an escort for Wall Street types. “Here’s someone who ought to be a professor,” Graeber explains, “doing sexual services for the guys who lent her the money.”

The story hit home for me, because I, too, wanted to be a professor once. I remember the waves of enlightenment that washed over me in my first few years in college, the ecstasy of finally beginning to understand what moved human affairs this way or that, the exciting sense of a generation arriving at a shared sensibility. Oh, I might have gone on doing that kind of work forever, whether or not it made me rich, if journalism had not intervened.

It’s hard to find that kind of ecstasy among the current crop of college graduates. The sensibility shared by their generation seems to revolve around student debt, which has been clamped onto them like some sort of interest-bearing iron maiden. They’ve been screwed – that’s what their moment of enlightenment has taught them.

As for my own cohort, or at least the members of it who struggled through and made it to one of the coveted positions in the knowledge factory, the new generational feeling seems to be one of disgust. Our enthusiasm for learning, which we trumpeted to the world, merely led the nation’s children into debt bondage. Consider the remarks of Nicholas Mirzoeff, a professor of media at New York University, who sums up the diminishing returns of the profession on his blog: “I used to say that in academia one at least did very little harm. Now I feel like a pimp for loan sharks.”

Thomas Frank
The Price of Admission
Harper’s Magazine, June 2012

Cartoon by R.J. Matson

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