Saturday, September 03, 2022

It's About The Social Order...,

zacharydcarter |  So why all the vitriol over student debt? When we argue about student debt, we aren't really debating credit policy, inflation, growth or the separation of powers under the U.S. Constitution. All of these avenues of discussion are elaborate detours around the central issue: the structure of the American social order.  

In the United States, a college degree is about much more than securing a higher wage. People without college degrees aren't just excluded from a lot of jobs that pay well. They're more likely to be laid off and less likely to be hired during recessions. They're less likely to have health insurance, and more likely to have a disability (the causal arrow there probably points both ways, but the combination is particularly cruel). People who do not graduate from college even have shorter life expectancies than people who do. Higher education is perhaps the single most important factor in determining who has access to a financially secure lifestyle and the leisure to pursue intellectually interesting activities. A college degree confers respect and prestige. 

In a better world, the simple fact of being human would command equal respect for everyone. That is not our world, but we can imagine such a place and work toward realizing it. Prestige, by contrast, is inherently exclusive. The less there is to go around, the better it is for the people who have it. And so the more people we exclude from higher education, the more secure people with college degrees will feel about their place in society.

The recent student debt freak-out reminds me a lot of God and Man at Yale -- the 1951 memoir that launched William F. Buckley into the conservative intellectual stratosphere. It's remarkably bad for a book that has a reputation as a political classic -- a wealthy conservative Catholic goes to Yale and is horrified to find Protestants and Keynesians. What, pray, can the Board of Trustees do to save our dear, beloved Yale? The ideological material is generic McCarthyism, the writing is flat (Buckley would get better at that), and the entire project is preoccupied with weird provincial details. At one point he even complains about the vending machines. The literary establishment basically laughed at it, with both The New York Times and The Atlantic running devastating reviews.

But God and Man at Yale became a publishing sensation. After World War II, millions of new college students arrived on campuses around the country to receive an education funded by the G.I. Bill. Suddenly, an experience that had once been restricted almost exclusively to the very rich became open to infantrymen. And though the vast majority of colleges and universities continued to exclude Black students, millions of white people who had never dreamed of going to college eventually earned degrees. For many prior graduates, this step toward democratization was threatening. Their credential was being diluted. Buckley's book about the waywardness of newfangled university life spoke to this new and unexpected status anxiety among the American upper-class, and so it flew off the shelves.

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