Saturday, June 15, 2013

Fear and Loathing in the Golden State

The Sacramento Bee recently reported that Assembly Speaker John Perez’ program for middle class scholarships has been savaged by the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office.  I think that’s perfectly fair, because while the idea of providing scholarships for those most obviously hit by the severe spikes in tuition at our University system in the past decade sounds nice enough, what it actually does is undermine the communitarian principle which has historically underpinned access to our public institutions. 

It’s a classic casing of attacking the symptom rather than the real ill—the spectacular rise in tuition driven by an apathetic public, a disempowered legislature, and a broken governing structure. 

If, like me, you might take the idea of public funding of higher education for granted as a sensible way to generate an empowered citizenry, a well-trained workforce, and an intelligent society, you need go no further than the ‘comments’ section of the Bee article cited above to remind yourself that there are plenty of people out there who quite literally hate the idea of public institutions, public contributions, and the public good. 

A sampling of the comments:

“Want to make college more affordable?  1. Stop handing out free money allowing colleges to feed at the trough. As long as you give students free money to spend, the colleges are going to jack up the rates.  2. Stop handing out money to criminal aliens. They should not only be identified and deported, but should not be getting in-State tuition.  3. Stop funding students who are in school for more than four years. If you can't get your degree in four years, then you need motivation to get serious and get out”.

“STOP SPENDING (WASTING) MY MONEY! Every new govt. spending program means more taxes to fund it. Those of us who have to pay these ridiculous state taxes don't have any more left for you libs to steal”.

“Higher education (anything above the 12th grade) is not a right. It is not a priveledge. It is a responsibility. The responsibility of parents. And if the parents can't afford it, it's the responsibility of the individual. Oh how I wish we lived in a time when society demanded people take care of themselves”.

“College loans and assistance just means that colleges don't have to compete with the product they offer. They are, in fact, being subsidized by the American taxpayer and to add insult to injury the price of their product increases at rate that is double that of inflation. Not a dime more!”

“Lets be frank. This is nothing more than a giveaway to minority poor by a minority legislator, who hates self made hard working Californians and believes that the minority poor are once again entitled to free stuff.  Thus, another program that encourages reliance on government and discourages personal accountability”.

Some of these points are so commonly thrown about in the public sphere that they’re worth answering, however deliberately cynical and inaccurate.

In the first place of course, this isn’t about giving students “money to spend”, but rather paying for tuition (other less hysterical commentators wondered why it wouldn’t make more sense to direct funds towards lowering tuition across the board, a very sensible query).  The reason, of course, why so many students are at university for more than four years is precisely the increased tuition burden.  Many of my students work multiple part- or full-time jobs whilst studying.  Cuts to higher education over the past decades has also reduced course offerings, meaning that it can be difficult for students to get into the courses they needed, a difficulty which is compounded when they are forced to juggle university commitments with those to their employers.

Then of course, there is the anti-tax whine about “my money” being “stolen”.  This mentality disregards the fact that earlier generations—particularly baby boomers—were beneficiaries of massive public investment and support, of the very sort they are seeking to deny successive generations.  In most societies, there is some recognition that individual wealth was produced by combined efforts and required community support.  The corollary is that as individuals we are required to give back to the community, and the most sensible manner of doing so is through taxes.

Then there are those who would have us return to a society entirely defined by an individual’s social class at birth, who believe that higher education should be a “privilege” available to those whose parents can support them.  The fondness for a society which “demanded people take care of themselves” takes no account of the abuse, inequality, and exploitation that such a society metes out to its weaker members. 

In between was the genius who thought s/he was exposing something hidden by pointing out that public universities are subsidised by the taxpayers.  That is, of course, the whole point of public institutions.  The idea being that an education system which saw itself as a marketplace would model itself on the Ivies, and turn a gigantic profit by educating a handful of supremely wealthy and privileged people, thereby doing no duty by the public.  Incidentally, a central reason for the increase in the “price” of universities’ “product” has to do with disinvestment from the public.  The cost of educating students has gone up, but more importantly, the support from the public has declined precipitately, shoving the burden of that cost onto students. 

And then there are those who see racial conspiracy in every move, unaware as they wallow in their hatred that California’s demographic shifts will mean that they will themselves shortly become minorities in an increasingly diverse society, in which more than ever before the identification and pursuit of a shared public interest will define our ability to live a dream that is restricted by neither class, race, nor the burdens of the tired hatred that defines too much of today’s political discourse. 

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