I believe that American students are frustrated. They are frustrated with a public education system (k-12) that gave them only a surface level education because of our national obsession with tests, measurements and data points.1 They’re frustrated because all their lives they’ve been told that “in order to make it in America you need to go to college”, and that they or their families, or some benefactor, must pay for it as if higher education was optional and not a public good.
Also, they’re frustrated that the banking industry has been allowed to capitalize on the system and amass fortunes through exploiting the for-pay higher education system we’ve created. Indeed, we have allowed and encouraged these financial predators to loan money, backed by our government, to pay for this “necessity” as a way to “help” them, as we say, “Get There” — to the point that now national student loan debt is higher than credit card debt and has reached a staggering figure of 1 trillion dollars.2This makes our collective “need” their personal, crushing financial burden right at the beginning of their careers.3
Students are also frustrated that the cost of this educational necessity has risen immorally faster than family income rates so that bankers, and now the US government, can benefit from this aforementioned student loan scheme. 4 And they’re frustrated with publishing companies that have been allowed to exploit their captive customer base (students), year after year, on our college and university campuses all across America.5
Because of these reasons, students in America are frustrated; yet, despite this frustration, most students go along with the flow, do and pay as they’re told, spending money that they have not yet earned with the hope that the degree that they will earn will give them access to a job that will make them enough money to pay off their debts to the banks and the government, and allow them enough left over to support themselves and their families.
Compliance, however, does not indicate agreement.
When I ask students if this system is fair to them, overwhelmingly they say that it is not and I would challenge any of my colleagues to find a student who believes that the present condition of our for-pay higher education system is Just with respect to our student’s financial part. And that, I believe, is because the system is not only unfair but exploitative and immoral in its present condition.
So what is the solution to this ever expanding, ubiquitous cycle of depriving our children of their future incomes for the purpose of enriching the financial industry and expanding a failed Education-Industrial Complex?6 Organize, confront, and demand that those in power change the system so that it is “Student Success” oriented in reality and not just as a matter of sloganeering. In other words, students should organize for social justice!
Why demand Social Justice? Because our nation was organized around some noble ideals in the abstract, but these abstractions rarely have been a normal and natural part of the American experience for everyone. Our history of state-approved slavery, a widely accepted institution of American culture and economy when our nation’s founding documents were written, is the most notable example of this contradiction. From this contradiction we know that the United States was born into inequity and that this inequity is part of our history just as much as are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. In fact, it is my belief that inequity is a more central American experience for the poor than any noble ideal that we might find in those documents, and that the status quo in America accepts inequity, and its close cousin social inequality, as a collateral but cosmically inevitable part of the system. Therefore, in the ebb and flow of our history as a nation there have been periods of lesser and greater inequity and thus periods of greater or lesser struggle against it; and despite the fact that our standard of living is much higher than what we might be experiencing if we were protesting inequity in the 19th or early 20th century, social inequality in the United States is greater than ever before.7
Today, income inequality in the United States is staggering and the effects of this inequality are being felt more and more apparently by the poor.8 Furthermore, in 2008 a small but significant portion of the so-called middle class started to experience firsthand the morality of a system that accepts as inevitable gross social inequity when Wall Street was “bailed out” by our government and then, like the wicked, unforgiving servant of Matthew 18 refused, except in rare exceptions, to forgive or even help those who were indebted to them. 9 And the people were powerless to do anything about it because in the endless pursuit of power and money, our political “leaders” are very often, as the great Bill Moyer’s aptly noted: “… little more than money launderers in the trafficking of power and policy – [with] fewer than 6 degrees of separation from the spirit and tactics of Tony Soprano.” In this current political context I believe that citizens (students in this case) have every legitimate reason to be disillusioned, but that through this disillusionment they are thereby silenced. 10
Yet in spite of this, there has been from the very beginning – starting with our own Revolution – and is now undulating, a spirit of dissent, of struggle and revolution. And it is primarily this spirit of dissent that has moved us as a nation towards, and ever closer to, the ideals written down, i.e. “Democracy through Representation”, “freedom of expression”, “freedom of religion” and “the pursuit of happiness”, etc. By tapping into this spirit of dissent students must organize and demand that the system change, and that it serve THEIR interests, which are in alignment with our true National interests, and are not necessarily the interests of bankers and corrupted politicians in Washington DC.
And now I want to speak directly to students, colleagues may listen in…
So how can you as a student begin to organize and demand Social Justice? You must “Start Here”: believe that you can change things. We have the tradition and victories of the various Social Justice movements: The Civil Rights Movement, the Labor Movement, The Anti-War movements, the Environmental Movement, Consumer protections, and so on. We take heart by considering these victories and through embracing a vision of a better, more Just society instead of embracing a disillusionment that, as noted, serves the status quo by keeping you silent. Believe that through organizing and refusing to remain silently obedient that you can stop the madness and even create a government and society that is in actuality “for and by the people”—a societal condition that is, and always will be, distasteful to tyrants, whether they be autocrats, “Representatives”, CEOs, or billionaire “philanthropists”.
Once you really believe that through organizing and participating you can actually change things, you must then start talking about how the system needs to be changed with your classmates, and anyone else who will listen. Don’t just talk about what is wrong with the system, but also talk about solutions you can imagine that don’t assume that the present immoral system is inevitable, because it is not. Once people start talking to each other on campus, that’s when you can start organizing some actions for change!
What needs to be changed in higher education? Lots of stuff, but primarily it’s the issues that I have presented at the start of this article that affect you most while you are a college student. These are the problems that you face as students and it is more than apparent to me that if you do not want to continue to be robbed of your financial future through student loan debt and outrageous textbook and tuition prices, you must start talking to each other and demanding Justice from those in power. 11
Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. ~Frederick Douglass,
1 There is substantial and growing amount of data that highlights the negative effects of the current “test obsession regime” currently in control of our public schools. See http://www.fairtest.org/whats-wrong-standardized-tests-infographic
2 Texas Student Loan Debt data
3 Student Debt Nearly Tripled In 8 Years, New York Federal Reserve Reports
11 For a nuts and bolts guide on organizing on college and university campuses I recommend Campus Organizing Guide for Social Justice Groups.