I’ve been looking over the Big Picture blog’s recent set of photos of the student protests in Chile. As I’ve come to expect from the Big Picture, it’s a stunning ensemble: Lane Turner, who runs the blog, offers a concise, informative summary paragraph on the topic portrayed and then doles out 20 or 30 clear and striking photos. But it’s also strange for me to gaze on these distant events and people, about all of which I know so little.
My ignorance, however, springs not only from my limited knowledge of the events, but also from the fact that my experiences to date don’t include anything like this. I’ve never lived through the middle of a protest or riot—the closest thing was the protest in Madison earlier this year, and I only got to observe that from a distance—and I’ve really never experienced a student protest before. It’s far from unthinkable (France in 1968 is one recent example), and many students were pretty radicalized during the Vietnam War. The protest movement Students for a Democratic Society even began at the University of Michigan.
Today, those kinds of developments seem unlikely in the United States. While the Chilean protests, a call for greater affordability and fairness in higher education, have run continuously since May and have prompted other groups to protest government policy as well, students in the United States sit by as tuition costs continue to skyrocket, and potential allies, such as organized labor, are weaker than ever.
What would it take for students to militate for similar goals in the United States? About two months ago, Bruce E. Levine struck a pretty radical tone in commenting on the matter and listed student debt, No Child Left Behind, and TV as among the barriers to the vitality and self-awareness of American youth. Without these obstacles, he says, American youth—and students in particular—would be much more likely to fight for their rights and interests. I think Levine casts his net a little too wide, but his comments on debt strike me as particularly apt:
“Large debt—and the fear it creates—is a pacifying force….Today in the United States, two-thirds of graduating seniors at four-year colleges have student-loan debt, including over 62 percent of public university graduates. While average undergraduate debt is close to $25,000, I increasingly talk to college graduates with closer to $100,000 in student-loan debt. During the time in one’s life when it should be easiest to resist authority because one does not yet have family responsibilities, many young people worry about the cost of bucking authority, losing their job, and being unable to pay an ever-increasing debt. In a vicious cycle, student debt has a subduing effect on activism, and political passivity makes it more likely that students will accept such debt as a natural part of life.”
He compares contemporary US students to student participants in the Arab Spring or the radical students of the Vietnam era, groups he claims weren’t saddled with the kind of debt we see today. Though it’s hard to draw a direct causal line from debt to passivity (surely there are other causes, too), surely these loans play a big role.
It’s hard to say how to break this vicious cycle, but if the United States were to provide free public higher education (which is certainly economically feasible, though not so politically feasible at the moment), it would benefit students in two ways: they would avoid the shackles of debt and, as a result, feel freer to protest any threat or damage to the quality of their education. If this ever happens in America, it won’t be for a long time. But if the costs of higher education ever grow large enough and the benefits few enough, students will lose their debt-induced fear and push for fairer conditions. I just hope it doesn’t come to that.
(Photo by francisco_osorio under a Creative Commons license)