|Education is discipline, and debt is consumerism. We learn |
to consume and live by our debts.
Photo credit: beware of images
Maybe you've noticed the picture of Noam Chomsky accompanying a quote from an unidentified source that has been making the rounds on Facebook and a number of websites. I've tried to find where the quote came from, and the best I can tell is that it was from an article in the Ottawa Citizen that no longer has a working link from back in 2011. I've also found links back to the Chomsky Quotes Tumblr, but was unable to find the exact source there either. Regardless of exactly where the quote came from, or even if Chomsky said or wrote it, the message is still compelling, and fits well with the emerging movement to alleviate student debt on a national level.
The meme-ing quote reads:
Students who acquire large debts putting themselves through school are unlikely to think about changing society. When you trap people ina system of debt they can't afford the time to think. Tuition Fee increases are a disciplinary technique, and by the time students graduate, they are not only loaded with debt, but have also internalized the disciplinarian culture. This makes them efficient components of the consumer economy.In my mind, the quote is a little all over the place, and could probably use some context (hence my curiosity about where it came from). Still, I think it captures the attention for linking debt, discipline, and mindless consumerism. Again, being unsure about the context of the quote, I hesitate to offer much critique, other than to criticize those who continue to share it without including a source. At least the quote is attributed, but without the source, it retains little of its original value. What remains worth some further comment are those three primary concepts: debt, discipline, and consumerism.
I've already come out in support of the Strike Debt campaign (which is buying up student debt and not collecting on it, essentially "eating" the debt), and the need to rethink the entire student debt problem. I realize that many do not share my position, that education is a human right that should be free. At the very least, I believe that student loans should be interest-free - I don't believe that banks (or anyone else for that matter) should be able to make a profit when someone chooses to further their education.
To illustrate how out of hand the entire student-loan debacle has become, I will share some details provided by a close friend, who shared a recent letter she received from Sallie Mae, the bank through which she had consolidated her student loans. Her original loan at the time of consolidation was about $22,000 US. While enrolled continuously as a full-time student in graduate school, the loan accrued interest, and is now nearly $28,000 US. Sallie Mae sent her a letter informing that payments on the loan would be expected starting later this year (during which time she will still be working on her dissertation, but no longer a full-time "student"). They only require a payment of about $200 US per month, however, they more than double their money over the life of the loan (the estimated interest on the loan is over $20,000 US, and the final total amount to be repaid is over $48,000 US). In my mind, and the mind's of many others, it's very difficult to justify such profit on eduction, especially when the bank played no role in the actual education.
So in short, yes, there is a student loan problem (student debt reached $1 trillion US recently), and yes, such debt severely hampers a student's freedom. Mired in debt that they have been led to believe they must repay before they even have a job, does not allow students much flexibility as far as what they want to do with themselves. The answer for students appears all too clear: work. Get a job. Any job. And we all know that in the new service economy, jobs aren't quite paying what they used to. But the bigger point, and bringing it back to the Chomsky quote, is that herein lies the discipline part of things. Students are disciplined to fall in line with the system. They are taught (disciplined to believe) that they have no other choice.
The very purpose of the educational system - any educational system - is discipline. Through education, children are taught the correct way to act and behave to best succeed in a given social environment. Education is a form of discipline. French social theorist Michel Foucault most famously explained discipline as a means to create "docile" bodies (people) that can be ordered, trained, observed, and controlled. Discipline works, because if we fall out of line, we are subject to punishment - in the form of fines, physical abuse, and imprisonment. For most, simply the threat of punishment is enough for them to accept their discipline. In the end, we have all been disciplined by our education, no matter how much of it we may have achieved - or should it be received?
So where then, do student debt and discipline connect back to consumerism? In actuality, this connection is what links all the concepts together. In the contemporary US, the model citizen is the consuming citizen. To best fulfill your obligations as a citizen, you must partake in the consumer economy, even if that means going into debt. In fact, debt is an accepted and expected part of life. In simple terms, we are disciplined to consume our way into debt, followed with the threat of punishment if we do not honor that debt. Student debt has emerged as the latest trend in bringing younger and younger people into that system of debt peonage. Today, students are disciplined into the debt system before they've ever made it to the work force.
Why does any of this matter, you might ask. As Chomsky notes, a student burdened by debt is probably less likely to devote time to activism and change. The burden of debt is actually the burden of punishment. Nobody wants to go to jail. For most, the discipline of debt can not be escaped. Banks like Salie Mae can legally garnish your wages - that is, if you earn a paycheck, they can legally take part of it. How else to survive today, except through work and earning a paycheck? And yet our debts, including our student debts keep us in a state of struggle. It's also critical to remember that our struggles serve to make others wealthy. By "allowing" us to borrow money for education, the rich (the banks and bankers) continue to get richer, and the poor remained disciplined by their debts. Our students are not in debt to their educational institutions, the teachers, their parents, or their neighbors, but to the banks. And that's why all of this is important - by holding us in debt, the banks are effectively undermining the power of education, and at the same time, controlling the masses.