No More Balls to the Face

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[The following blog contains mentions of bullying and suicide.]

Free college is a ‘socialist takeover of higher education’ and student debt cancellation is ‘wrong,’ Betsy DeVos says (MarketWatch via MSN)

I’ve never been inside of a ball pit. By the time I first heard of ball pits, I was already outside of what most people would consider their target age group, and I don’t think I even knew the location of any ball pits in Toledo until after I turned eighteen. This used to make me sad when I was younger and saw ball pits on television, but after I got on the Internet years later, I started to read stories of people like me who were constantly beaned with the balls in those ball pits until they became sobbing wrecks. After I read those stories, I realized that maybe it was a good thing that I didn’t get to check out any ball pits when I was younger.

Ball pits don’t have to be opportunities for bullies to exercise their power over others, of course, but it wasn’t like the bullies I endured in my younger years would have needed the excuse to hurt me. Particularly at a time when the whole “concussions build character” rhetoric still went largely unquestioned, I’m sure that if any adults had caught me being the target of other students in a ball pit, they would have written it off as youthful folly. If anything, they probably would have yelled at me for crying, regardless of how much pain I was in.

If there was one good thing about me being born when I was, it’s the fact that the nineties folk-rock resurgence came in my last years of high school, so I had that music to help me unfuck myself after I got out of the abattoir of a “school” I went to. At the same time, when Daria started airing a few years after that, I really wished that I’d had that show to watch in high school, since the titular character would have provided me with a much-needed template for how to deal with the stupidities and atrocities of high school. I have to wonder how much the social possibilities of the Internet would have helped me in those years if I’d had access to it, but given how much I was bullied back then, I have to admit that I’m glad I didn’t have to deal with cyberbullying during that time of my life as well.

As much as I talk with my students about their earlier school experiences, and how those experiences shaped them into becoming the people they are in their first years of college, I don’t think I can say if social conditions have gotten better or worse for young people in the past few decades, simply because I don’t have the same experiences that younger people have; as much reading and discussing as I do on these topics, it’s not the same as living through them. I certainly think there are lots of legitimate reasons to worry — the documented effects of cyberbullying, the rising rates of teen and pre-teen suicide, so many of the changes to our broader culture in the past six years — but as much as I try to pay attention to these things, I can’t say that I feel like I’m the best arbiter for saying how much worse, or better, these aspects of being young have gotten in my lifetime.

What I can say, though, is that for better or worse, things do change. People look at the way something is done, decide that they don’t like it, and work to make changes. Sometimes that work succeeds, and sometimes it doesn’t, but the point is that change is possible. A lot of life is trying to figure out what changes are important enough to use our limited time here to fight for, and for all of the critical thinking skills I try to impart to my students, and for all I try to apply the things I teach them to their “real lives” outside of academia, the processes of figuring out what things are worth fighting to change is something I’ve never been able to figure out how to teach my students, and I suspect that trial-and-error may be the best, if not the only, way for people to figure that out for themselves.

The broader political movements of the last fifty years have done a lot to convince most people that they don’t have the power to change much more than the clothes they wear and the music they listen to. Generations of learned helplessness have allowed those who already had power to amass even more power, to the point where they now have much more ability to shut down the people who would dare to change things against the powerful. If this pandemic has taught us anything, though, I hope that it has taught us to question our underlying assumptions about the whole “that’s just the way things are” rhetoric, and how the powerful use that rhetoric to trap people into uncritically accepting that those things can never be changed.

As I’ve been researching the evolution of American colleges over the past half-century for my future writing projects (again, please join my Patreon for exclusive updates on that work), it’s become clearer and clearer to me just how the powerful were able to turn higher education into more and more of a privilege than a right, especially by pricing so many young people out of it. I was somewhat aware of the larger chain of events that led to where we are today with tuition prices and such, but studying concurrent events has really opened my eyes as to how we got to the point where so many people — myself included — are lugging around these huge student debt loads that significantly restrain our future life choices, even those of us who were lucky enough to get good educations and good jobs from our college experiences.

For those who stand to profit from saddling young people with massive debts for their college educations — not just the banks, but also those who use those crushing debt loads to wage psychological warfare on the debtors — there’s an obvious incentive to talk like this process is “just the way things are,” and to speak as if it’s always been the case that getting a college education always necessitated these huge lifetime financial burdens. Not only is it far from true that higher education was always as expensive as it is today, but it doesn’t have to be today. If governments still funded colleges and universities like they did fifty years ago, tuitions wouldn’t be nearly as high as they are today, fewer students would need to take out significant loans to complete their degrees, and we Americans wouldn’t be nearly as pliable as we are today since fewer of us would be living in constant fear of losing our homes and cars. We’ve operated that way before, and we can do it again.

More to the point, for those of us who are living under that fear that’s been put into us by the powerful, we can choose to relieve that fear, in whole or in part, by directly attacking the student loan monster that looms like a colossus over much of this nation. Just as easily as we “choose” to spend our tax monies on endless wars and corporate welfare, we can choose to undo the damage that remains from the past fifty years of attacks on the financial underpinnings of higher education. Those who say otherwise — and Betsy DeVos is just one of the most visible purveyors of this nonsense — are not only wrong, but morally repugnant as well.

Maybe if more adults had made sure that bullies didn’t attack other children in ball pits, I would still be able to feel like I missed out on something by not getting to play in one when I was younger. I can’t change that, any more than I can change that I didn’t get to live that part of my life with Daria Morgendorffer as a role model, but I can do my part now to call attention to the problems of bullying and cyberbullying, and try to make life easier for the young children of today who shouldn’t have to be bullied like I was at that age. We can all do our part now to stop the powerful from continuing to bully us with student loan debts. The only people who say that’s not possible (or “ethical” or what have you) are the ones who stand to profit the most from our continued misery. There’s enough misery in this world as it is, without the architects of this byzantine student loan system making matters worse for the rest of us.

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