EMPIRE AND EDUCATION ARE CLOSELY LINKED
Schools and Empire
An Interview with Daniel T. Kirsch
Our higher-education system is at a crossroads. America’s impressive college enrollment rate—almost two-thirds of high school completers enroll within one year of graduation—is very high by world standards, and the United States is the largest net exporter of higher education services in the world. Yet fundamental problems have come to the surface.
Do American schools suit their purpose? Are we teaching the right skills? Are we teaching effectively, or fairly? Have we burdened our higher-ed students with debt and unmarketable skills? Have American schools become disconnected from economic reality? Is the lower-cost German model, with its emphasis on apprenticeship, something we should do more of? Other countries teach at lower costs, more emphasis on STEM, and more direct connection to students’ economic benefit than do our liberal arts universities.
Covid-19, globalization, and sharp divisions about American identity are about to redirect our schools in ways none of us can know. This is a good time to re-assess our schools, and the powerful ways in which the processes of empire are linked to education.
Another aspect of what we might call American imperial education is our exporting of our style of schooling to the rest of the world. “Education is one of America’s most important global investments, not just because it’s the right thing to do—it’s also the smartest,” states the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. “Investing in education globally, especially for girls and women, is one of the best investments we can make,” adds Rebecca Winthrop of the Brookings Institute, “and has a high return, with benefits across a range of areas—from global security to poverty reduction and economic stability to women’s empowerment and improved global health.”
Issues of power are enacted in the classroom.
It was said that the leaders of the British Empire were produced on the playing fields of Eton, asserting class over merit through the American schools have traditionally has been the merit-based instruments of upward mobility. Today, nations like Germany, Japan and Austria are re-thinking higher education to suit those society’s changing needs. Germany in particular emphasizes trade school and apprenticeships over a broad liberal arts curriculum. Other nations place great emphasis on educating girls, attempting to correct a long-standing gender gap in global schools.
If the critical component in the idea of empire is the clash of cultures, with one culture subsuming another, then schools are at the heart of any nation, any empire. For America, higher ed has produced the relatively new phenomenon of reverse empire — students coming from India and China to learn at American universities, then return home to strengthen those economies as they compete with American enterprise.
Education is about to change again. The advent of distance learning in the Covid age forces us all to reconsider what education is, for whom and towards what end.
Three recent works shine a light on several key aspects of this sprawling and important topic. Through even a very brief consideration of them, we can get a glimpse at a range of issues central to American nation and identity.
In Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, MacArthur Award–winning author Lisa Delpit looks closely at the American classroom and finds that power and politics are very much present.
Lisa Delpit develops ideas about ways teachers can be better “cultural transmitters.” In her breakdown of classroom dynamics, with its echoes of Edward Said, she offers several axioms of classroom dynamics (which I have simplified here):
a) Issues of power are enacted in the classroom
b) there is a code for participating in the culture of power
c) if you are not a participant in the culture of power, being explicitly told the rules helps
d) those with power are frequently the least aware of its existence. Those with the least power are the most aware.
Those with power are frequently the least aware of its existence.
Ms. Delpit uses case studies from Alaska and New Guinea to buttress her arguments concerning cultural transmission, language, and cross-cultural confusion. To correct the power imbalances which haunt the American society and reverberate in classrooms, one suggestion she points to is ethnographic analysis, giving voice to alternative worldviews.
A second landmark book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, argues that the underlying architecture of our school system is flawed. Author Diane Ravitch kicks down pillars of American education: the rapid privatization of American schools; the Common Core; a national curriculum; standardized testing; the replacement of teachers by technology; charter schools; and vouchers.
Here is a sampling of Ravitch’s strong medicine:
Our schools will not improve if we only value what tests measure.
Our schools will not improve if we continually reorganize their structure and management without regard for their essential purpose.
Our schools will not improve if elected officials intrude into pedagogical territory and make decisions that should be made by professional educators.
Our schools will not improve if we continue to focus on reading and mathematics while ignoring the other studies that are essential elements of a good education.
The most durable way to improve our schools is to improve the lives of children, families and communities.
In a third book, Sold My Soul for a Student Loan, political scientist Daniel T. Kirsch spotlights a most immediate prospect, the rapid impoverishment of America’s student body. Rather than provide upward mobility, our entrepreneurial higher ed system can provide the opposite outcome: young graduates leaving school in debt and without marketable skills. In the interview below, Professor Kirsch discusses a pressing issue that may prove to be a catalyst for change across U.S higher ed.
Daniel T. Kirsch Interview
What is the thesis of “Sold My Soul for a Student Loan”?
My book explores the world of student debt using a technique in social science we call ethnography. I interviewed borrowers, creditors, the people who issue the loans, those who set the interest rates for the loans, policy makers, attorneys, advocates and teachers who work in this system. Some of these folks actively do the hard work of trying to help individual borrowers, some are sounding the alarm in any way they can about this crisis and demanding solutions, and some give a history of how we have arrived at this very unfortunate point.
My findings are discouraging. Today we have roughly 50 million people with student loan debt. That means that chances are there’s someone in your immediate family with student loan debt. The average amount that new borrowers are borrowing to finance their bachelor’s degrees is about $30,000 and if you finance any kind of graduate degree it’s usually double that.
We have saddled a substantial portion of our population with payments of four and five hundred dollar per month for the rest of their lives. There is a significant portion of people who have had their lives and their financial futures significantly impacted in a negative way by their decision to finance their education with federally guaranteed loans.
Additionally, these student borrowers may or may not be qualified for the current job market. The education for which they have gone into debt does not always benefit them well in this economy, which then undermines both faith in the economy and in higher education itself! This is unnecessary and unfair, as higher education has adapted thoroughly to this market and this social world. What is at the root of this is far more conventional, which is predatory lending by banks and, unfortunately a system facilitated by federal government policy that also encourages predatory lending with little regard for its victims.
You write that the student debt crisis “is perhaps the latest symptom of the slow death of the American Dream.” American schools were once the engine of upward mobility. What changed?
Several things changed. For one, college tuitions have skyrocketed since the 1940’s and the advent of the GI bill. Low-cost higher education that is available to all is what the author Marilynne Robinson calls “America’s Best Idea,” but we have shifted away from that ideal. Public universities like the University of California at Berkeley and the City University of New York didn’t even charge tuition in the 1950’s. Today, Berkeley’s out-of-state tuition is $44,000.
A second change has taken place in the mission of higher education. Colleges and universities were once the engines of upward mobility towards not only towards not only a better skill set but also a better life. The liberal arts were seen to act as a kind of democratizing force.
Thirdly, large banks have lobbied for changes in American student-loan policies, like the de facto inability to discharge student loans in a bankruptcy. The banks’ willingness to participate in a student loan system that was that was by its very nature predatory is a relatively recent development.
What are the possible solutions for the student-debt crisis?
In the book’s final chapter of the book after I spend a lot of time talking about different solutions that are advocated, I call for a universal policy of federal student loan forgiveness, which is not as radical as it sounds. Every president since Nixon has engaged in a widespread forgiveness or amnesty program, like Ford and Carter granting forgiveness to Vietnam War draft dodgers, Reagan signing a bill for undocumented immigrants to be granted legal status, and George W. Bush providing a modest mortgage loan forgiveness program during the financial crisis of 2008. All that would be missing for such a program to take root today is political will.
Income-based repayment allows people to only pay a portion of what they can afford to pay and based on a formula, but it doesn’t allow them to pay down the principal. It doesn’t necessarily cover the interest payments, so the principal can keep growing. It does forgive the balance of the debt after twenty-five years, but right now that forgiveness would be treated as income for one taxable year, so it doesn’t help everyone.
Another proposal, by Elizabeth Warren and others, called for the first $50,000 of federally-held student debt to be forgiven. That would help the vast majority of student debtors.
Cancellation or forgiveness of the vast majority of student debt that’s held by the federal government it simply is the right financial, economic, political, and social choice. President Biden has signaled that he is open to some degree of student loan debt forgiveness, but unfortunately even the most modest proposal he endorsed, forgiving $10,000 to federal student loan debtors, was very quickly dropped in early federal budget negotiations in 2021. There is hope of a legal route right now, as the courts are currently debating what constitutes an “undue burden” to keep up debt repayments on borrowers who are attempting to discharge their student debt in bankruptcy. As long as there are federal student loan programs that grant loans to students with impunity, especially at for-profit private colleges that advertise on television, this trillion-dollar-plus problem will continue to grow. Only with public pressure from political parties, labor unions, public-interest organizations and independent social movements, all of which are documented thoroughly in the book, will any of these solutions put a stop to this crisis for so many millions of people.
So we’ll see.