Butch Hancock, one of Austin’s finest singer-songwriters, grew up in the Texas Panhandle, out among dryland farmers and strict fundamentalist Christians. Butch once told me that he felt he’d been permanently scarred in his vulnerable teen years by the local culture’s puritanical preachings on sexual propriety: “They told us that sex is filthy, obscene, wicked, and beastly– and that we should save it for someone we love.”
Today, America’s higher education complex approaches students with the same sort of convoluted logic that guided Butch’s sex education: “A college degree is the key to prosperity for both you and your country, so it’s essential,” lectures the hierarchy to the neophytes. “But we’ll make it hard to get, and often not worth the getting.” Touted as a necessity, but priced like a luxury, many degree programs are mediocre or worse–predatory loan scams that hustle aspiring students into deep debt and poverty.
On both a human level and in terms of our national interest, that is seriously twisted. Nonetheless, it’s our nation’s de facto educational policy, promulgated and enforced by a cabal of ideologues and profiteers, including Washington politicos, most state governments, college CEOs, Wall Street financiers, and debt collection corporations. What we have is a shameful ethical collapse. These self-serving interests have intentionally devalued education from an essential public investment in the common good to just another commodity. Caveat emptor and adios, chump.
A little ancient history. Back in the olden days of 1961, I enrolled in the University of North Texas. At this public school, I was blessed with good teachers, a student body of working-class kids (most, like me, were the first in their families to go to college), and an educational culture focused on enabling us to become socially useful citizens. All of this cost me under $800 a year (about $6,250 in today’s dollars)–including living expenses! With close-to-free tuition and a part-time job, I could afford to get a good basic education, gain experience in everything from work to civic activism, make useful connections, graduate in four years, and obtain a debt-free start in life. We just assumed that’s what college was supposed to be. It still ought to be, but for most students today, it’s not even close.