America, land of the brain-damaged and debt-enslaved

Is it any surprise that we Americans treat animals and the natural world so badly, given the way we treat even our own cherished children?

This week there were two grim news stories illustrating the callousness of American society towards its young adults.

The first was a disturbing column by Nicholas Kristof revealing to the public what research scientists have known for a while: the skyrocketing rates of PTSD and suicide among young veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are due not to mental instability, but to the physical effects of repeated exposure to shock waves caused by bomb detonations.

The military is in the process of performing autopsies on veterans who committed suicide, and so far an alarming number of them have shown evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), a degenerative disease of the brain best known for affecting boxers and football players who endure repeated concussions.

“In people with C.T.E.,” writes Kristof, “an abnormal form of a protein accumulates and eventually destroys cells throughout the brain, including the frontal and temporal lobes. Those are areas that regulate impulse control, judgment, multitasking, memory and emotions.”

In other words, even young soldiers who return home physically intact may in fact be suffering from the hidden effects of shock wave concussions, which will destroy their lives over time; apparently the disease “typically develops in midlife, decades after exposure. If we are seeing C.T.E. now in war veterans, we may see much more in the coming years,” says Kristof.

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Number two, we learned yesterday that the combined student debt in the United States reached $1 trillion. 

Occupy Wall Street demonstrators participating in a street-theater production wear signs around their neck representing their student debt during a protest against the rising national student debt in Union Square, in New York, April 25, 2012. The protest eventually marched to Wall Street; two people were arrested during the protest. REUTERS/Andrew Burton

I can’t even wrap my mind around a number that big, but one thing I can understand is that this is an egregious example of how we as a society are condemning our best and brightest young people to spending the best years of their lives in debt bondage to the banks.

For the wealthy, college and graduate school continue to serve as playgrounds for the young, a place to have fun, learn a few things and pair up before joining the family business.

For the rest of us, college is an essential step along the road to personal and professional success.  It’s not optional, and the price tag just keeps rising, while the ability of parents to pay for their children’s higher education keeps falling.

And so we find kids still in their teens signing loans for tens of thousands of dollars.  It is not uncommon for these kids to find themselves, just a few years later, with a B.A. and $200,000 worth of debt.

If you have ever tried to pay the interest on that much debt on a typical entry-level salary, you know that it’s nearly impossible.  Certainly it’s daunting to try to achieve the American dream—the car, the house, the spouse and two kids—with that kind of stranglehold of debt around your neck.

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So this is the way we treat our precious children in America.

In a new twist on “friendly fire,” we send them to war without even realizing the longterm effects that our fancy new bombs will have on them.

And we blithely tell them that a) a college education is the only way to get ahead; and b) if you want one, you have to get in line at the loan office and spend the first 20 years of your working life paying off that interest.

There is something deeply, hauntingly wrong with this picture.

And you know what the worst thing is?  There is no widespread outrage about it!

If you are a young person, a parent, or any person with a conscience, you should be working furiously to end war and to end debt bondage for students.

How?

Well, start by standing up and saying NO MORE!!!!

President Obama, looking for solutions on student debt, should not overlook the issue of contingent faculty labor

The student protests around the country have been focused largely on three key concerns: the high cost of a college education, the resulting weight of student debt after graduation, and the scarcity of jobs.

Put together, it’s a recipe for frustration, if not outright desperation.  Students who lack substantial family support these days have to make incredibly tough sacrifices to get their B.A. degrees, and with no jobs at the end of the tunnel, many are rightly asking–is it worth it?

A lot of thoughtful people have been considering this very question for some time now.  On Monday at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, there will be a panel discussion on “The Fate of Civic Education in a Connected World,” featuring, among others, Ellen Condliffe Lagemann of Bard College, who just co-edited a book called What is College For? The Public Purpose of Higher Education.

In the book, Lagemann and co-author Harry Lewis argue that colleges and universities need to renew their commitment to fostering ethical, responsible student engagement with the public sphere.  Higher education should not just be a credential to string around one’s neck, the passport to a decent job, they say, but should challenge students to think deeply about their role as citizens and stakeholders in society.

This message certainly seems timely.  If getting a college degree can no longer be valued in purely instrumental terms, as a ticket to a job, then it had better be providing some deeper value, both for the students and for society.

On the same day as the Harvard panel, President Obama will be meeting at the White House with a group of ten influential college and university presidents, along with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other key players in higher education, to discuss “increasing access and success as well as how to make higher education  more affordable,” according to an article in today’s online Inside Higher Ed magazine.

The article says that “amid an increasing focus on student debt and college prices, the event seems to signal that the Obama administration will make the issue a focus going into the 2012 campaign. In a speech Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called on colleges to address rising tuition prices “with much greater urgency.” The House of Representatives held a subcommittee hearing Tuesday on rising costs, discussing a broad range of possible solutions.”

As someone who has been teaching in higher education for more than 20 years, I am of course concerned about the rising costs for students.

But I’m also concerned with the way budgets are increasingly being balanced by reducing fulltime tenured faculty teaching lines.

The phenomenon of using adjunct faculty, graduate student teaching assistants, temporary “visiting” faculty and any other form of contingent labor available is under-discussed, both within the institutions perpetrating these practices, and in the broader society.

Within the institutions, it’s under-discussed partly because it’s so humiliating for Ph.Ds, respected scholars when they present their research at conferences or publish articles, to admit how little money they’re making as adjunct or visiting faculty.  College adjunct teachers are typically paid $2,000 to $4,000 a course.  Most faculty teach 3-4 courses a semester.  You do the math.

Also, there’s the fear factor: if you speak out, your contract may not be renewed next semester, or next year.  There is no job security for what we call in the business “term contracts.”

At the White House meeting, the college presidents aren’t going to want to tell the President that they’re reigning in the cost of tuition by hiring contingent faculty at bargain basement salaries.  But that’s the truth of the matter.

And it’s been very difficult for adjuncts to unionize, in part because the Labor Board in recent years has ruled that college and university faculty are “managers” because we make a salary rather than an hourly wage, and get to set our own hours. Managers aren’t entitled to a union.

There are a host of reasons why it’s bad for American higher education to use cheap faculty labor.  If we want to get serious about student success, as the Obama Administration claims, focusing on contingent faculties would be a good starting point.

A harried professor who’s working at two or three institutions to barely make ends meet is not going to do as a good a job for her students as someone making a living wage with a longterm contract at a single institution.

American institutions of higher education need to model the kind of society we want our students to create when they move out into the world as newly minted young citizens.  They won’t want to be temporary workers any more than their teachers do.

President Obama, if you really want to make a difference, you need to push those college presidents for deeper, systemic changes.

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