The Callous System of Student Debt and the Structure of the “Free Market”

Interview with William Hodgkinson

Breakwater Review, May 14, 2013

William Hodgkinson: Professor Chomsky, what do you think are some of the root causes of student debt in this country?
Noam Chomsky: Well we can rule some things out. I don’t think you can make a case that it’s an economic reason. There’s pretty good reasons for thinking that. For example, just take other countries — Mexico, right next door. Mexico’s a poorer country, not a rich country like this. It has quite a good higher education system. It’s not perfect. It doesn’t have the facilities you find in an American university. But it’s very high quality and it’s free. I’ve lectured at the major university there. Mexico City has a college that’s not only free but has open admissions. Anybody can go, and they have remedial instruction for people who aren’t up to college level. I’ve been there too. Probably the best educational system in the world is Finland. And it’s free.

In the 1950s, the United States was a much poorer country than it is today, but education was pretty close to free. The GI Bill gave, literally, free education to huge numbers of people who never would have been able to go to college. For a lot of reasons, I don’t think you can believe that it’s an economic problem. So what is it caused by? It hasn’t really been studied, but there are a number of factors that you can see acting. One is that since the 1970’s, in colleges and universities, the percentage of administrators has gone way up. There’s a book by a sociologist named Benjamin Ginsberg called “The Fall of the Faculty,” which discusses the changes that have taken place. Faculty and students stay sort of steady, but administrators are shooting way up. There’s a big growth of salaries at the administrative level.

Another thing that’s happened is that colleges, for whatever the reason, they’re building facilities to make student life more exciting– social things, and gyms, and better dormitories. Go back to the 50’s, it was all very serviceable. You went to school. Everything was there. It wasn’t super fancy.

But I suspect the main reason, and this hasn’t been studied, is that debt is a disciplinary technique. It controls people. There was a big, elite reaction to the activism of the 1960s across the spectrum. There was too much freedom and too much independence. There were even, literally in these words, calls for criticism of institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young. They weren’t doing their job. They weren’t indoctrinating young people properly in order to train them to be disciplined and obedient.There was a lot of critique of fact that the country was getting too democratic –literally too much democracy.

People have to be passive and apathetic and obedient. This coming from liberals incidentally, not from the right wing. And part of this, right about that time, student debt started going up. Whatever the purpose is, it is a way of trapping people. Once you have a big debt, you can’t do things you might have wanted to do. Like, you might have wanted to graduate from law school and do public interest law, but if you have a $100,000 debt to pay off, you’re going to have to go into a corporate law firm. Once you get into it, you’re trapped by the culture and forget about public interest law. And that happens all over. I was just talking to a professor here who runs educational programs for the schools. He was talking about the problem of getting science education in schools. Part of the problem is that people who are willing to go into, say, high school teaching, if they are interested in science and math, if they go into the school system, they’re going to get a fraction of the salaries that they can get in the private sector. They’re under a lot more controls, and disciplined, and not able to run their own courses. It just doesn’t attract people who are capable. The whole reward system is set up so as to make the system worse and worse.

WH: What would you say the role in the student debt situation is the system of for profit universities and for profit higher education?
NC: It’s a scam. Take a look at the statistics of dropout failure. What happens to the students? Education is not for profit. If you’re not in education for profit, it’s not going to be a fair critique for education. It’s almost reflexive. But then you get a business model, so if you try to get what’s called “efficiency,” and lower the teaching ratio. Temporary teachers, who don’t have to be paid much and can’t — no matter who they are — have the same commitment to the job, so it’s almost a built in failure. I think the records pretty well show that.

WH: Would you be in favor of having a higher education be free, just like public school, like high school, and elementary school?
NC: Like Finland, or Mexico, or Germany, or lots of others– early United States itself, for that matter. Why? It’s good for the society. It’s good for the people.

WH: Would you say that the whole situation of student debt is unique to the American society, or does it take place in other countries that have a capitalist economy?
NC: First, it’s not traditionally true in the United States. As I say, in the 1950s, most were free. But it’s more extreme in the United States than any other place I know. There are similar pressures in England, of the same negative consequences, not as extreme, and also in Canada. In fact, there was a big student strike in Quebec.They managed to beat it back with a lot of public support, and that was for much lower tuition than here. In Mexico actually, it was quite interesting what happened to them about 15-20 years ago. There was an effort to have a slight tuition increase, which led to a national student strike and a lot of public support for it, and the government backed off that.

WH: I heard that there’s over $1 trillion of student debt currently. Why do you think that people in Washington, like the media and lawmakers, haven’t really been treating it as a pressing issue?
NC: Well, partly because of who they represent. It turns out that about 70 percent of the population, lower 70 percent on the income scale, have literally no influence on policy. Political representatives don’t listen to them. Senators don’t pay any attention, and so on. Go up the income scale, you get more and more influence. Get to the very top– that very top in the United States is so lopsided now, it’s a fraction of one percent– they just essentially get what they want. That’s who’s represented. Those people, they don’t care about public schools, you know. The other thing is, there is kind of a…You ever read Ayn Rand?

WH: Yes, yes.

NC: There’s a kind of Ayn Randian model, which is really psychopathic, literally. It says you’re just out for yourself and the hell with everyone else. In the business world, that’s the ethic that you have to live by, but it’s more and more imposed on the rest of society.

WH: What would you say to the people that say, “Well, it’s the students’ own fault that they have debt.” What would be your thoughts on that?
NC: It’s the student’s own fault that they didn’t have a rich father.

WH: Exactly. Would you be in favor of forgiving the student debt that we currently have for the student?
NC: I’d go much further than that. I think a lot of the debt that currently exists, there’s actually a technical word for it. It’s called “odious debt.” Odious debt means debt that’s imposed, but illegitimate. That’s a concept in international law, which was invented by the United States when the US took over Cuba in 1898, from Spain. They didn’t want to have to pay Cuba’s debt to Spain, so they invented this concept of odious debt, arguing plausibly, that the debt that was imposed on the Cuban people, under Spanish rule, was not voluntarily accepted. They had no choice under dictatorships. Therefore, it’s not legitimate debt. By that standard, an awful lot of debt is not legitimate debt, student debt in particular.

WH: What do you think student debt says about this society as a whole? What message does it convey?
NC: It conveys the message that, maybe sociopath is too strong a word, but there’s an element of sociopathic character in the society, more and more. It shows up in all kind of ways. In one respect, it’s just inherent in market systems. We don’t really have market systems, we have a partial market system, all kind of interference in it. But there are elements of a market system, and in a market system your choices are restricted. When you take an economics course, they tell you markets increase your choices. That’s not true. Suppose I want to get home from work tonight. I have choice in the market between, say, a Ford and a Toyota. I don’t have a choice of a subway. That’s not part of the market system. That requires communal activity, joint activity, in a democratic society. That’s excluded by market systems. A lot of things we need, like education, just aren’t available in market systems. In Market sys tems, you can maximize your own personal, consumer choices, but that’s a very small part of life. That shows up all the time. I can give you a concrete example. I live in a suburb. Used to be a fairly inexpensive suburb, but as land prices went up, it’s now a very affluent suburb. I’m sure that the average income level’s quite high. The power lines are above ground. There are a lot of trees around. Every time there’s a storm, people lose power. In a functioning society, reasonably affluent people would get together and say, “OK. Let’s spend a little money and put the power lines underground.” But that means working together. You can’t put your own power lines underground, so therefore, none of them are underground. That’s a disease of this society. We can’t get together to do things that will benefit all of us.

WH: So given the various problems with the market system running education, what do you envision education to look like in the future?
NC: Actually, that’s up to people like you. Right now, the educational system is being driven into the ground. It’s being driven to a “teach to test” model. That’s the absolute worst way to teach. A place like this, MIT, you don’t teach to test, you try to encourage students’ natural creativities and interests, and let them pursue them. That’s how anything sensible works. You know what teaching to test is like? You study for a test. You pass the test. A week later, you forgot what the subject was. It’s totally deadening. It’s got to be reversed, or else this society is going to be dumbed down.

WH: So you’d say that there’s an increasing trend in the education system, like with the “teach to test,” that it’s gone toward training people to be obedient to the status quo?
NC: Absolutely. I’m sure you experience it. You don’t have to ask me. I watch it, but you experience it. The teach to test model, first of all, it’s very stressful for students. They shouldn’t be stressed by interesting things. They should be be doing them. Pursuing their interests, pursuing them with other people. The idea that you have to drop anythingthat you might be interested in doing because you have to pass that test tomorrow and it’s something that you’re not interested in, that’s just the opposite of education. It’s also harming teaching, because the teachers are now evaluated by the results of the test.

WH: In school, like public school districts…
NC: Public school, that’s the way it works. And it’s essentially going to destroy the public school system, which was one of the great contributions of the United States to modern culture– mass public education. But it’s going to be disappearing.

WH: Do you think that student debt relates to other topics, other problems in society?
NC: Very much so. Like student debt isn’t a big problem if you’re in the top few percent of the population. Even at my level, I’m not super rich, but I’m a faculty member. Over the years, my wife was smart enough to set up trusts for this. There’s various ways in which you can put money aside that can be used just for education and doesn’t have as much taxes. So now, I have enough money that I can pay the college costs of my grandchildren, and that’s not a joke. You know, every kid is $50,000 a year. But there’s enough money in the trusts to make a big dent on that. But that’s because we’re privileged. For most people, they can’t do that.

WH: What do you think ordinary people can do to combat against the system of debt?
NC: Work for a more democratic society. A society where 70 percent of the population is ignored is not a democratic society. Now that’s a big problem. Only a really energized, active public can change things.

John Hodgkinson (Will’s father, filming the interview): Is the quality of education going to have to get a lot worse before people notice and do something, or maybe incremental change is possible?
NC: You know, I get a thousand requests for talks. A lot of them increasingly have been coming from very poor communities, where people want to talk about exactly this. The last couple months, I’ve been in Harlem, and the Mississippi delta. Really poor places where parents are upset about the destruction of the public school system. I think it’s all over. Not everywhere, I suppose, but it’s getting worse and worse.

WH: What would you say your perspective on student debt is, being in academia?
NC: I may have a different story, but I travel around a lot to colleges, and I see what’s going on. It’s very harmful to the academic world. It’s, for example, I know people that teach in quite good state colleges, which are pretty high level, there they’re clamping down so that they’re becoming vocational schools.The funding is sharply reduced. A lot of the state college systems, most of the funding is coming from tuition, not from the state. The administrators have no concept of what an education is. My friend who teaches at a good state college, she also does research. If you get a research grant from a donor, you have to have a signature of the dean. But she can’t get a signature because the deans don’t understand why she’s wasting her time in research, and it affects the students. The students get very low aspiration levels.

WH: Do you think that student debt sort of has, maybe, a classist dimension, in that lenders target lower income people?
NC: Absolutely. You’re in a very vulnerable position. A lot of students personally don’t have the kind of judgment that’s required. And even having the right kind of judgment is no small matter. I mean [to John Hodgkinson] are you a part of Medicare?

JH: Not quite, not quite but almost.

NC: Every year, everyone on Medicare gets a pamphlet from the government, which is about 100 pages long, which lays out your options. You need a research associate’s to even figure it out. I mean, I can’t read through it.It’s so complex. Any civilized society should have health care, but here, you have to pick which option is best for me. You can’t figure it out. It’s the same with the debt. Who are you going to borrow from? At what rate? What are the properties? There’s all kind of hidden stuff. That’s why, when you buy a house, you have to have a lawyer to figure out what kind of trickery’s going on in the background. You can’t just go in and buy a house. That’s the same as student debt, but you don’t have a lawyer.

WH: So you think that lenders see luring people into thinking that they can go to college at little or no cost, but then they burden them with debt?
NC: I tell you, if you ever read Adam Smith some day, one of the things pointed out is, if you see two businessmen in a corner talking to each other, you can be pretty sure they’re conspiring against the public. That’s just the nature of the system. Sure, the lenders are looking to make money. How do you make money? You have a kid that doesn’t understand what he’s up to and you sell him some kind of insurance program. Of course they’ll do it. Just like they go after subprime mortgages for people that they know can’t pay it back.

WH: What would be your advice to people who have student debt, like my cousin?
NC: That’s hard. That’s very tough. For one thing, student debt is constructed so that you can’t get out of it, and you can’t go bankrupt, for example. If you’re running a business and you can’t pay your debts, you can file a bankruptcy and that cancels most of your debts and it gets restructured, and you can start over again. The lawsare set up so that you cannot do that with student debt. It works forever. They can be garnishing your Social Security, so you just have to find a way out. But it’s a social problem. You can’t handle it in individually. It’s like the problem that I might not be able to take the subway. But there’s nothing I can do about it.