We are well on our way to losing any conception of education as humanizing gift, social capital, cultural treasury, creative possibility for the future, imaginative empowerment of the minds, affections and commitments of the recent and coming generations of pupils and students due to ever-increasing tuition.
Trying to pinpoint the precise nature of unease isn’t easy. Education does have to be paid for by somebody.
Schools and universities are expensive places where learning is impossible to measure in the money it costs, saves or will ultimately make.
A Noam Chomsky Facebook meme circulated recently in which he is quoted as saying, “Students who acquire large debts putting themselves through school are unlikely to think about changing society. When you trap people in a system of debt, they can’t afford the time to think.”
The meme quote continued, “Tuition fee increases are a disciplinary technique, and by the time students graduate, they are not only loaded with debt, but have also internalized the disciplinarian culture. This makes them efficient components of the consumer economy.”
The full statement is not entirely Chomksy’s words. Rather, it is a quote from a 2011 news report in the Ottawa Citizen, which paraphrased statements Chomsky made during a lecture at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
Even so, the warnings ring with the alarm notes of a social prophet – trapped in debt, no time to think, thus unlikely, unable to think about changing society because of the burden of debt and the urge to earn.
These two phrases “unable to afford the time to think” and “unlikely to think about changing society” are chilling outcomes of an educational process that requires the student to mortgage much more than large amounts of money.
A burden of debt, and a sense of having been burdened, is deeply corrosive of social capital and ultimately fatal to that altruism that springs from gratitude and instills a commitment to the common good.
Education is now bought at the price of long-term debt; knowledge and know-how is purchased on a mortgage, leading to a relentless focus on employability and the market as key drivers in educational aspiration.
This reduces education to commodity, pupil and student to customer, and leads to an attitude that once I have paid for my own education I am entitled to exploit it in the marketplace.
When that happens, what are the chances of intellectual energy focused on making life better, imaginative thinking toward new possibilities, creative and critical reflection on change and opportunities for others, and fundamental to each of these is, ironically, the feeling of indebtedness?
A person’s fundamental attitude to the culture in which they have grown and been nourished, allowing for all the social inequalities and diversities of life chances, is defined largely by how that word is used.
If indebtedness means I have been supported through my education, and if I have been enabled and empowered by the processes of learning, formation and growing, then I am likely to be a net contributor to my community.
If I live in a culture that takes for granted the right to education toward fulfilling and living into my potential, and if that gift implies the sacrifice of others on my behalf, and part of the educational process is a deepening awareness of such gift, then a sense of indebtedness to the larger society will solidify into gratitude.
The giving and receiving of cooperative and communal resources in the education of each person is one of the essential pillars of social security and the common good.
Indebtedness for a gift is very different from being significantly indebted and seeing my education as something I bought and out of which no one has any further claim.
Employability, career trajectory, personal development, earning potential and the debt I now have to pay off have become the values that will drive my thinking and acting and sense of social responsibility.
I have become, through being in debt, someone who has no sense of indebtedness.
My education is my possession, and my product with which to play in the market. I have become “an efficient component in the consumer market.”
These are contrasting images: In debt or indebted. Resentful or grateful. Owing my community nothing, or owing it my life and my living. Education as product or as gift. University as knowledge supermarket or as school for life and living.
I’m fully aware of the issues of funding, grants, loans, part-time work, sacrifice and sheer toil for very many of our students; and equally aware of government spending priorities and the need for viable economic strategies of affordability in the economic realities in which we are enmeshed on a global scale.
But training generations of our students to think of their education as purchased employability, rather than enabled humanity, is short-sighted and will have its own economic, social and ultimately political consequences.
And society will be different from what might have been had these same generations of students come out of university, not in debt, but nevertheless indebted, grateful, still employable and ambitious, but with an undertow of indebtedness, gratitude and acknowledged responsibility.
Or so it seems to this erstwhile theological educator, who came late to university and whose own personal story is of education as grant aided, as gift and as otherwise impossible.
James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Living Wittily, and is used with permission.