Who Cares About Student Debt?
November 7, 2011

Over the past few weeks I’ve heard a lot of people denounce what they see as Occupy Wall Street’s parochial and self-interested advocacy for student debt forgiveness. Some of those folks might otherwise be sympathetic to OWS, some might not. But either way, the objections sound the same: Shouldn’t OWS be focused on bigger issues than some college kids’ debt? Doesn’t this just prove that the protestors are, by and large, a bunch of entitled bougie white kids? Should the US government really nullify millions of contracts just because the people who voluntarily entered them don’t like the consequences?

Some of these objections sound more reasonable than others. It is not, for example, fair to say that Occupy Wall Street has made student debt a top priority. The General Assembly’s list of grievances buries the issue in the middle of 22 other complaints. No two protestors have the exact same set of priorities, but there’s no centralized OWS institution that’s favoring student debt over the smorgasbord of other issues on the table.

If news coverage and commentary related to OWS have focused disproportionately on student debt (and I think it’s reasonable to say that this is the case), that’s more a function of how the news media chooses to depict OWS. The face of OWS as seen by cable news audiences is overwhelmingly young and college educated. (That’s not to say that OWS doesn’t skew young and college educated, but Zuccotti Park is way more heterogeneous than its portrayal in most major news outlets, and growing more so.) Folks in that bracket are going to have an exceptionally strong interest in student debt, for obvious reasons. And student debt forgiveness is a simple, straightforward demand — in other words, it’s exactly what so many pundits originally claimed Occupy Wall Street lacked. Best of all, it’s a demand that should hold the interest of cable news’ majority college educated, middle-class audience.

It’s true that all these factors lead us to a state of affairs in which student debt gets more attention than other, worthier concerns. But that tells us nothing about the merits of student debt forgiveness, which, I would argue, are considerable. A policy of student forgiveness is not a rejection of “personal responsibility.” It is not irrelevant to OWS’s other concerns. It is both a good thing on the merits and, potentially, an impetus for further social change.

Let’s deal with this “personal responsibility” objection first. That makes sense when applied to homo economicus, but most people who take out student loans live in the real world. They also tend to be teenagers — kids, for chrissake, who have been told since adolescence or earlier (by authority figures, no less) that their future economic security hinges on their ability to matriculate into a prestigious institute of higher learning. Those kids who matriculated before 2008 made assumptions about the job market which were, at the time, entirely reasonable. Through no fault of their own, those same assumptions are now fantasies. And in these conditions, we’re asking — no, demanding – that students spend the rest of their lives paying off tens of thousands of dollars of debt. Because that’s the decision they made, and they have to live with it. They may not be old enough to drink a can of Coors Lite, but they’re old enough for this.

To my ears, that sounds self-evidently arbitrary and cruel. And if the welfare and personal responsibility of undergrad debtors were the only concern, I’d be all for debt forgiveness. But burdensome student debt does not exist in a vacuum, and its immediate effects are neither the sole or even primary reason for wanting to alleviate its effects. My bigger concern is with how student debt distorts our politics.

Student radicalism used to matter in this country. It still does, a little, but the trend doesn’t look good, and I submit that student debt is one of the main reasons why. I am not speaking dismissively when I say that campus radicalism and activism are byproducts of luxury: the luxury to learn for learning’s sake instead of for your career, to take time out of working to picket, to temporarily remove yourself from the capital engine to which you may one day submit. These luxuries should humble, but also inspire: they are society’s gift to the young, and the gift of the young back to the society. Who else besides the full-time student gets to spend all week nurturing her social imagination and trying to envision a better nation? Who else has the time and means to work towards that dream without asking anything in return?

Student debt is the best instrument yet invented for suppressing student activism. It forces undergraduates to ignore the radical possibilities in their education and instead focus on keeping their heads above water. Learning for learning’s sake is all well and good, but it won’t help you out on the job market when you graduate. Campaigning for the living wage looks alright on a résumé, but a posh internship is even better. No time to question, experiment or protest; if you want to keep ahead of Sally Mae, you’ve got to start running the treadmill from the moment Welcome Week ends. So put down that picket sign, tuck in your shirt, and get to networking.

Burdernsome student debt is, in other words, an instrument of coercion. It stunts the growth of potential leaders and dissidents, turning them instead to complacent office drones and consumers. For those who want to revitalize our politics, promote social change and finish what OWS started, it can only be an obstacle.

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