John Kerry ran a unique campaign around this time of the year last year, but one thing particularly struck me as a departure from previous Democrat efforts.
He didn't emphasize the education angle.
Maybe it's because the Republicans have pretty much matched the Democratic rhetoric on this point. Kerry promised a $4,000 tuition tax credit. Bush said he is committed to “expanding access” to higher education and increasing the amount of Pell Grants, federal grants that provide funds of up to $2,340 based on the student's financial need.
When both of America's great parties agree on a point, that means we've probably reached a consensus. If so, the consensus in America today is that higher education ought to be available to as many people as possible.
It makes sense. No lesser a figure than the great Stoic Epictetus pointed out that education is the means to freedom. What better thing to advance in America, the home of freedom?
Unfortunately, education today frequently becomes the means of slavery.
Everyone knows that the cost of higher education keeps escalating. Even the excellent tax advantages of educational IRAs and 529 plans haven't made it easier to pay for college, because education inflation outstrips the plans’ benefits.
A handful of families can afford to pay for their children's education, but most cannot. So what do those families do?
The children get student loans.
The result? The loans often hound the children into their 40s, forcing them to work intensely to pay the principal and interest. Does a man with a snootful of office life and savage commutes dream of what so many great men, from Epictetus to Russell Kirk, lauded: a leisure tinged with slight poverty, a small amount of money but a large assortment of books, a meager stock portfolio but a blooming garden, a mediocre car but lots of time with his children?
He has student loans, and no job that merely provides for one's means will be enough to service them. If you need to make enough money to pay the student loans, 35-40 hours a week probably won't cut it.
There's a mild form of coercion at work here. Powerful forces in our country artificially increase demand for education. Competent teachers are required to obtain master's degrees. Corporations require a degree or MBA as a condition of promotion, regardless of an employee's ability or dedication. Politicians call for increased access to college education.
The result: Everyone wants a college education, whether it helps them live a happier life or not.
We create Bill Cosby's Chicken Heart: A hungry creature that keeps getting bigger and bigger as it's fed more and more. Ironically, Bush's and Kerry's proposals to provide additional financial assistance make matters worse by further feeding the education Chicken Heart. As access to education increases, so does indebtedness. As indebtedness increases, so does the need to work excessively.
The problem: A college education doesn't add much. In the words of Prof. Joseph Epstein, “Most people come away from college, happy souls, quite unscarred by what has gone on in the classroom. The education and culture they are presumably exposed to at college never lay a glove on them. This is the big dirty secret of higher education in America.”
I spent seven years in college, spending half of those semesters on the dean's list. I even graduated magna cum laude from an esteemed university. I'm not sure what I learned.
My writing got better I suppose, and I learned a trade that I could've learned in two years, and I probably learned some stuff that I can't now identify.
But I remember far more about the beer and wild living, no doubt about it, and any honest graduate would testify to the same.
Our country's founders knew the enslaving character of debt. They feared it as a moral defect. At the same time, the founders read the Stoics and understood Epictetus’ observation that education brings freedom.
I suspect they'd be appalled that their descendants have managed to concoct a system in which education has become the means to bondage.
Eric Scheske publishes The Daily Eudemon.