The great Stoic Epictetus pointed out that education is the means to 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 forties, 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.
Forty, fifty, sixty hour weeks.
Aristotle wrote that the laborer cannot pursue the higher things because he must spend too much energy pursuing material needs. It seems that awhile back we were getting rid of that situation. When I was a kid, 9:00 to 5:00 was the norm. Today, ten-hour days at the office are common.
It’s not surprising. If you need to make enough money to pay the student loans, 35-40 hours a week probably won’t cut it.
I typically wouldn’t mind. The person, after all, freely chose to accept the student loans.
But it bugs me that there’s a mild form of coercion at work. 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, like Clinton’s and Obama’s dream that all Americans would one day go to college.
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. As access to education increases, so does indebtedness. As indebtedness increases, so does the need to work excessively.
I’ve speculated that the grand poobahs of American policy purposefully set things up this way in order to assure themselves of a workforce that would relentlessly churn the American economy. I really don’t think that’s what happened, but still, is anyone willing to stand on the tracks of the runaway education train and yell “STOP!”
Someone should, because here’s the thing: A college education doesn’t add much. In the words of Professor 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.”
Will Hunting in Good Will Hunting was right when he skewered the pompous student at a Boston bar: The “sad thing about a guy like you is in fifty years you’re gunna start doing some thinkin’ on your own, and you’re gunna’ come up with the fact that . . . you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a f****** education you coulda’ got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.”
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.
But we keep going: education, education, education.
Debt, debt, debt: work, work, work: churn, churn, churn. Young adults incurring debt to keep the education Chicken Heart pumping and growing, four (or six or eight) years coming out of college to push the giant wheel of our economy, like Conan the Barbarian at the beginning of one of Schwarzenegger’s early movies pushing that giant mill wheel all day.
Like Conan, it adds muscle to our economy’s bones.
But also like Conan, it gives us slave-like qualities.
It’s not a stretch. 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.