After two weeks of no TV or radio, my favorite pastime upon reentering the United States is to divine what ‘big story’ captivates the nation. Will it be something inspiring like Occupy Wall Street or tedious, like Mitt Romney’s bully past, or trivial like Howard Stern’s spin on national TV? It is fascinating to land in the middle of these media extravaganzas, because regardless the details, all the big news bear common traits. They reflect a society that foments conflict and anxiety, that would rather point fingers than take responsibility, and that above all, trumpets entertainment over serious discourse.
This week I was fascinated, and ultimately dispirited, by two major trending stories.
Dr. Bill Sears, pediatrician and author of The Baby Book is a well-respected advocate of attachment parenting. When Time magazine chose to do a feature on him, does his photo grace the cover? No, we get model and mom Jamie Lynn Grumet standing in a sultry pose while her three year old (who is very well nourished) stands on a stool and sucks at her breast under the headline ‘Are you Mom Enough?’ Kinky? Maybe. Sexualized? Definitely. In an interview with the article’s author, Kate Pickert, disavows penning the headline, but acknowledges that it addresses the fundamental question of every American parent, ‘Am I doing a good enough job?’ Since the vast majority of us do not subscribe to attachment parenting (which may be nurturing and supportive but can also be seen as self-indulgent and elitist), and most moms don’t look like Jamie Lynn Grumet, the answer to ‘Are You Mom Enough?’ is a resounding, ‘No.” And thus, Time taps into two great American preoccupations. It simultaneously titillates us and renders us insufficient.
Time knows what will sell, and we buy it. Shame on us.
The second big news item is both more substantial and more disturbing. Sunday’s New York Times featured a terrific page one story about the increasing dilemma of college debt. It covers all the usual parameters of the problem – college costs rising faster than inflation, colleges shuffling the real costs by focusing on ‘the package’ while soft pedaling the reckoning that graduation brings, the naivety of students who choose expensive colleges over more economical options, and the increasing cost of public colleges, who labor under ever decreasing amount of public support. The article contains the requisite heartbreak stories of earnest young men and women who are starting out life mired in debt, and I came away convinced that this is not entirely their fault. There are also compelling graphics demonstrating the unsustainable economics of a college education. The subtext of all this bad news is that, maybe education isn’t worth the price.
Tucked into the graphics is a chart that illustrates how people pay for college today compared to twenty years ago. Although it is not referenced specifically in the article, it suggests a giant omission in the text. Twenty years ago between 30 and 50 percent of families paid for their children’s college education, varying by public, private and for-profit institutions. Today that percentage is less than 10% for any type of college. Regardless where we fall in the economic spectrum, we all know intuitively that more than ten percent of American families can afford to send their children to college. How families have gotten off the hook for providing their children a college education is a perfect example of the twisted logic of our entitlement society, and an indictment of what is wrong with America.
Seventy-five years ago college was the province of the rich. After World War II the GI Bill made college available to a huge cross-section of our population. Our educational standards rose, our economy boomed, by the 1960’s our higher education was the envy of the world; Americans were the best educated people on earth. Middle class people saved money and sent their children to college, which was not cheap but within reach. With noble intention schools started to provide financial aid to help students from poor families attend college. The government got in the act, providing direct student loans. The eligibility requirements for the loans became looser over time, because if that kid can get it, why can’t mine, until we got to the point that assistance was not only provided to those in need, it was available to everyone.
In the process college became just another product that we buy now and pay for later. Like all things easy to come by, it lost its luster. We are no longer the best educated nation on earth, or even in the top ten. No one worried if the cost outstripped inflation; with money so easy to borrow, the actual cost became less important. The perceived cost was deeply discounted by earnings in a rosy future. Families stopped saving for college; it is always easier to borrow than to save. Private lenders got involved, private colleges developed predatory practices. Colleges got very expensive, and now the bills coming due are astronomical while a college education’s assurance of economic advancement is not so rosy.
I am a champion of college education. I do not subscribe to the argument that college is only relevant if it increases one’s economic standing. College is relevant because it increases our exposure to the world; it grows our minds in ways we cannot anticipate. That is why college is exciting, that is why students are often radical; that is why the powers-that-be would prefer college to be more job-focused. The status quo is well served by students who graduate so tied to debt they cannot raise their eyes to change the world. After all, powers-that-be usually like the world just the way it is.
College transformed my life. As a student from a barely middle class family I received generous aid, including loans; not so much aid that college life was luxurious but not so many loans that that they cramped my future. For all I appreciated the government’s help in pulling me up through the middle class, I did not expect it to do the same for my own children. We had enough means to send them to college. No aid, no debt. And until I read the NY Times article I did not realize how unusual our family is in that respect. But I am glad that we did it that way, because we could; and I am equally glad there is help for those who need it, because I know how beneficial it can be.
But I am an outlier in this arrangement, for the college debt debacle is another example of the entitlement society run amuck. Instead of people going to college in order to explore themselves, and society investing in our effort to reach optimal potential, we have created a system that layers anxiety and worry over the student’s college life. There are so many people to point fingers at – lenders, colleges, students, the economy – that no one has to bear full responsibility for anything. And even in a well-tempered publication like the NY Times, the propensity to highlight the individual’s plight and enhance conflict among parties supersedes a deeper analysis and thoughtful suggestions about how to get out of the mess.
For in the end, the question about college education is the same as the question about healthcare, as it is about social security, as it is about sanitary housing and good nourishment. Are Americans entitled to these things because they are Americans, or do we have to ‘earn’ them? We cry ‘socialism’ against any system that is available to all, yet we are unwilling to deny people just because they cannot pay. So we cobble together patchwork programs of public housing and food stamps and Medicaid and student loans, we give people a taste of what of they want but make them pay some price because we are convinced the best pie is the one with the thumb of capitalism jammed into its crust.
Forty years ago the United States lent me money to go to college. In exchange for that generosity I have earned multiples more than I would have without a college education and have happily paid all of the taxes those earnings require. The United States invested in me and we both enjoyed excellent returns. A student today owes ten times what I did, often to a private company. The student graduates with dimmer prospects and the returns go not back to our nation, but to some deep pockets.
And where are the parents in all of this? Off at our second house or second car or on vacation; willing to put a burden on our children that we did not have to bear ourselves. Shame on us.
This week’s top stories cause a conflicting flurry. One is about how we extend infancy, and whether it delays our children’s ability to develop. The other is about how we force our children to grow up too soon by burdening them with debt that hampers their best possible start as adults. Problems that we create ourselves; only in America.