A Liberal Education vs. Student Debt
In April of 2019 the chewed-on leather boots, belt buckles, and rifles of three rhino poachers were found in an African national park, evidently eaten by a pride of angry, hungry lions that surprised them. In another incident the partially-eaten body of a rhinopoacher was found by a police patrol. This poor fellow had been crushed by an elephant but was not on the elephant’s menu so was later digested by a neighborhood lion. And so the world goes. Rhino horn, thought to be a terrific medicine by many Asian cultures, although it is made of the same material as our finger and toe nails, sells on the black market for about $30,000 a pound. The average rhino’s two horns weigh a total of about ten pounds, so the average kill could bring in about $300,000. That’s a good pay day.
Rhino horn has been a part of traditional Asian medicine and myth, particularly in China and Vietnam, for hundreds of years. It has been used to treat fevers, arthritis, gout, headaches, high blood pressure, typhoid, snake bites, hallucinations, cancer, erectile dysfunction, and impotence. Recent medical studies from around the developed world indicate there is absolutely no scientific evidence that rhino horn makes any difference in mitigating these ailments. Science has determined that the horn is made up of keratin, the protein that makes up hair and finger and toe nails. Ecologists say you might as well chew and swallow your own nails and hair for relief instead of spending thousands of dollars for an ounce. Now wealthy Asian con men have created a new horn market because there is lots of money to be made from suckers.
There is still a medical market for the horn, but the horns are now carved into cups and figurines to be displayed to show wealth on business desks, and turned into necklaces, bracelets, and beads to impress the ladies. Will this ugly black market trade survive to the last rhino on earth, or will education save some to roam the African savanna? I wonder how many Asian hedge funds are involved in the horn business.
Perhaps we should make one small change in Jesus Christ’s plea to his disciples: “Truly I tell you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Again, I tell you, it is easier for a rhino to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, ‘Who then can be saved’?” Evidently some poachers have not gotten the message. An endangered (species) white rhino was recently killed and dehorned in a Paris wildlife preserve!
A Tribune Reader Lists Our Current Problems
Kay Kemper of Crystal wrote the most cogent sentences of our country’s issues I have read lately: “We’ve lost our respect for life. We don’t respect people of color; the elderly are seen as disposable…We allow people to live on the streets or in tents, we scorn those with disabilities, whether mental or physical, and even abuse the animals who are placed in our care. Too many people take a “lifeboat ethic” view of life—there’s not enough room for everyone on this Earth, so who should we throw overboard?...Think of life as a chain with many links representing different stages and forms of life. All it takes is one broken or damaged link to place the entire chain in jeopardy. To solve old problems we need a new way of thinking.” So what is the solution to our problems? The unbreakable links have to be education and a sense of equality from birth to death.
There is no doubt college is an egalitarian force which can reduce the widest gap between the rich and poor ever created. At one time we led the world’s industrialized nations in the ratio of college graduates to total population. The GI Bill after World War II helped to put us in first place. But now, because of the lack of state and federal support in the forty years after Ronald Reagan’s greedy tax-cutting days, we now rank 16th and are on a slippery slope to the bottom of the 36 countries in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Under Reagan, California went from ranked first in K-12 education to 48th in the country. His right-wing government ended up terrifying the country when he came to help. During the 1980’s Reagan decimated support for higher education by replacing Pell grants with loans. He transformed a public responsibility of funding education to a private one. State legislatures spent the education money on roads, bridges, and prisons. Families are now asked to invest in their children’s education from birth to death. Parents who still owe student debt can have their Social Security garnished!
Our student college debt is now well over $1.6 trillion owed by over 43 million Americans, some in their seventies. Ten percent of the student debt is owned by people 60 and over! A 2019 survey of college student debtors believed they would be able to pay off their average debt in six years—but the typical repayment schedule ruins about 20 years. Tuition continues to skyrocket because state legislatures have refused to accept their constitutional duty to educate their citizens. Many public colleges and universities have raised their tuition to an average of $30,000 a year. The median annual income for a U.S. household in 2018 was $63,937. That doesn’t leave much room for a $30,000 tuition bill.
In The Good Old Days I Didn’t Know I Was Poor
When you can always eat well you don’t think much about being poor. On a small farm of rocks and small ponds we raised everything to eat except sugar, salt, pepper, and coffee. We made our own butter, ice cream, root beer, and sauerkraut. We had a huge garden where I learned how to weed. We had an orchard of apples, plums, and berries. We had four bee hives that supplied us with honey. We ate most of the body parts of chickens, geese, pigs, cows, calves, rabbits, and the squirrels shot in the woods and the ducks shot on the ponds. We are French but we did not eat horses. We fished the Mississippi and Platte Rivers and Green Prairie Fish Lake. It was a good life—even without electricity and ice and the fact we had a telephone party line of eight neighbors.
But I was able to be mobile out of that life because of Morrison County School District #54 and Little Falls High School. The country school had only 20 students but it had a 400-book library. Over eight years I read them all. “Men of Iron” was a favorite novel about a young squire serving an English knight in the 14th Century. It probably led me to later earning a Master’s Degree in English literature.
I entered my high school freshman year not knowing I could sing—but I had been romancing the cows for years as I milked them. I tried out for the choir and the director came over and shocked me: “You’re going to be a soloist.” I opened up the Christmas concert that year with a solo: “Jesu Bambino.” During my high school days I sang solos, duets, i boys’ quartets, madrigals, and choir. During my senior year I sang in a private mixed quartet selected by radio host Cedric Adams of WCCO fame who put together a show featuring 1948 Miss America BeBe Shopp from Minnesota. We traveled Minnesota, performing in night clubs, radio programs, colleges, high schools, and special events. Our first radio performance was over WDAY in 1949. The tour with BeBe was a great experience for a young farm kid..
I had no particular plans for college until Football Coach Fritz Bierhaus and Baseball Coach T.Edison Smith of Moorhead State Teachers College came down to recruit me while I was clerking in a J.C. Penny store. They told me they were looking for a pullout guard and center for the football team and a left-handed pitcher for the baseball team. With a tiny athletic scholarship I started college. Because the taxpayers of Minnesota actually supported higher education in those days, I was able to work my way through college in four years, earning All-Conference recognition in football and taking regular turns on the pitching mound. And I sang in the choir. My parents did not pay a dime for my college except for the taxes they paid.
As a senior I was elected president of the MSTC student body and the Student Commission, the governing body for students. I was selected for Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities. The state had done its part—and I had worked hard to do my part. I tell this story because no poor student can do this today because the states have catastrophically failed to support education at all levels. I didn’t have to pay high school fees to play football, baseball, sing in choir, or act in school plays. My parents did not have to buy all kinds of supplies for regular courses. College tuition amounted to about a month’s salary at minimum wage.
After serving seven years on reserve and active duty in the Marine Corps during and after college, I used the GI Bill to earn a Master’s Degree to prepare for a career in education. At that timein 1957 I could make it in graduate school with three kids and a wife—while tending bar at night. One of my sisters graduated from a public business school and worked on Capitol Hill for 35 years. Another sister went to a nursing school and had a career as a nurse. One brother used his GI Bill, graduated from the University of Minnesota, and served in the FBI and later for Lockheed in security. Another brother used his GI Bill, attended a tech school, and worked for the Railway Postal System. We thank you, Minnesota and America, for the help.
The American Dream of Mobility Has Turned Into a Perpetual NightmareUnless you manage to get a terrific four-year scholarship today, a young person who desperately wants to be college-educated has to be rich—or willing to take on a huge personal debt. With college tuition fees ranging from around $12,000 to $45,000 a year at state or private colleges—or $60,000 to $75,000 at the Ivy League schools, it might be better to become a citizen in countries that actually value higher education. In the OECD world of the top 36 countries, most of the member countries have free or affordable tuition and living costs. As an example, Germany, Poland, and Sweden have tuition-free college for citizens. In Norway a college education is free for all international students—and Denmark actually pays students to go to college. Meanwhile the United States has the highest tuition fees in the entire world.
We live in a world where education is the mighty engine of opportunity—but it is also the engine of economic inequality in the United States. Today your parent’s income determines whether you graduate from college. In the U.S. 77% of the children born in the top 25% will earn a degree by age 24. But for the bottom 25%, only 9% will earn a degree while going many thousands of dollars in debt. In Europe and other countries a college education means you can compete with anyone. In the U.S. education system it means education is not transforming the lives of those who need it the most; it is dispensing more opportunity to those who actually need it the least because they are rich.
Joe Biden had better listen to Bernie Sanders. In order to solve our economic inequality problem, we must first pay off the entire student debt--and then provide free college for the second step in providing equal educational opportunity.
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