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“The Pedagogy of Debt”

January 26, 2009

An interesting piece by Jeffrey Williams on the growing debt load for students. Of particular interest to us here in Saint John is what he has to say about “working ones way through college”:

In addition to the steep rise in debt, students are also working more hours during school-often 15-20 hours a week, and many students are working far more. My focus here is on debt and its vicious cycle, but it goes hand in hand with the rise in student worktime.You don’t need a PhD to realize that neither cultivates good educational conditions. (2)

Williams has interesting things to say about the slide from the post WWII view of higher education as an entitlement, to the current neo-liberal notion of “privilege,” from social goal to individual good.

Specifically with regard to the title:

Debt is not just a mode of financing but a mode of pedagogy.…

First, debt teaches that higher education is a consumer service. It is not an enclave or space out of time but a pay-as-you-go transaction, like any other consumer service, and they are not special, like diplomats who have an exemption from New York City parking fees, but consumers, subject to the business franchises attached to education. All the entities making up the present university complex reinforce this lesson, from the Starbucks kiosk in the library and the Burger King counter in the dining hall, to the Barnes & Noble running the bookstore and the pseudo-Golds Gym running the rec center, as well as the bank with the easy access webpage to get their loans. We might tell them the foremost purpose of higher education is self-searching or accumulating humanistic knowledge, but their experience tells them differently. Students have learned this lesson well when they tell us they pay our salaries and lobby for an A, expecting we should respond like personnel at any other service counter. (6)

Second, debt teaches career choices.…

Many bemoan the fact that the liberal arts have faded, in real terms, whereas business has grown by more than double, from about 8% before WWII to 22% now. This is not because students have become more venial or no longer care about poetry or philosophy; rather, they have learned the lesson of the world in front of them and chosen according to its, and their, constraints.

Third, debt teaches a worldview.…

Debt teaches that the primary ordering principle of the world is the capitalist market, and that the market is natural, inevitable, and implacable. There is no realm of human life alterior to the market …

Fourth, debt teaches civic lessons. It teaches that the state’s role is to augment commerce … (7)

I could go on, but read it yourself. Excellent, excellent piece, and although its focus is the U.S., much more applicable up here than one would like to admit. (Thanks, Jonathan, for the link.)

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2 Comments
  1. January 26, 2009 6:04 pm

    Bernie Madoff was certainly the champion of all champions as to what concerns “The Pedagogy of Debt” …

  2. January 27, 2009 1:51 am

    I found the article very persuasive, and its implications more than a little disturbing.

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