Barbara Ehrenreich Once Again Completely Misses the Point

In general, I enjoyed Nickel and Dimed the first time I read it. Sure, the author/ narrator was sanctimonious and more than a little exploitive of the people she wrote about, but her heart seemed to be in the right place. And yeah, it was irritating the way she basically acted as a "poverty tourist," trying to live on what blue collar/ service industry American workers make for a month, then always failing at around week three and hitting the ATM in order to access her "real" income. Disingenuous? Sure. But, I reasoned again, her heart's in the right place, and the conclusion one reaches is that it's impossible to live on what these people are paid, so that's a good lesson to learn, anyway.

But recently, her anti-higher education screeds-- published on her own website and frequently reprinted on AlterNet-- are getting more and more ridiculous, to the point that I don't think one can argue in good faith that her heart is even in the right place anymore. Her conviction-- that colleges and universities are deliberately and systematically ripping students off-- is utterly preposterous, as today's column illustrates.

Let's start with the beginning: "Welcome to Fleece U.," Ehrenreich writes, "where our mission is to take feckless teenagers such as yourselves and turn them into full-fledged citizens of our economy, meaning, of course, debtors."

Ha ha. "Fleece U", "fleece you." Get it? Because most colleges and public universities are for-profit institutions devoted to stealing from kids. I mean, the fact that Ehrenreich's writing about not-for-profit colleges and universities kinda means that, by definition, they're not "fleecing" anyone, but why let facts get in the way of Rush Limbaugh/ Michael Moore-style hyperbole? And I have to admit, I sometimes let my lectures and workshops overshadow the real reason I even got a PhD, which was-- of course-- to make sure that "feckless" students amass massive amounts of debt. I'm just that much of a prick.

"Our stellar faculty ardently hopes that along the way you will be amazed by calculus and charmed by the tipsy conversation between Alcibiades and that wily old radical, Socrates. There is also a general expectation that you that you will come out of here with some hazy notion of spelling and grammar."

Note the sarcasm and condescension. Who could possible expect the faculty to be "stellar," after all? That's just the kinda bullshit colleges put in brochures. And no one is ever really "amazed" or "charmed" by what they learn in classes-- it's all a sham, a ruse designed to get your tuition money.

"But never forget that your real purpose here is to shake off the pointless freedom of youth and assume the burden of debt. To this end, we have just raised our tuition in an attempt to keep up with such top-of-the-line institutions as George Washington University (now weighing in at $39,210 a year, or $50,000 with room and board). You will find us also charging a plethora of additional fees -- a "student activities fee," a "technology fee," and an "incidentals fee." In addition, we will be experimenting this year with a "snow removal fee," a "lecture hall seat-use fee," and the installation of pay toilets in the dorms."

Let's make one thing clear-- nobody has ever argued that a college education is too cheap. And I'm certain that people smarter than Ehrenreich can write-- and have written-- eloquently and insightfully about wasteful spending practices on college campuses. But let's be honest here, okay? The reason many colleges across the country-- particularly state schools-- are raising tuition is because our elected leaders have screwed up the economy so badly. Energy costs are soaring. People are out of work (which means more students on campus using on-campus resources). State legislatures are refusing to fund state schools. At the same time, our students want (or need) more and more services-- computer classrooms, student literary magazines, athletic programs, campus organizations (dedicated to both intellectual development and "mere entertainment"), fitness facilities, and interesting and influential guest speakers (one wonders if Ehrenreich is charging a speaking fee for the six campus lectures she has scheduled over the course of this academic semester-- presumably not, since she's so concerned about saving students money, but is she also paying her own airfare for these speaking engagements? Sleeping in an empty dorm room [with the lights off and not showering, of course]? Buying her own groceries during her visit?).

"Another thing that will help ease you into the status of debtor is the price of your textbooks -- about $120 to $180 for a new, graffiti-free copy. True, this seems high when you could buy a hardcover of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for $20 or less, but the aim is to teach you that a book is something to treasure (and, again, we charge no extra fee for this lesson.)"

Really, how much influence does Ehrenreich think colleges and universities have over the book publishing industry? I would love it if my students could access everything I want them to read for free-- and I do pay close attention to how much books cost and try to find the best anthologies for the least amount of money (or locate materials exclusively online), when possible. But Jesus tap-dancing Christ, isn't it awfully cavalier for this woman-- who has gotten rich(er) by having written a book that's frequently required freshman reading-- to complain that students shouldn't have to spend money on books? I suppose what she means is "Students shouldn't have to spend money on books that aren't mine."

And don't bother with the argument that Nickel and Dimed is much cheaper than, say, a biology textbook. That's really not the point, as-- again-- colleges and universities have no control over what books cost; we just have to require them to buy books appropriate for the class.

"Please note carefully that Fleece U degree cannot guarantee you a future income that will allow you to pay off your debts. Many of our most promising graduates are now, three or four years later, working for $8-12 an hour serving up lattés, counseling disturbed youth or creating business computer networks. They are set for a lifetime of debt, and we are proud that they first began to accrue it right here, on our lovely mock Oxfordian campus."

You know what would help this paragraph? Some statistics. I have no doubt that "many... graduates" find themselves working shitty jobs, but I do wonder how many is "many"? And what did they major in? What were their GPAs? What are their longterm goals? And, most importantly, what would Ehrenreich do differently if she were in charge, to make sure that every college graduate in America receive exactly the job he or she wants immediately upon graduation? Please, I want to know. If it's (at least partially) my fault that college graduates don't get the jobs they want, tell me what I can do differently. I want my students to be happy with their lives-- if I had the power, I'd get them the careers they want, the spouses they desire, and all the candy they can eat. But I just don't see how I can do that.

Basically, the rest of Ehrenreich's essay is concerned with how many Americans currently find themselves in debt, and how that's a bad thing. Frankly, I agree with her on that-- although I think this "truth" she's exposing is so glaringly self-evident that it doesn't really bear mentioning on a progressive website. And, again, I don't see why colleges and universities are getting so much of her scorn these days as opposed to, say, credit card companies, or banks, or the wedding industry, or-- most importantly-- the federal government. The situation on campus is just a symptom of our sick economy; one gets the sense that Barbara Ehrenreich would use a cough drop to treat lung cancer (now that's hyperbole).

Again, no one would ever argue that college is too cheap, or whether or not student debt is a very bad thing. In fact, for a sophisticated discussion of the issue-- and a list of potential solutions-- I would direct you to Jeffrey J. Williams's excellent article on the subject from last summer's Dissent magazine, wherein he concludes that we could create programs to forgive student loan debt for graduates, and provide free tuition for the generation of students to come. While he admits that the ideas sound radical at the moment, Williams insists (and persuades me) that such programs are not only desirable, but-- more importantly-- are possible. I highly recommend reading his article, and skipping anything Barbara Ehrenreich has to say on the subject in the future.

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