By Beth U

I am working on a paper for an upcoming conference panel about teaching on the non-tenure track. As so often happens when immersed in a new writing project, seemingly random radio stories or news coverage will spark a new connection or direction in the work.

Yesterday I listened to an episode of Gaby Dunn’s podcast Bad with Money in which she discusses how the 40-year reduction of state and federal funds for higher education, coupled with the more than 100% increase in tuition, has fueled what looms as the next biggest financial crisis: student loan debt.

I am also rereading Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz book about the emotional paucity of middle and upper class college students and how the demands of elite institutions—and the values that sustain them—strip young people of everything that could be interesting about themselves. He asserts:

“But being interesting is very different from credentialed self-actualization, as David Brooks would call it. Being a quadruple major does not make you interesting. Editing the college newspaper while singing in an acapella group, starting a nonprofit, and learning how to cook exotic grains do—this does not make you interesting. Interesting is not accomplished. Interesting is not ‘impressive.’ What makes you interesting is reading, thinking, slowing down, having long conversations, and creating a rich inner life for yourself.” (87)

As someone who has taught at elite institutions, I find myself nodding while reading his indictments—especially his tearing down of volunteerism and service as a mechanism of self-promotion for the privileged. This is not a new argument but one worth making again (my favorite is Ivan Illich’s 1968 speech To Hell With Good Intentions” about volunteerism in Latin America).

Yet I am impatient with the idea we should feel sorry for the privileged because the social pressure on performativity and the social markers of success are so limiting to them. Yes, the corporatization of education, coupled with productivity obsession, might negatively impact the young and rich. It is more interesting (to me) to think of these “lived experiences” as symptoms of the fallout of late capitalism more generally, and how these tie to the restructuring of higher education more specifically.

There is also the more pressing problem of economic debt, especially for the non-elite. When upper- or middle-class kids graduate from college they are more likely to have supports that enable them to retain class privilege even if they have to move home for a while. For working-class kids or first generation college kids, student loan debt may very well set them back for decades and destroy any of the “advancement” that prior generations were able to achieve in their lifetimes (if at all). At least this has been the case with my working-class self. I am the only woman in my generation to have gone to college, let alone get a PhD. Yet my Polish immigrant grandfather who completed 9th grade and was a TV repair person did not carry the debt I do.  Nor was he indentured to productivity the way my generation is—elite and non-elite alike.


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