Sep 24, 2014
I'm going back to the Berkeley campus this week for the fiftieth reunion of the Free Speech Movement. You may have heard in some history class about Mario Savio and the first student sit-in of the sixties. That was us FSMers at Berkeley.
It will feel a bit surreal. The university that had 801 of us arrested is welcoming us back by hanging Free Speech banners on the building we occupied. Home like a victorious football team! But it's not a real victory because the people that tried to shut us up in the 1960s have a more chilling control over U.S. college students today than they ever had over us. Today it's not police control, its economic control.
But The Free Speech Movement was half a century ago so here's a quick "teach-in" on the issues.
In the fall of 1964 students returned to campus--some from a Freedom Summer in Mississippi or a stint with Cesar Chavez and the Farm Workers Organizing Committee--to learn that we were no longer allowed to leaflet at the university entrance.
The reason they gave us was trash--too much litter. But like our leaflets, that flimsy excuse was quickly dropped. When all the religious, political, and social clubs who used the space joined to complain, we were soon assured that the ban would apply only to leaflets that "advocated off-campus actions." The cat was out of the bag.
"After the most exhilarating, exhausting, and educational school year imaginable, all bans were lifted. That victory sent us out into the world confident that we could perfect the planet or at least our own country."
Some powerful Californians had gotten fed up with the equal employment picket lines and the farm worker boycotts that they believed emanated from the campus. The traditional student groups grasped as quickly as the radicals that this was a matter of free speech, not litter. Through months of negotiations, expulsions and arrests, everyone from Socialists to Methodists, from the Sorority Council to Cal Students for Goldwater stuck together to demand that UC students be allowed to exercise the freedoms guaranteed by the first and fourteenth amendments to the United States constitution.
After the most exhilarating, exhausting, and educational school year imaginable, all bans were lifted. That victory sent us out into the world confident that we could perfect the planet or at least our own country.
But the people we beat in Berkeley also had a vision for America. It can be roughly summarized as "More for me: less for you." In the decades that followed they learned to pressure regulators, legislatures and presidents far more effectively then they pressured our university administration. As a result of the policies they pushed, security and income declined for most working Americans. What employees lost in wages and benefits was siphoned off as interest and dividends by those we now label, somewhat inexactly, as the 1%. (People who live primarily on interest and dividends are closer to .01%.)
Today this redistribution of wealth to the wealthy occurs not only off-campus but on-campus. As a bonus to the moneyed, it produces a level of insecurity that quiets students better than any formal ban.
Here's how this increased inequality works itself out at the University of California:
When I went to Berkeley it cost me $62.50 a semester. That covered registration, lab fees, health care, and a student body card. My tuition was free. (It was $600 for out of state students.) Today in-state tuition is $12,872.
That huge increase isn't explained by the cost of the new stadiums we intellectual alumni love to deplore. (Anything you can hang a plaque on attracts its own donors.) Nor is it due to teachers' salaries. Low paid adjuncts do much more of the teaching today than they did when I went to school. Top academic administrative salaries, like top corporate executive salaries, have increased beyond inflation, it's true, but not by enough to account for a tuition increase from zero to $12,000.
My tuition could be "free" in the nineteen sixties because higher education was supported by state and federal funds. But since my school days, the rich have rebelled against paying taxes. With so much government money gone, the bulk of tuition must now be paid by students themselves. But student and parental salaries have stagnated at best, so a lot of the increased tuition is financed by borrowing. That gives moneylenders--the very same folks who refuse to pay taxes--a lien on the future earnings of educated Americans.
I realized how much this prospect must dampen the campus atmosphere when I opened the U.C. Berkeley web site and clicked "cost of attendance." Before I got to the actual dollar amounts, I was assured in big letters that, "A Berkeley education earns our graduates an additional $26,333 each year in income over those who did not go to college."
Since Berkeley is still an excellent school, its students will surely learn to recognize the slippery wording and limited predictive value of that undocumented statistic on future earnings. They will therefore worry about the debt they're piling up. And they're right to worry.
Thanks to intense bank lobbying starting in the 1970s, student loans are uniquely punitive. Most can't be refinanced, which means that people who borrowed at 8% in the 1990s are still paying 8%. Unlike other loans, student loans can't be discharged in bankruptcy and a borrower's salary, social security and even disability checks can be garnished. (Loan sharks wouldn't need to break legs if they had those powers.)
Student loans are also exempt from most truth-in-lending laws. I learned what that can mean when I asked a relative in her forties about her school debt. This is a woman who put herself straight through college to a PhD. and now runs both a thriving family and professional practice. When she stayed home for six months with her new child she accepted the lenders offer to lower her $1200 a month payment without ever being informed that by the application of capitalized interest, the interest that would have been due during this "forbearance" would be added to the principle. So when I asked how it stands now, this bright woman mumbled with embarrassment that after fourteen years of making payments she now owes $93,000 on an $80,000 loan. "But don't worry we're chipping away at it."
The pain and shame is much worse, of course for someone who took on mortgage-sized debt for worthless courses from some for-profit college.
What in the world happened in the last half century? My high school cohort took it for granted that we could make a living. We went to college to discover how to do something "worthwhile" with our lives. Our banned leaflets supported what seemed like the last excluded minorities as they fought their way up to join the shared prosperity of post World War II America. But economic decline and painful insecurity now reach up the socio-economic ladder to pervade university campuses.
I'm still looking forward to seeing old friends at the reunion. Our generation has as much right to relax and reminisce as any other, I guess. But in between the nostalgia we'll be wondering if there was something we should have done then, or could have been doing more of since then, to make things come out differently. Maybe the indebted generation will figure it out and take our old adversaries by surprise like we once did.
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