October 2011 Archives
On Tuesday, President Obama announced that he would use the power of the executive office to aid college graduates in repaying their federal student loans. The president's new measures will make it easier for students to peg loan payments to their income and to consolidate their different federal loans to earn a slight break on interest rates. Some wonder if the announcement is a response to the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests. Regardless of its intent or timing, both measures could save indebted graduates up to hundreds of dollars a month. These new initiatives will not affect private sector student loans, which are, of course, beyond the executive's purview.
These changes will amount to little more than a band-aid, however, if the cost of higher education continues to outstrip rising costs of living. Loan debt has been surging over the past two decades in an attempt to keep pace with advancing college tuition costs that consistently exceed rising incomes by a wide margin. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, from 1980-81 to 2009-10, tuition at both private and public four year institutions rose by a staggering 135%, even after adjusting for inflation. State funding for public institutions declined every year from 2001 to 2005, reaching a 25 year low in per student funding in the latter year. State appropriations increased the next two years, but those gains largely were wiped out by the recent recession. Not surprisingly, tuition rates typically surge to cover shortfalls in public funding for post-secondary education. Even when public funding is increased, however, statistical trends show that tuition rates generally continue to increase as well, albeit at a slower rate. The result is that the percentage of funding for public higher education derived from individual tuition has increased steadily over the last 25 years. In 1982, tuition represented 22.1% of total education revenue (monies appropriated for public post-secondary education). By 2007 tuition accounted for over 36% of total education revenue, according to a 2008 report compiled by the group, State Higher Education Executive Officers (see the table on page 21).
As college costs are shifted increasingly from the public to individual students, average student loan debt, predictably, has increased as well. Higher education is one of the soundest "investments" that an individual can make, well worth taking on debt in order to complete a degree. As a consequence, student loan debt is now the second largest single source of individual debt in America, surpassing credit cards and lagging behind only mortgages. Yet, while student loans are an integral part of the higher education system, advancing per capita debt levels might threaten future generations' opportunities to pursue higher education, potentially undermining the mission to make higher education (particularly public education) available for all Americans who wish to pursue it. Earlier this year, a survey of student loan debt revealed that increasing numbers of students are taking on debt that likely will take 20 years to repay, meaning that today's graduates who go on to become parents conceivably could still be paying off their own debt while preparing to send their children to college. And this long term debt might restrict parents' ability to send their children to the college of their choice or to send them to college at all.
Perhaps we need to re-assess whether or not we, as communities, should contribute more tax dollars to public post-secondary schools and thereby shift some of the burden of educational expenses back from individual students to the communities that benefit from having a well-educated public. After all, public education is an undeniable public good. We also might need to reassess the entire higher education system, however. Four-year institutions have gobbled up an increasing percentage of college students, at the expense of two-year institutions like community colleges and trade schools that offer equally valuable avenues to rewarding careers and future educational opportunities. We all are probably familiar with the well-known statistics showing that graduates of four-year institutions tend to make far more money over their lifetime than graduates of high school and two-year institutions, but it would be dangerous to interpret those statistics as proof that four-year institutions offer the only education of value. A more robust system of higher education would have mechanisms to keep costs under control, stop the "privatization" of public higher education, and better promote the variety of higher education choices beyond four-year institutions.
As the Occupy Wall Street protests continue and expand across America and around the world, many public commentators are looking to the past as a guide to understanding the movement and its potential impact. Last week, Pulitzer Prize winning LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik and esteemed historian Alan Brinkley were among those who drew a connection between OWS and the Bonus Army of 1932. Both groups, dismayed by economic collapse and a lack of jobs, demanded that a seemingly unresponsive government use its power to alleviate economic distress. Both groups also chose the tactic of occupying public ground and essentially holding vigil within sight of their intended audience, refusing to be ignored. In the case of the Bonus Army, approximately 10,000 of them encamped at Anacostia Flats, within sight of the U.S. Capitol, hoping their presence would pressure Congress into hearing their demands.
It is those demands that provide some of the more notable differences between these historical movements, however. The Bonus Army sought a specific solution to their own economic woes, namely to pressure Congress into the early payment of promised bonuses for their service in World War I. By law, those bonuses were not to be paid until 1945 (in response to the veterans' demands, the House voted in favor of immediate payment of the bonuses in June 1932, but the Senate overwhelming defeated the House bill). Unlike OWS, the Bonus Army largely was focused on a single change in policy, not systematic reform, and that policy change would have benefited only veterans like themselves, not a broad swath of society.
Martin Hutchinson, writing for Reuters, makes a more apt comparison between the Wall Street protests and Jacob Coxey's march on Washington in 1894. Marching from Ohio to the nation's capital, Coxey was joined by hundreds of unemployed men and families who shared his frustration over the high unemployment caused by the 1893 Depression, the worst economic crisis of their generation. Similar marches sprang up in the West, driven mainly by jobless young men. Coxey's army was driven by a populist ethos and urged the federal government to fund internal improvements projects that would put men to work and increase the supply of paper currency to relieve debt. The march petered out when Coxey and his army reached Washington and several of them were arrested for trespassing on the grass at the Capitol building. Despite the ignominious conclusion of its march, Coxey's Army influenced future debates over the power and propriety of the federal government to employ deficit spending and other fiscal measures to alleviate the effects of economic recessions. Like Coxey's Army, OWS protesters are responding to the worst economic crisis that they have ever known. Similarly, they espouse a populist message, decrying increasing wealth inequalities and outsized corporate influence over government. Implicit in their complaints is the notion that government should be the instrument to enforce corporate responsibility and reign in corporate power (despite the fact that many OWSers believe the government to be wholly beholden to those same corporations).
Despite these similarities, though, the demographics of Occupy Wall Street appear to differ significantly from Coxey's Army. Though the contemporary movement has become increasingly diverse in age, at its core OWS largely has been a movement of young, highly educated, middle class citizens. Coxey's Army, in contrast consisted mostly of relatively young agrarian and skilled and semi-skilled laborers. And while OWS occupies public property in a protest vigil, the Coxey-ites' march on Washington connoted a more dynamic, militant posture toward the government. Furthermore, Coxey's march was fueled by an evangelical mindset (the marchers dubbed themselves Army of the Commonweal in Christ) wholly absent from the decidedly secular Occupy movement.
Ultimately, these well-intended efforts to place the Occupy Wall Street movement in historical context appear to suffer from too narrow a focus. The movement itself acknowledges inspiration from Egypt's Tahrir Square protests and the so-called Arab Spring generally. It sees itself not as an American movement, but an international one. In this respect it echoes student protests and democratic movements that proliferated around the globe in the late 1960s, particularly in 1968. And while OWS shares similarities with the more militant Bonus Army and Coxey's Army, it also resembles the countercultural movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s in their critique of materialism, their rejection of organizational hierarchy, in the youth and education level of its core participants, and in the nonviolent method of protest. Curiously, some commentators shy away from making this comparison, perhaps in reaction to harsh critics of the movement who have peremptorily dismissed it as the collective whining of, in Hitzlik's words, "idle hippies." It is clear, however, that the OWS defies such myopic and pejorative descriptions. Wherever and however it ends, we will be able to better understand the movement if we take a broader view both of its historical antecedents and the international context in which it was born and continues to grow.
Administration as being irresponsibly profligate
The state of North Carolina unveiled a commemorative license plate for the Civil War yesterday, promoting the official themes of the state's sesquicentennial observance: Freedom, Sacrifice, and Memory. While some state legislatures established official commissions to guide their commemorative programs, North Carolina's did not. Instead, the state's Office of Archives and History in the Department of Cultural Resources formed a Civil War 150 committee to devise programs to mark the sesquicentennial. The office ought to be commended for consciously choosing themes that cover a wide range of subjects and engage a variety of perspectives on the war, from men and women to secessionists and unionists, soldiers and non-combatants, and slaves and freedpeople, among others.
Unlike the controversial proposal this past February to put Nathan Bedford Forrest on Mississippi's license plate, North Carolina is using its plate to display its inclusive themes prominently. They are stamped across the top of the plate, just underneath the URL address for the Civil War 150 committee. The plate also features an image of a Civil War artillery crew in shadow (and therefore neither "blue" nor "gray"), manning a cannon. The martial image might seem somewhat jarring when paired with committee's grand themes, but it is not surprising in light of the fact that the plate is designed to be attractive to a broad base of potential customers. Seemingly heroic, martial images likely sell well among Civil War buffs and casual observers alike, and proceeds from the sale of these plates will go right back to the Department of Cultural Resources. It's another interesting intersection of the educational imperative and the profit motive, and one that appears to have been resolved in far less controversial fashion than the above-mentioned proposal to use license plates honor Confederate "heroes" like Forrest.
Historical commemorations often invite spirited debates over the purpose of commemoration itself. Should the primary purpose of our commemorations be to celebrate our shared past and reaffirm our communal and national identity? Should the primary purpose instead be to educate us not only about the heroic but also the horrific aspects of our shared past? Think, for instance, of the uproar over the Smithsonian's Enola Gay exhibit for the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II (as well as continuing controversies over a subsequent exhibit involving the aircraft).
The West Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission has been dealing with a similar controversy over the past year. Disputes over whether the commission should promote educational programs or support local commemorative events geared toward tourists (and their disposable income) led to the resignation of several academic historians from the commission, a development that we discussed in a previous blog post. As a new article in the Charleston Sunday Gazette recounts, the commission is facing a new controversy. At issue is whether or not the commission's funding of local commemorative events extends official state sanction to them. Institutions and events that receive funding from the commission are required to use the state sesquicentennial logo on its printed material, giving those materials the state's literal imprimatur. The commission has funded Guyandotte Civil War Days, a three-day event scheduled for early November, which will feature a talk by H. K. Edgerton, a pro-Confederate speaker and re-enactor who promotes the Black Confederate myth. By funding this event, it could appear that the state's sesquicentennial commission implicitly sanctions Mr. Edgerton's controversial interpretations of black involvement in the Civil War.
At Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin has periodically debunked Mr. Edgerton's repeated claims that thousands of black southerners fought for the Confederacy, and his most recent post about Mr. Edgerton announced that he had been dropped from the Guyandotte Civil War Days schedule. Now, however, Mr. Edgerton is back on the schedule. He is unquestionably an engaging speaker, and he has gained relatively widespread notoriety from his many appearances and Youtube videos, usually arguing that free and enslaved blacks fought alongside white Confederates in solidarity. Mr. Edgerton likely will attract a significant audience, and his talk might add to the "success" of Guyandotte's Civil War Days, but at what cost? His claims typically lack historical evidence, except to cherry-pick and fetishize individual stories of black southerners "serving" on the front lines.
What is the West Virginia sesquicentennial commission's responsibility in this regard? Should the commission expect a certain level of expertise in the educational events it funds? Does the commission bear any responsibility to question or challenge Mr. Edgerton's
typically spurious claims about the war, or should it simply state that the opinions offered at such events do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the state or the commission on the causes and conduct of the war? In other words, what standards and practices should we expect from our public institutions charged with commemorating the Civil War?