If knowledge is power, then there can be no doubt that there is a ruling class in the United States. A year at college can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and tuition is only going up—having increased an average of 10% in the past four years alone—making—a university education inaccessible for many people. To add insult to injury, many colleges are officially “nonprofit” organizations and, in fact, receive subsidies from both the federal and state governments.
Ironically, the very ruling class that presides over this system of miseducation is concerned about this situation. It is increasingly commonplace to see government officials talking about the need to limit the cost of a college education or enact some form of debt relief program for students. This is not because they care about the citizenry’s right to education in the abstract, but flows from the clear and present danger that multinational corporations will not be able to find sufficiently educated workers, as so many have been priced out of higher education. Yet efforts to reduce the price of college on a capitalist basis are doomed in advance to fail. Just as corporations compete with each other to reduce wages, colleges compete to extract the greatest possible amount of money from students while spending the least on education, hiding behind their nonprofit status or pouring millions into becoming property magnates. The very nature of capitalist competition precludes any centralized effort by capitalist parties to reduce the burden on students and their families.
The creation of a layer of workers indefinitely trying to pay off the higher-education debt also serves a political and socially stabilizing purpose for the American bourgeois. If workers are concerned about maintaining steady employment to keep up with student loan payments, they will be less able to engage in dissident political activity and organization. While billionaires continue to make money under the protection of bankruptcy laws, student debt cannot be discharged even if one declares bankruptcy. Combined with the lack of stability that is characteristic of today’s economy, the threat of student debt is held over the heads of those workers who aspire to both a higher education and social change.
The US government recognizes this and is itself in the business of selling loans to students unable to afford tuition out of pocket. However, the systemic stability generated by creating a layer of people on the edge of financial ruin can turn into its opposite. A crisis of student loan defaults is in the cards, and will almost certainly be a factor in the next economic downturn.
And despite the need for more highly educated workers in today’s increasingly technology-driven economy, a section of the more farsighted bourgeois is deathly afraid of the consequences of widespread education. There is a reason the Catholic Church wanted to keep people illiterate for centuries and burned those who translated the Bible into local languages at the stake! This fear is often expressed in a crude anti-intellectual way, with right-wing pundits declaring that universities are breeding grounds for all kinds of undesirable ideas and lifestyles—all lumped together under the absurd label of “cultural Marxism.”
It also takes a more “sophisticated,” form with snobbish elites parroting the nonsensical claim that many people do not have the intellectual capacity to thrive in an academic environment. The root of these fears is the realization that those who dominate society are in a tiny minority, and that their monopoly on specialized knowledge is rapidly dissipating. There is also the danger of an increasingly radical student movement fed up with the status quo. For all the absurdities and one-sidedness contained in right-wing portrayals of colleges as fermenting “cultural Marxism,” there is an element of truth in what they say. Insofar as Marxism corresponds to reality, students honestly seeking a rational way to explain and change the world will be increasingly drawn to it.
By contrast, Marxists are totally unambiguous about where we stand. We demand that education be accessible to everyone and that all student debt be immediately abolished. As the program of the US IMT states: “Abolish tuition fees and forgive student loans. Provide living grants and paid internships to all students. Nationalize the private universities and colleges and merge them into one united public system of higher education. Fully fund and expand our public schools, colleges, and universities . . . for lifelong learning for all from the cradle to the grave.” This is a program for a socialist education system, open to everyone and capable of providing a quality education to everyone.
Such a sweeping change in our educational system will, of course, only be achieved through a social and political revolution. Students must organize among themselves and link their campus activism with local and international movements of the working class. The student movement cannot and must not isolate itself from the broader struggle of the working class to fight capitalism, or restrict itself to narrow “student” issues. Our struggles must be carried into every part of life. With this outlook and approach, we can be confident that many of today’s student activists will form the cadre of a future mass revolutionary party.