The Closing of the American Mind

I. That Strange Brown Man, Gandhi.

Gandhi is standing in the bustle of Occupy Boston. The wry smile, the flapping ears, and the walking stick in hand. A sign flags near his knees, “The world holds enough for everyone’s NEED, but not enough for everyone’s GREED.” People rush past him, walking on the wooden planks that work as the walkways between tents in Dewey Square. These people are temporary heroes, the people who have walked away from their ordinary lives to seek shelter together in the public square. Some of these people are happy, pleased to be together and to model a different social life. Others are already cold, already a bit dispirited. The days have begun to drag on. The novelty will wear off. It is precisely to ward off a drop in morale that Gandhi warned his fellow activists, “If patience is worth anything, it must endure to the end of time. And a living faith will last in the midst of the blackest storm” (Young India, June 17, 1926).

Quakers from the Peace Abbey in Sherborn, Massachusetts, brought the statue to the site. They had made it as a gift to Goldman Sachs. On October 28, 2010, the Abbey workers and children from the Life Experience School came down to the Goldman office on High Street, not far from Dewey Square. They wanted to install their statue of Gandhi as a beacon against Greed. Goldman’s people declined the offer, so Gandhi was then chained to the doors of the building. He didn’t last long, went back to the Abbey, and then, when Occupy Boston started, came to his place amongst the protestors.

II. The Wrong Dewey.

Occupy Boston is in Dewey Square, in the canyons of finance – the Boston Federal Reserve, PNC Bank, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America (BofA. BofA seems never to leave the bad side of history. I remember spending nights at a shantytown in California twenty five years ago, protesting the Bank ofApartheid, as we called it, for its considerable investment in South Africa.

On September 30, about three thousand people marched from the Boston Common to the BofA office at 100 Federal Street to protest against the Bank’s aggressive foreclosure practices (particularly in majority minority neighborhoods). The Right to the City Alliance drew upon its impressive coalition of unions and community organizations to bring out the outraged, who blocked the doors to the BofA’s offices. The police arrested twenty-four people, including Presley Obasohan of Dorchester, MA, who says, “I blocked the doors at Bank of America so that my neighbors and me can stay in our homes. So many people have been thrown out of their homes or lost their jobs needlessly because of mistakes made by Wall Street Banks. Yet it’s the banks who are now rewarded with billions in tax refunds. It’s time to fight back.”

There was not much talk of foreclosures at Occupy Boston when I went there.

There were a few signs to mark the massive military frontier of the United States. Dewey Square, the site of Occupy Boston, is named forAdmiral George Dewey, the Civil War hero who led the charge into Manila during the 1898 Spanish-American War. Dewey’s central feat was first to take advantage of the desperate help afforded by the Filipino rebels (led by Emilio Aguinaldo), and then when the Spanish were in retreat to force Aguinaldo into submission to American authority. The Square itself bears the marks of American imperialism, and of the military debt that will transfer across the generations. Despite this, there was not much talk of militarism and military debt among the Occupiers.

The main issue at Occupy Boston is of a different kind of debt, those owed by young people who took out impossible student loans. Thetotal student debt in the United States is now over $1 trillion. It weighs down on the imagination of the youth, for whom education is reduced to a currency for future earnings (so as to pay off the debt) rather than an encounter totransform their intellectual horizons. This is the kind of crisis that would make sense to Vermont’s other Dewey, John, whose ideas about education are now relegated to the lonely corners of the library. In 1920, in his Democracy and Education, Dewey warned against vocational or trade education, which is the direction in which our students are now perforce to go. If vocational education dominated the curriculum, Dewey wrote, “education would become an instrument of perpetuating unchanged the existing industrial order of society, instead of operating as a means of transformation.” Any education that leads to the simple act of learning a trade or a skill is “illiberal and immoral,” Dewey argued, because the graduates “do what they do, not freely and intelligently, but for the sake of the wage earned.”

Today, the situation is more unpleasant. There are fewer wages to be earned. Yet, there is greater need for a radical imagination.

Mike, who is fixing his tent, tells me that he went to a community college with good grades. He had no scholarship and no means to pay with his family’s savings. This meant college loans. It also meant that Mike had to work a full-time job over the weekends. The financial crash of 2008 washed away the meager financial aid he had begun to receive. Mike had to drop out. He had no degree. But he had $12,000 in student debt. Nothing, not even bankruptcy, wipes out this debt. Mike went to work, trying to earn enough money both to pay off his debt and to save to go back to school. This is a Sisyphean task. Mike’s anger is against the banks, the “invisible organizations.”

Twenty-nine percent of students, such as Mike, worked more than thirty-five hours per week, and a majority of them (fifty-three percent), again like Mike, failed to graduate largely, but not wholly, because they simply did not have the time to read, to study.

A few tents down sits Drew, who like many other homeless people wants to go to Florida, where it is warmer. Drew worked at Costco, which recently fired him. “I lost everything,” he says. The system is trying to “eliminate the middle class,” he pointed out, giving him no chance to go to school or to get a stable job. Drew is afraid of debt. He’s right. It is corrosive.

I find Jen sitting very quietly. Debt came to her purposefully. She carries student loans in the tens of thousands. I can see it in her eyes. “You can be anything you want,” she says of what she was told when younger. “That’s a lie.” She comes from a middle-class suburb of Boston, where upward mobility has been blocked by the financial crisis. “Where I come from there is no community,” she says, repeating William Whyte (The Organization Man, 1956) who said of such suburbs, “it remains a development, more than a community.” It is the Occupy encampment that has allowed Jen to have a feeling of community, and hope that somehow, as if byevaporation, the experience of this protest will remove her debt.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York pointed to the $1trillion figure of student debt ($100 million of student loans taken out in2010, twice the amount from 2005). Real wages in the United States have remained stagnant since 1973. To send their children to college, families have taken out second mortgages on homes, taken out loans against their future income or else allowed their charges to take out loans on their own. There is no capacity to pay for college through earnings and savings (as the CollegeBoard has been warning us since at least 2005). Between 1992 and 1999, annual borrowing for students at four-year public colleges rose by 65 percent, from $1800 to $3000. This meant that the average debt for a four-year cycle rose in this period to $12,000. With this burden, a congressional study noted, “the students from low income families are often unable to support loans after graduation.” The understatement buried in the phrase “unable to support loans” is pointed: it means that students leave college just barely out of their teens in a financial situation that resembles bankruptcy.

Burdened by student debt and afraid of the jobs crisis, students are simply not able to enter college to expand their horizons. In 2006, Helen Lowery of Boston University told the Christian Science Monitor, “I really want to work in advocacy law, but from a practical perspective that’s not going to happen. I just won’t be able to pay back my loans.” The freedom to think is encroached upon by the encumbrances of money. This is before the current financial crisis. It is worse now.

This is the Closing of the American Mind.

III. Free Education.

Pankaj Mehta, a theoretical physicist, invited me to speak at Occupy Boston as part of the Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture Series. The Series is the first offering of the Free School University, which is poised to start offering regular classes, and perhaps offering degrees. Such an exercise will permit us to think of the de-commodification of education, study that has not been turned into a product to buy and sell.

Conversations at Occupy Boston revive ideas of free education. I broached it to those I met. The idea does sound ludicrous. However, many countries offer either free education or what amounts to free education (between 70 and 90 percent of the college costs paid for): Austria, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Turkey. The governments of Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom contribute between 55 and 70 percent of college costs (but not for long in Cameron’s England). The tuition and fees to all public institutions of higher education in the United States is somewhere in the ballpark of $25 billion (according to the Labor Institute). That is a small proportion of the cost of the wars ($7.6 trillion since 9/11) and of corporate tax breaks (of which, deferral on foreign income is by itself $1 trillion). The cost of higher education is a fraction of the $1.35 trillion to $3 trillion, which is range of the cost of the Bush and Obama tax cuts.

So much hidden money, so much enforced austerity.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at: 

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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).