Saturday, December 29, 2012

A College Christmas Carol

…at Remaking the University, Chris Newfield compares "A Christmas Carol" to current stories of struggling, indebted students. 

Elsewhere, Stephen Downes comments on the NYT article that Newfield references below, "T[he students] need a broader array of social supports, and most of all, a society determined to help them out of poverty, rather than blame them for being in it. But I see no sign higher education as a sector has any real interest in that."  

Here Newfield calls for that to change and tasks senior college officials with working to restore the bankruptcy option...lest Marley's fate await them... 

As Scrooge leaves his counting-house on Christmas Eve, he encounters his cheerful nephew, who tells his Uncle Scrooge that Christmas is one of those "many things from which I might have derived good, [but] by which I have not profited, I dare say."   The good, the nephew continues, is to have the one moment in the year in which "men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys."

Scrooge dismisses this feeling and, with a final dig at his long-suffering clerk, leaves his office, only to be confronted by two amiable gentlemen who are soliciting "some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time."

Scrooge asks them, "are there no prisons?" 
"Plenty of prisons" one replies.  "And the Union workhouses? Are they still in operation"? Yes, he hears.  "The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour then? said Scrooge." Yes.  Well that is enough then, Scrooge replies.  "I help to support the establishments I have mentioned--they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there."  The gentleman responds, "Many can't go there; and many would rather die."  "If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

 Thus spake the Scrooge we know best from the Dickens parable: a social Darwinist, happy to let the market decide who is weak and who is strong and to let the weak die out. Any similarity among the fates of people differently placed in Victorian England's class society, as the nephew proposed, is a holiday illusion.

What happens next is pretty well known too.  Scrooge the accountant is visited by his long-dead partner, Marley, or rather by Marley's ghost. Marley explains why he continues to walk the earth, after death, in chains: "It is required of every man, that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death."  The ghost is forced to witness what it can no longer share, weighted down by the material possesses on whose accumulation it had foolishly devoted its years alive.  "I wear the chain I forged in life," Marley explains.  "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will . . ."

When we say "don't be a Scrooge," we forget the Scrooge at the end of the story, who by the visitations of Marley's Ghost and the three others has been radically transformed.  He dances with childish delight at finding himself to be alive, buys his clerk's family the largest turkey he can find, comes to his house to dine with him and to become a second father to Tiny Tim.  He goes on to spend his life "abroad among his fellowmen." "I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year," he famously exclaims. How he will do this is equally important: "I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of the Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach."

The lessons are versions of the same, which is that Gain Kills: putting Gain first kills love, kills defenseless children, kills society itself. This is why those those who have weakened society using it as a strip mine for profit are doomed to wander without society--but with all their earthly possessions chained to them....

Fast forward to our own period....

Last week,Times reporter Jason LaParle told a Christmas Carol about three poor students trying to go to college from a Galveston, Texas, high school. Called "For Poor, Leap to College Often Results in a Hard Fall," it describes the struggles of three brilliant but isolated Island girls from low-income families. The systems that cause many to say "the poor are taken care of" are all in place: the three meet in an Upward Bound program that gets them to Chicago to see alternative futures, the high school has a heroic guidance counselor to watch over them, and they obtain financial aid. Two of the "triplets" follow the classic low-income path of "under matching" -- one stops after community college in Galveston. and the other gets a B.A. at a state college. This second student, Melissa, graduates from Texas State with $44,000 in loans.

The third student, Angelica, is the most disturbing case.  She grows up bilingual in a strict Mexican-American family, studies German and goes Goth in high school, and is such a remarkable student that when the school's German teacher quits the administration asks Angelica to finish teaching the course.  She gets into Emory, which takes a special interest in helping low income students and has twice Harvard's proportion of Pell Grant students to prove it.  She is so impressive that her professors take a personal interest when her troubles hurt her grades, her family is basically supportive, and yet she sinks under the weight of financial aid complications that have to be read to be believed....byzantine confusion as the supposedly supportive financial aid system does its work.  Angelica winds up with $61,000 in debt, not having yet graduated, and -- well I won't spoil the whole thing. Please read it.

DeParle's high level of storytelling is as close as most of us can come to a visit from Marley's Ghost.  What are we going to do about a society that dishes out increasingly Victorian treatments to the people who are its future?

....The senior officers of the University of California and other public universities should start pushing for normal bankruptcy protection for graduates. Since our universities are in fact not run by Wall Street, and since university managers care more about their own students than about the pricing of loan-backed securities, there is nothing to stop them.  Bankruptcy protection for students is in fact something that even post-ghost Scrooge would support. [Emphasis added]

Read the complete article, A College Christmas Carol: Restoring the Bankruptcy Option


  1. Having read this article and winced at its cruel fate, I laud your comments, and I hope that exposing this, and other such atrocities, will help society see what a Victorian age we are still living in, instead of the 21st century we should be embracing, with a nod to its future, and to the education of its future, where students should be able to graduate with safety nets intact, with debts that don't strangle them. I agree wholeheartedly: post-ghost Scrooge would indeed support bankruptcy protection, emphasis added! And he would even dance with childish delight.

  2. I feel strongly that student access, affordability and debt issue must be ours as well. Making gains without them or at their expense makes us complicit. Yet I hear/read faculty (tenured & NTT) take the stand that they cannot let it stand in the way of their goals. That two very different higher ed bloggers, both of whom I respect, come out as clearly as they have is heartening...and surely a message to keep pushing the rock uphill.

    Also, I can't help wondering if Emory might have been more helpful to a more compliant, obviously subservient, easily co-opted Angelica... did her attitude signal a potential boat rocker?

  3. I guess we'll never know. From the looks of it, it doesn't look as if Emory is going to do anything about it, first, and second, it doesn't look as if she has the energy anymore to keep on fighting. But we just know what's written in the article.


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