by Rodolfo F. Acuña
The United States is the land of illusions. Like Disneyland, it is more fiction than reality. The American Dream is part of surreal world, constructed as a form of social control that distorts the memory blinding Americans to the injustices, inequalities and imperfections of American society. Like old Shirley Temple movies, Americans are princes and princesses who pass through bad times believing that they will be saved because they are Americans.
These illusions are built around myths such as that of Horatio Alger that has persisted for over 150 years. For Americans Horatio Alger is as real as Superman.
Horatio Alger Jr in 1867 published the first of over 120 books that told the tale of rags to riches to young working class boys. The moral of the stories was that if the boys led exemplary lives, struggled against poverty and adversity that they could make it. Someday they would be rich and heirs to the American Dream.
The stairway to the American Dream was meritocracy and education. America was the land of opportunity, every American if he worked hard enough could get an education; it was free and more accessible in the United States than any place in world. Opportunity was knocking, and it was your fault if you did not take advantage of it.
The Horatio Alger Myth resembles fantasy tales such as Superman, Captain America, Spiderman and Batman. The truth be told, Horatio Alger just like education has never been equal or free in America.
Even during the Post-World War II era when the illusion was more plausible, accessibility depended on the hue of one’s skin and his or her social class.
In this context, Los Angeles has been called La La Land because Angelinos were said to be in their own world. However, this self-absorbed frame of mind is true of all Americans; they are not a benevolent, kind or generous people.
In 1960 Democratic Governor Pat Brown and University of California President Clark Kerr helped develop the California Master Plan for Higher Education. It neatly defined the roles of the University of California (UC), the California State College (CSC), and the California Community Colleges systems (CCC).
The master plan was the perfect pyramid: the UC was at the top, the state colleges in the middle and the junior colleges were at the bottom. The two-year college perpetuated the illusion that Californians were living the American Dream. Despite this wrongheaded logic, the college systems were important because they were tuition-free essentially guaranteeing free higher education to everyone.
But, the world was changing. American captains of industry had in the 1950s committed itself to deindustrialization and the globalization of its capital, lessening the need for an educated workforce. Just as the U.S. had imported German rocket scientists, the ruling elites’ worldview became more global; they felt they could import brainpower without paying for the education of the children of factory workers
In 1966 the illusion of equal opportunity suffered a fatal blow with the election of Governor Ronald Reagan who led the assault on the University of California. Reagan vowed to “clean up that mess in Berkeley” that, according to him, was led by “outside agitators” and left-wing subversives. Reagan laid the foundations for a shift to a tuition-based funding model. The goal was to eliminate taxes and privatize public institutions.
Moneyed interests nationwide set out to destroy public two-year schools, which served almost one-half of the nation’s first-year college students. By the 21st century, as tuition soared at the four year universities, students were pushed down to the community colleges.
The Great Recession of 2008 ended all illusions of public education. By 2011, the UC officially switched from a system of fees to an explicitly tuition-centric model. Moreover, since 2007, the UC has promoted the admission out-of-state and foreign students as a way of raising revenues. Incentives were built into the admission process to admit fewer California students.
California has stopped building new colleges and universities; new buildings are built in great part from student funds. Programs such as the UNAM/CSUN accord are vested in student funds. According to many critics the process is irreversible.
From 2005 to 2010, over 75 percent of newly accredited colleges and universities were for-profits funded in global capital markets. For-profits now make up over 25 percent of all post-secondary institutions in the United States. Without saying so, they are more expensive than the former public universities. The outcome is that students leave college with higher student debts.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education is projected to make $127 billion in profit over the next decade from lending to college students and their families. These loans are packaged and sold to financial institutions and hedge funds. The truth be told, grants to low income students subsidize the growing for profit and so-called non-profit universities.
In a 2010 exposé Peter Byrne reported that the UC’s $53 billion portfolio invested in two for-profits institutions completing Ronald Reagan vision of destroying “the creeping communism of master-planned and state-funded public education.”
In 2011, California public colleges and universities received 13 percent less in state funding; this was not by accident. By this this time “nearly half of all graduates of public and private four-year schools in California were saddled with an average debt load of $18,000”; the national average was $26,682.
It is also not an accident that funding for community colleges remained static although demand had increased. Reduced class offerings, fewer sections of the classes, and the laying off of faculty and staff forced many students into for profit schools. These overbooked classes took the two year colleges to the breaking point.
One proposed solution was to charge students an added fee to get priority registration for impacted classes. In 2010, because of a student uproar, a contract was cancelled with the for-profit Kaplan University to offer discounted online classes to community college students for community college credit.
Globally, education is important. When asked what was the key challenge facing Latin America over the next decade, the top answer among students was education. Students saw it as the key to jobs. However, increasingly through the intervention of American institutions such as the International Monetary Fund its leaders are adopting the American neo-liberal model, and for-profit colleges are flourishing in Brazil, Mexico and Chile.
Reading this material only makes the silence of the lambs more deafening.
The Daily Caller published an article titled “Why are the Clintons hawking a seedy, Soros-backed for-profit college corporation?” George Soros supposedly one of the good billionaires hired Bill Clinton as a pitchman for Laureate Education Inc., a for-profit higher education powerhouse. Laureate owns 75 schools in 30 countries. And it boasts of 800,000 students worldwide. Also promoting this venture is Henry Cisneros and other Clinton stalwarts.
How different are we today from the Gilded Age when railroad lobbyists would go on the floor of Congress and pass out railroad stock before a vote on railroad subsidies? This is not the Land of Oz, and if we are being had, we should at least be aware of it, and not adopt failed neo-liberal policies. What is happening to American public education should serve as a warning to Mexico and the rest of the world that “Made in America” does not mean quality.
I was just talking to one of my grandsons who boasted that he had just bought an annual pass to Disneyland for $359. According to him, it was a deal. I shrugged my shoulders, but really how different is this than believing in Horatio Alger and the American Dream?
Rodolfo Acuña, Ph.D., is an historian, professor emeritus, and one of various scholars of Chicano studies, which he teaches at California State University, Northridge. He is the author of Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. Dr. Acuña writes various opinions and essays on his Facebook page and allows sites to share his thoughts.