by Rudy F. Acuña
Elites of whatever race, nationality or historical generation have opposed education as a right. During the 19th century New Mexican hacendados justified their opposition to public education on religious grounds because it threatened their hegemony. A popular saying was “educar un muchacho es perder un buen pastor.” Further New Mexican landowners opposed statehood because it meant paying taxes to educate the poor.
The belief that people have a right to a free education whether primary or higher education is threatening to people who fear equality. This is true whether in the United States or Mexico.
In today’s world education is necessary to break out of the minimum wage cycle. This affects minorities most because they are concentrated in the lower half of the economic ladder, and it is becoming the only way out.
However, this phenomena is no longer a minority thing; white workers are flocking to the minimum wage class in great numbers.
In the 1850s Abraham Lincoln was shocked by George Fitzhugh’s thesis in Sociology for the South (1854) and Cannibals All! (1857) that theorized that all labor including white should be slave labor. The notion scared the hell out of Lincoln and white workers. Today a comparison can be drawn between Fitzhugh’s thesis and the growth of the minimum wage as the norm.
Most Americans believe that society will correct itself. They still believe that a person earning a minimum wage is as free as the Koch Brothers or even people like me who have sinecures.
Education has historically been the vehicle for social mobility. Because of this, white Americans after World War II saw education as a right, one of the limited ways out for the working class. Without an education they were condemned to being minimum wage workers.
Like Fitzhugh’s prophecy, the minimum wage worker has become the modern day wage slave. This status is no longer that of people of color. Even college graduates are today shackled by the minimum wage.
The apologists muddle the right to higher education with sayings such as “Education is a right but should be treated as a privilege” that puts the onus on the individual, and qualifies the right to mean that everyone should be able to have access to an education, but that access implies the duty of the student to better themselves. In other words, education is not an absolute right.
In our society the state controls education; it determines whether something is a right or a privilege. But who controls the state? The bottom-line is we are not all equal. We all have one vote, but the Supremes say the corporations are persons, and that it is unconstitutional to limit the amount they can donate to a political campaign because regulation infringes their free speech rights.
It is fallacious to think that I am as free as the Koch brothers who donate a $100 million to political campaigns. It is just as ridiculous to say that minimum wage workers have the same influence as the one top percent.
In the United States, all rights are derived from property. Rights imply a corresponding duty of the holder. In theory, the only limitation on the holder’s rights is the equal rights of others. According to the founding fathers, the ownership of property was the most important distinction between freedom and tyranny.
A lot of water has gone under the bridge since the founding. The notion of property has changed over the years, and today property is synonymous with capital. Even real property has become liquid and reduced to a commodity.
Thus education means the accumulation of capital, and emphasis is put on the rights of the holders, and not their duties. Regulations are efforts to regulate the abuse of the holders who look at regulation as suppression of their freedom rather than the enforcement of their duties. In their worldview capital has rights and the worker only has privileges that can only be exercised at the discretion of those with rights.
It becomes a worker’s duty to work and capital’s right to profit from his/her labor. In this brave new world it is becoming increasingly rare for the poor to own land. The only out is to move up through education.
Mexicans fought a bloody revolution that cost over a million lives for social rights. It was not fought for privileges; it was fought for access to land and liberty!
Rights are very dear, and as one writer dramatically put it, “our rights come from our creator.” However, they are more fundamental, rights are based on being human. As such government does not have the power to violate a right. Neither does it not have the right to empower corporations to violate our rights.
The Mexican Constitution of 1917 is the first world constitution to set out social rights. The Russian Constitution of 1918 is based the Mexican Constitution. Article 3 guarantees a free, mandatory, and lay education. Today, Mexican students and social reformers are fighting to keep Mexican higher education free and to protect that right.
Yet the Mexican government is surreptitiously undermining the right to free higher education. The National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) is at the crossroads of Mexico’s university system. It is a Taj Mahal with the state universities and satellites badly neglected. Given this reality it is natural that every Mexican student dreams of attending it.
If the Mexican government respected the constitution, it would build facilities to accommodate the over 250,000 graduating seniors who are turned away annually. Instead it invents fictions to reject them.
President Enrique Peña Nieto is violating the constitution in the name of reform – a word that the Mexican and American press are giving a bad name. Like the case of corrupt American congressmen, the Mexican president deals with bought legislators who want to protect the rights of the ruling elites. Consequently, as in the United States, Mexican education is becoming a privilege instead of a right.
Similarly access has been restricted in this country. Because corporate leaders do not want to pay for the costs of social production Public universities have stopped building to accommodate the growing student population. Universities operate more and more on student monies.
Rather than fight for the rights of students, American and Mexican bureaucrats use the excuse there is no room. They use gimmicks to limit access and allow runaway tuition and the privatization of higher education.
In 2008, according to the Pew Center, graduating students borrowed 50 percent more (in inflated-adjusted dollars) than those graduating in 1996. Their debt went from $17,075 in 1996 to $23,287 in 2008. Seventy-five percent of the respondents to a poll said college was just too expensive. Almost fifty percent could not afford to go to college.
In a “Time Marches On” fashion, forty years ago education was relatively free. High school students had options such as working at GM Van Nuys, Lockheed, or one of the many factories that serviced these plants. My engineering students in the 1980s worked for the computer industry, earning enough to support themselves and contribute to their families. The majority of these jobs have been outsourced.
In the 1950s, workers were oblivious to deindustrialization and the assault on trade unions. They rationalized that they were different than blacks and Latinos who were at the time denied access to industrial jobs and public colleges. By the 1980s the children of white workers could not find union jobs and were relegated to minimum wage labor. Today our children are forced to live with us; when they can work it is a minimum wage job –it is becoming the standard for all workers.
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.