Thursday, January 7, 2010

DEBT, EDUCATION AND INDENTURED SERVITUDE--AMERICAN STYLE

A REFLECTION

This morning, I read an article in Above the Law, a magazine that targets issues relevant to freelance lawyers. In it, editor Elie Mystal lamented the $150,000 debt he assumed to finance his legal education. He called law school debt "The Silent Killer." His experience with debt even caused him to characterize his legal education as an "expensive vacation that debt financed."

In many ways, I am in Elie Mystal's boat. I graduated from law school in 2006 with about $95,000 in debt. Like Elie, I detested private practice and gave it up on principle. You see, I have this little problem: I insist on ethics and honor. That makes private law practice, well, a bit incongruous.

Since 2007, I have done consulting jobs that pay the crushing loan installments. Even more recently, I haven't been able to work at all due my partner's health crisis. The creditors don't care, of course. They just want their monthly checks; they don't give a damn about your problems.

I agree that debt is a "silent killer." Thanks to bank-friendly Bush-era deregulation in place at the time I signed my promissory notes, my loan principal has actually increased since I began repaying in late 2006. In essence, the banks have a permanent lien on my financial lifeblood, which is meager at best. This permanent financial burden robs voluntariness from all my employment decisions: I can't work a public interest job that won't even cover my monthly debt bill. I call this predicament "modern indentured servitude" because debt essentially compels work particular jobs in order to pay off the boulder that has been tied around their necks. Their choices are illusory; they must take a job that pays a certain amount or go bankrupt.

Elie also should have mentioned another issue that contributes to the debt crisis plaguing American graduate students: Deception. To be blunt, I entered law school under almost laughably false economic assumptions. I believed that my legal education would entitle me to an automatic $125,000-a-year job. I had worked at a law firm before law school and everyone there said that a law degree is basically a meal ticket. Law schools perpetuated that belief with "employment statistics" that corroborated my assumptions. Thus, I happily took out $100,000 in loans to finance my meal ticket. After all, I thought, what's $100,000 in debt if I'm certain to have a $125,000-a-year job waiting for me when I'm done?

"Ha! I can pay that off with a single bonus check," I declared in 2003.

What foolishness. But it is widespread foolishness. And every new law student subscribes to it. I know I did. Plus I was a wet-faced 25-year-old who knew nothing about the brutal vagaries of the private employment market. No, I learned the hard way--and only after sinking myself into an intractable debt pit.

Despite all this, I disagree with Elie's assertion that law school was a "very expensive vacation that debt financed." I do not regret my education in the least. I took it seriously; I never felt that I was on vacation while studying. True, it is unfortunate that I had to become an indentured servant in order to obtain my education. But I relish what I learned in law school. As a writer, it helps me every day. It enriched the way I think about every intellectual issue I encounter. I am thankful for my legal education. It pays psychic rewards in the classical sense, even if it does not fill my bank account.

But most people do not get educations--at least in America--to enrich their perspectives. They get educations to get jobs and make tons of money until they die or retire. In my view, this is the fundamental problem with the American system: People do not care about learning for its own sake. They use it merely to become commercial instruments for the rest of their lives. In that light, it is no surprise that debt plays a role in the system. Just as entrepreneurs take out loans in order to make more money in the future, so too do students take out loans in order to transform themselves into "profitable ventures." American students, in other words, are no different than entrepreneurs; they both gamble with debt in order to cash in later. And the goal of education in America is exactly the same as the goal of everyday business: Simple commercial success.

This leads me to my core objection: Shouldn't academic pursuits and crass commercial concerns be distinct? Sadly, the educational debt quandary in America shows that they are not.
That's a shame. And it's ruining many people's lives every day.

If only we could follow Aristotle's prescription for education: "[F]or it is more necessary to equalize appetites than possessions, and that can only be done by adequate education under the laws." The Politics, Book II, ch. vii at 1266b24.

In other words, education should not be a means to obtain "possessions," but rather to refine "appetites." It is not about "having" tangible things. It is about character; and you can't buy that.

5 comments:

dmitry said...

I agree with you. Education should not make people indentured to their work, but hey, thats the world we live in. Everybody wants to make a dollar. Business and law schools are no different. I read some where that half the people that went to law school regret it. Thats a lot of people, but I do not think they regret the learning, its the financial costs that burden them. Obama promised help to the average middle class student. After world war 2, soldiers went to college for free. We should do something about it, but the new government, just like the old, only says things to get elected and its up to the individual to make things happen.

askcherlock said...

A person with good character is a rare find today. All the trappings of life matter not without a solid grounding of decent character.

angelshair said...

As you said, this education system is meant for people who sees education as a way to obtain possessions.
I find it very hard to have to start your adult life with debt.
I studied history wich is very enriching for the mind, but not very helpful for job search :). Fortunatly for me, it was in a country where education is free, otherwise I don't know how I would have pay my hunger for knowledge.
Anyway, the result of your choices is a very good blog that I really enjoy reading, and I am sure that your talent for writing will be rewarded.

MaxThrust said...

Great article!

Unfortunately our educational system, from the start, is basically to make us good little factory workers. Learn to submit to authority, be on time, do what everyone else does, and learn to put up with boredom and monotony. It's not just college, that's just a continuation of what started at kindergarten. The 'coup de grace' or more like the 'money shot' lol.

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

Thank you for all the comments. Education and debt are always on my mind, so these issues are very personal to me.

When I studied in Berlin in 1999, I used to marvel when students told me that they received university education FOR FREE. They did not start life with debt, and they seemed a lot happier, too. Not only that, but the university system in Germany did not focus on job searching, job fairs or test-taking/ranking. It was much more leisurely, as if the students were happy just to be learning something interesting. They did not compete for grades or stress out about finals.

These things struck a chord with me. And it made me realize that the American system is fundamentally different because it values knowledge to the extent that it fosters employment "virtues." Debt, competition for grades, class ranks, evaluations, job-preparation... these things sound like they belong as much in a Wall Street trading hall as they do in an American university classroom. For good reason, too: Because commerce and education are kindred spirits in the United States.