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American Students Should Take A Page From The Chilean Uprising

Photo/Simenon/Wikimedia

“In the United States of America, no one should go broke because they chose to go to college.” – President Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, Jan. 27, 2010

Chilean society has been rocked by over three months of protests, beginning as a student uprising demanding affordable education and culminating in workers, environmentalists, LGBT rights activists, and others demanding reforms ranging from “building electric dams in Patagonia to improving education.”

The unrest began when students started taking to the streets en masse to demand “the elimination of a voucher system that supports private universities and demanding free, higher quality education at public universities.” The student revolt’s de facto leader, as it were, is Camilla Vallejo (@camila_vallejo) who has come to be known as “Commander Camila”. According to The Guardian, Vallejo has the ability to shut down whole sections of Santiago. Her call for better, cheaper education, has galvanized nothing less than a major populist uprising:

“Her press conferences can lead to the sacking of a minister. The street marches she leads shut down sections of the Chilean capital. She has the government on the run, and now even has police protection after receiving death threats.

Yet six months ago, no one had heard of Camila Vallejo, the 23-year-old spearheading an uprising that has shaken not only the presidency of the billionaire businessman Sebastián Piñera, but the entire Chilean political class.”

And now, incredibly, student leaders and teachers’ union leaders met with President Pinera for the first time this past Saturday. While both sides found the talks productive, there hasn’t been an agreement on affordable education hammered out yet.

Let’s turn to America now.

Student loan debt is projected to reach $1 trillion by June of 2012. An unjust and downright punitive student loan debt system exists for borrowers, locking them out of discharging their debt in bankruptcy and bringing the full force of the Department of Education down on people who default. This is the same government that ensures that lenders get their money paid back in full (subsidized student loans) and then come after the financially crippled for the bank’s profit. There is much more to be outraged about with this immoral system that ensnares the newly graduated, trapping them in a twisted sort of indentured servitude to a profit-driven education industry. Many of you are probably acutely aware of just how disgusting our higher education system has become, however, as default rates have skyrocketed–and the numbers available are likely conservative, and represent for-profit colleges only. Private college graduate default rates aren’t publicly available.

Where’s the mass outrage on campuses over obscene tuition hikes? Why aren’t graduates organizing to fight back against the lack of protections for people who are forced to default? I asked higher education justice advocate Cryn Johannsen (@cjohanns), founder of All Education Matters, why America (despite massive income inequality rivaling Rwanda and Nepal, a worsening economic outlook, and a more dysfunctional education system that leaves graduates tens of thousands of dollars in debt after graduation) isn’t seeing an uprising even approaching what Chile is experiencing:

“There have been numerous protests this past year, especially in response to tuition hikes. Much like the poor coverage of protests in Wisconsin and Indiana, as well as the protests against harsh immigration laws in Georgia and elsewhere, corporate media fails to cover these stories.”

And while it’s true that there have been a number of protests related to tuition hikes, as well as push-back against state-by-state education budget cuts (not to mention Pell grants on the federal level), one wonders what it will take to get students organized to push back against the tyranny of the higher education system as a whole. Perhaps inconsistent mainstream coverage of student protests contributes to a lack of momentum, much like the town of Budros in the Palestinian territories was experiencing, until independent media began to spread the word about their nonviolent resistance movement (which in turn galvanized other towns.) It’s more complicated than that, of course, but it can’t be denied that political ideas and movements snowball when attention is paid to them, and their popularity increases.

Johannsen continues:

“Just like other groups and facets of U.S. society, students have been depoliticized here. Instead of being citizens, they are repackaged as “consumers.” The language is key. People lose a sense of what they belong to, especially when they are rarely, if ever, referred to as citizens. That means civic engagement is undermined by the constant barrage of messages to consume.”

The scourge of consumption is certainly one factor of many to consider in the depoliticization of America’s student population. Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and author Chris Hedges writes eloquently of the depoliticization of American universities, which were once hotbeds of resistance and critical thought. Thanks to people like Johannsen, the lack of consumer protections for student borrowers is starting to be examined in Washington D.C., although predictably there are powerful interests vested in maintaining the status-quo when it comes to the student loan industry: the industry as a whole has spent over $62 million lobbying Congress over the past decade.

Perhaps as austerity sets in, and many of these education cuts really go into effect, students will see the inequity of continually-rising tuition while educational resources dwindle due to draconian budget cuts–and perhaps that will be the moment when the spark is lit. After all, it took Chile three months to really gather the numbers that made the country’s political elite sit up and take notice–and discontent was brewing long before protests broke out into the street, undoubtedly. America may just take a little longer, right?

Dustin M. Slaughter is the Founder of The David and Goliath Project.

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7 Responses for “American Students Should Take A Page From The Chilean Uprising”

  1. Dorothy Arvizu says:

    This isn’t JUST about the stereotypical 18 – 24 year old ‘college’ student!!! HALF of all college ‘students’ today in the US are non-traditional ADULTS who already have dependents, jobs, mortgages and medical bills!! Most don’t have the time or the money to protest anything! this issue has been ‘framed’ as just affecting current students, and that is WRONG. It has to be re-framed as a central financial issue for millions of adults as well as current students. We are missing the boat here.

  2. Thanks for taking time out to read the editorial, Dorothy. And you’re absolutely right that it isn’t just an issue for the 18-24 age bracket. My contention is that this bracket, however, SHOULD be taking the initiative like the kids in Chile have been, because this younger bracket often doesn’t have dependents and other obligations. And I don’t mention graduates who are just as affected by the lack of consumer protections, because many are working two or more jobs, and have kids, and are just trying to stay afloat.

  3. Herbert Dyer, Jr. says:

    Yes. I agree that today’s “students” encompass a much larger canvass than the traditional 18 — 24 year-olds. As to your number that “HALF” of them are non-traditinal, I’d question that….but the point is made. The gist of the article, though, is sound: Everything….and everybody in this society has been commodified. “Consumer” rather than “citizen” defines who (and what) we all are in this late stage (too late?) of the global capitalist project.

  4. Thank you for reading, Herbert. You both raise very cogent points.

  5. Dorothy Roberts Arvizu says:

    Herbert: This is the short version..

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mature_student

  6. Dorothy Roberts Arvizu says:

    Dustin.. not that the younger generation shouldn’t go ahead and protest for the reasons that you outlined… no argument here. However, as Cryn mentioned, the language we use is critical, and ‘student’ anything has always been problematic because it tends to connote, by design, young, irresponsible, etc and that is adamantly NOT the case with these worse than predatory instruments. Given the longevity of these instruments and lack of ANY protections for borrowers, they are literally life-long debt servitude and as such should be protested by EVERYONE!

  7. Well said, Dustin. Quick Comments:I think you actually don’t go nearly far enough in comparing and contrasting our system with Chile’s, Our reaction with theirs.

    For example: You need to point out the perverse profit motives that have turned the entire lending system (ie lenders, servicers, guarantors, collectors, and even the federal government, which MAKES money on defaulted loans) with clear financial incentives favoring default, rather than healthy loans. You also need to point out that the TRUE default is far higher than 1 in 4, currently, and has been for years. This is almost never pointed out in the MSM, nor is the failure of the Department of Education to warn the public, and Congress about this fact.

    Also, there are free, full and unqualified bankruptcy protections in Chile (as well as other consumer protections that we do not have in the U.S.). Knowing not much more than what I just said about the Chilean system, I’m inclined to say that by comparison, they are advancing a far, far weaker argument, and with obviously far greater effect.

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