Massacres Ours and Theirs

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As I watched some of the coverage of the Virginia Tech incident this past week, I could not help but be reminded of another massacre that occurred thirty-seven years ago next month at Kent State University. On that day I was being pepper gassed as I marched in solidarity at Michigan State with my fallen comrades at Kent State who were massacred by a government which at that very moment was murdering thousands of Cambodians, dropping bombs it swore it wasn’t dropping and lying through its teeth to the American people in the throes of the Vietnam War. Today I teach with a colleague who, on May 4, 1970, took a stray bullet at Kent State and became permanently disabled as a result.  

But while Kent State and Virginia Tech are venues of physical assault on students, almost no one is aware of the myriad levels on which, in other venues and without the spilling of blood, students are being massacred. Another article this past week which escaped the notice of many but riveted my attention was Danny Schechter’s “A Student Crisis.” Writing, Schechter says, in the spirit of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly,” he reminds us of “the way student loans have become a noose around the necks of a whole generation of students making our colleges and universities likely sets for the next edition of one of those crime scene shows.” Furthermore, in recent weeks the corruption around student loans involving kickbacks, gifts, trips, and other perks to college and university officials involved in the lending process has been exposed and appears to be just the tip of the iceberg. California Congressman George Miller compares the corruption and abuse in the student loan industry to that of Halliburton. Moreover, Miller’s investigations have also revealed that as well as being deeply mired in corruption, the industry is also involved in datamining of students’ personal records, ostensibly to determine their eligibility for loans.  

Meanwhile says Schecter:

Sallie Mae, the nation’s largest student loan company, announced yesterday that it would be bought by a group of private investors in a $25 billion deal that could reduce public scrutiny of the lender at a time when the student loan industry is under siege.

The enormous deal underscores the potential for profit that Wall Street sees in the $85 billion-a-year student loan industry, even as Congress considers slashing billions of dollars in federal loan subsidies and an expanding nationwide probe reveals fresh conflicts of interest in the student lending world.”

Schechter knows about these things as a result of his splendid documentary, “In Debt We Trust,” which illuminates not only the student loan debacle but the seduction of financially unsophisticated college freshmen into the black hole of credit card debt -- an average of $20,000 per college graduate.

To fully comprehend the economic plight of today’s college student/graduate, I strongly recommend Anya Kamenetz’s superb book Generation Debt and her article “Greed Aid,”  which was part of her 2004 “Generation Debt” series of articles in Village Voice. Kamenetz analyzes the student loan/debt issue and reveals the lifelong misery that it is inflicting on millions of students. Tragically, and God forbid, the seeds sown in this present economic assault on students could eventually produce the harvest of another literal massacre on some college or university campus somewhere in the future by some troubled graduate, buried in mid-life under a crushing mountain of debt.

But the economic warfare being waged on students is only one aspect of the massacre. Even more brutal, yet silent and seemingly benign, is the massacre of minds. Supposedly, students attend college and universities to get an education, and supposedly, even if they attend a community college, they are required to show up with basic skills. Yet anyone who has been teaching college students for the past twenty years knows that only a tiny segment of incoming freshmen are capable of writing an English sentence, and even more frightening is the reality that non-English speakers from other countries are often capable of doing so while students educated in the US aren’t. Sadly, I’ve discovered that, overall, college students do not like to read and have trouble concentrating on textbook or other reading assignments. It is not uncommon for them to purchase $150 textbooks and almost never open them. Faculty frequently report that they are only able to lecture 15 or 20 minutes and then must incorporate a Power Point presentation or utilize video or DVD material in order not to lose the attention of their students. In other words, the present generation of high school graduates often finds concepts without the dazzle of special effects, elusive and monotonous.

Increasingly, children in public schools are experiencing horrific levels of violence on a daily basis as they are forced to deal with physical or verbal bullying from other students and ineffectual school administrations with no funds to put bullies and their parents in programs that would adequately address the issue. Periodically, protracted bullying erupts in a Columbine or a Virginia Tech incident, perpetrated either by the bully or one of his victims. Then everyone rushes to “heal and move on,” never willing to explore the deeper roots of the violence.

Overwhelmingly, as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which Greg Palast has so appropriately named “No Child’s Behind Left,” students coming to college from a public school seem to excel in test-taking, but have virtually no critical thinking skills. In my experience, I find that students enjoy critically thinking once they have learned the skill, but they require training for it because it is a foreign concept.  

NCLB is a gargantuan assault not only on the minds of public school and college students, but on the entire society. It is, in my opinion, the principal reason, besides skillfully-cultivated fear, that Americans could be lied into the Iraq War. When Colin Powell made his bogus case for war in front of the United Nations in 2003, a society of critical thinkers would have raised their eyebrows and asked more probing questions. As it was, a British news channel exposed his plagiarism of a graduate student’s essay as a fundamental piece of his presentation. (Students serve many purposes for the ruling elite, do they not?) When during that presentation Powell held up a vial of white powder, touting it as anthrax, critically thinking Americans should not have turned as white as the powder with fear, but rather demanded proof that the vial was not filled with baking soda. When Condoleeza Rice threatened that if we did not invade Iraq, a mushroom cloud would hang over America because Iraq was purportedly in the process of manufacturing a nuclear bomb, a country of critical thinkers would have unambiguously and boisterously insisted on proof beyond the whining, photo-op assertions of the former Chevron board member. But as one of my students naively asked later, “If it wasn’t true, why did they have it on CNN?”

My answer: Because CNN is corporate media whose job it is to act as stenographers for the regime and “sell” its agenda to a nation of citizens who are incapable of thinking analytically, and in 2003, the scam was successful beyond the wildest dreams of the neocons who devised it.

Naturally, in my field I am constantly reminded of how trivial and irrelevant America’s public education system has rendered the study of history. Most college students have no sense of it and report enduring the mind-numbing boredom of high school history classes either by ditching, text-messaging, or falling asleep. Increasingly, as with art and music programs, funding for history is being slashed both in high schools and colleges and increased for engineering and computer technology programs.

Some years ago I heard John Judge remark that, “a people who have no knowledge of their history are easily manipulated and dominated.” Deny students the ability to read, write, critically think, and study history, and you have a nation of sycophants who ask no questions and comply with virtually any directive in the name of patriotism or national security as they are almost certain to do when they are sold the regime’s propaganda regarding the National I.D. Act and the U.S. government’s plan to incorporate its provisions in 2009. After all, who among them is willing to have the privilege of obtaining or renewing a drivers license, opening a bank account, or boarding a plane denied?

So what is the destiny of this generation of students? Where will they end up besides unfathomably in debt? Sadly, they are facing a future hammered by global warming, global energy depletion, and global economic meltdown. They will go forth from the halls of academia, and if they are not well-connected, they will take the jobs they can get. They will graduate into a world of outsourced American jobs which will force them to accept mind- and soul-numbing positions with insufficient pay, often with few or no benefits. Those in tech fields may fare better than those in other professions, I wouldn’t be willing to bet that in another decade they will be delirious with a sense of job satisfaction.  

Many, wide-eyed with idealism, will enter the teaching profession, determined to teach differently than they were taught, but according to statistics from 2005, half of the teachers surveyed plan to be out of the profession by 2010. These hopeful education majors will vow to give students a genuine education, not just prepare pupils for NCLB tests, but unless they are teaching in private schools where NCLB is not incorporated and which also pay less than public schools, they will be discouraged and demoralized within less than a decade. In public schools they will soon discover that whether they like NCLB or not, their salaries will be tied to the test scores they produce, in which case, why not “teach to the test” instead of giving students an education? They may learn to live with a system that makes authentic teaching virtually impossible, in which case, they will become robotic moving parts in a nationwide dumbing-down mechanism, or choosing not to live with it, they will abandon the career for which they have trained in favor of remaining true to their calling as educators.

Increasingly, trade and tech schools will be the choice of many high school graduates, and a college education will ultimately become untenable financially for the middle-class student and impractical in terms of its value in securing lucrative employment. As the current housing bubble worsens and impacts the credit industry and interest rates, and as the Bush administration endeavors to eliminate the Mortgage Tax Credit, owning one’s home will not be in the future of many college graduates. And given the new bankruptcy laws of 2005, declaring bankruptcy in the face of grinding debt will not be an option, and this generation of graduates will never, ever get ahead financially.

So on the one hand, the carnage at Virginia Tech is equivalent to what innocent Iraqis and most US combat troops experience at least twice a week, and therefore, brings home to our own soil the horrors of mass violence. But at the same time if we are among those critically thinking Americans to whom I alluded above, then we must also consider the full spectrum of assault being waged on today’s students which encompasses high schools, colleges, and universities across America, and we must consider the consequences of those assaults in terms of the misery, despair, and even violence that they are certain to evoke in the coming years.

In recent months I have been pleased to hear of a resurgence of chapters of SDS (Students For A Democratic Society) at US colleges and universities. As well as protesting the Iraq War, some have been instrumental in organizing for wage increases and benefits for campus workers. Hopefully, they will also begin or have already begun to organize against the economic warfare being waged on students by the debt industry.

Carolyn Baker, Ph.D. is author of a forthcoming book, Coming Out from Christian Fundamentalism: Affirming Life, Love and The Sacred. Her recent book, U.S. HISTORY UNCENSORED: What Your High School Textbook! Didn’t Tell You, is available at her website:  

Other Articles by Carolyn Baker

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