Americans turn a deaf ear to Quebec student conflict

Monday, June 4, 2012


John R. MacArthur, Le Devoir

I'm ashamed when I think of the revolt against tuition fee hikes in Quebec, and I'm ashamed for two reasons: first, because my colleagues in American newspapers and magazines have shown a marked lack of interest in a crisis that is unfolding right under their noses; second, because American students and their parents, themselves exhausted by the obscenely high cost of four years of U.S. college* education, have almost nothing to say on the topic.

I admit that Bill 78 and its repercussions on civil liberties have roused the barons of the English-speaking press from their previous slumber. For example, Time Magazine appears to be a tad annoyed that the festive Montréal of which they are so fond is now under siege by thousands of protestors and police: we are far from the lilting Jazz-Festival atmosphere. And yet this widely read magazine cannot help attempting to conjure up a return to the tourist norm: in its online edition last week, after the second paragraph of a piece on the Quebec uprising, Time's editorial staff inserted a link entitled "Three hours in Montreal," proposing a whirlwind tour of museums, the Plateau, and Saint-Laurent Boulevard, to give visitors a taste of Montreal's joie de vivre.


Seeing actual movement at last in the heart of a North American city fills me with hope. I wonder why a similar protest is not underway here. Why do we hear so few expressions of solidarity with the Quebec strikers?

When I began my studies at Columbia University in the fall of 1974, a full year's tuition was $3,500 (not counting housing and food); today, tuition is up to nearly $43,000.  Add living expenses and schoolbook purchases, and the cost of a quality education like mine easily exceeds $200,000 for four years. Furthermore, in the seventies, students with no financial means could readily obtain scholarships from Columbia, the Federal government or the State of New York (if they were state residents), and they could also borrow at interest rates that were below market, and guaranteed by Washington.

Of course we have to account for inflation. At the time, I was paying around $785 per year for my dorm room, which I shared with another student, plus $775 for bad cafeteria food, and $185 for textbooks: a total, including tuition, of about $5245.

Today I'd be paying $11,000 for housing and food, up to $3000 for books and $2200 for incidentals. In inflation-adjusted dollars, this means that my parents paid around $24,480 for me; compare this to $59,200 for today's students.

My parents were able to pay for my education. At that time, however, Columbia had a school population that was economically and socially diverse. Mine was a bourgeois, mostly Protestant background in Chicago. I shared my first-year suite with an older, black political refugee from the Bahamas; a Jewish young man of modest means from Queens, and a lawyer's son from Long Island.  One of my first friends at school was a construction painter's son.

Today, in contrast, a college education (or any kind of diploma, for that matter) accentuates the growing divide between classes in the United States. After the reactionary Ronald Reagan years, neoliberalism, as advocated by the Clinton administration's "New Democrats," pushed both public and private colleges and universities in the U.S. to lean more and more heavily on private funds, from rich alumni as well as new students from affluent families. Starved of its government funding, the University of California, previously the flower of our public education system, is now forced to admit large numbers of foreign students who can afford to pay the rising tuition costs - and this to the detriment of poor lacks from Los Angeles or San Francisco, who had previously benefited, during the 60s, 70s, and 80s, from affirmative action measures created to correct past injustices and make education accessible to all. Today, it's not just the blacks who are suffering.

Whites of modest means are also victims of the new class system that is sinking its roots into American society. Your choice: either plunge neck-deep into debt, for a diploma that might lead to a professional or executive job, or contemplate your minimum-wage future in a superstore. Many, already backed up to the wall by a deindustrialized, increasingly unequal America, are being forced to choose the insecure existence provided by Wal-Mart.


No substance

And what answer do Barack Obama's "liberals" have to this? Still more free-exchange agreements that lower both working and middle class living conditions, along with educational policies that are entirely devoid of substance. As for the Mitt Romney Republicans, they are touting their eternal solution: the private market. According to this thinking,  greater "competition" among colleges will benefit the student "consumer," who must recognize that education is "expensive" before "choosing" a college.

Ironically, one of these "choices" is McGill, still very cheap compared to Yale, Harvard or Princeton. But wait -- I have information from two students who have made this choice - and who are intelligent people - that the English-language teaching level in Montreal is more rigorous and demanding than it is in the best American universities. U.S. "consumers," then, had better shop very carefully. After all, they would hardly want to pay less, to work harder.


John R. MacArthur is the publisher of Harper's Magazine. His column appears on the first Monday of each month.


Translator's note: In the U.S., the term "college" is the usual term used to refer to institutions of higher learning... for example, a "college education", not a "university education."