Monday, January 19, 2015

Backing Into Aristotle

I’ve seen some pretty skeptical commentary recently about whether people really need free college.  Given the existence of Pell grants, the argument goes, haven’t we already covered that?  Why give away money to people who don’t need it?


Because if we want more people to succeed, they’ll need the help.  As James Baldwin noted decades ago and Charles Blow nicely reminded us yesterday, being poor is expensive.

Low-wage jobs rarely have fixed hours, and even more rarely have 40 fixed hours.  They usually vary both in number and in timing.  That makes it much more difficult than it should be to cobble part-time jobs together.  And even if you do, variable hours make it difficult to arrange for child care, or even for transportation if you’re relying on buses.

Laundry is more time-consuming if you don’t have a washer and dryer at home.  Depending on how close the laundromat is, you may have to build in a dedicated trip each way, and you can’t do much else while your laundry is running.  And for reasons I’ve never understood, laundromats never get the ratio of dryers to washers quite right, which adds more time.

Low-income areas tend to attract more police scrutiny, and the residents there are often less likely to get the benefit of the doubt.  Dealing with the fallout of that adds complications to daily life.  Low-income areas also frequently lack supermarkets, so high-quality food is less available and more expensive than it is elsewhere.  

If you’re lucky enough to have a car, you know the joy of the random, abrupt, expensive car repair.  In addition to the money, abrupt car repairs also cost time and cause scheduling chaos.  People who can afford newer cars can go years between major repairs; folks who own older, cheaper ones get interrupted by breakdowns a lot more.  To a skeptical employer, that can look like personal unreliability.

And then there’s the sheer stress of it.  I clearly remember times in my life when I envied the people at the supermarket who didn’t have to keep a running tally in their heads as they filled their carts.  (And I didn’t even have kids!  That would have made it much harder.)  Mindless grocery shopping is a privilege that comes with money.  Without money, even groceries are exhausting.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, but I hope it conveys the idea.  

In grad school, I was taught that Virginia Woolf’s statement about needing a room of one’s own with a lock on the door was a feminist statement.  It was that, but it also applies here.  

Serious study is not something we should expect most people to be able to do effectively when they can’t get uninterrupted time, or when they’re so stressed out that they can’t really focus on any one thing for very long.  A heroic few do, and we collectively salute their “grit,” but requiring more of people who have less violates a basic sense of fairness.  

Advanced study requires time.  That should be obvious, though it tends to drop out of the public debate.  Aristotle knew it; that’s why he suggested that slaves, women, and manual laborers had no business engaging in politics.  He assumed that they were too burdened with material necessity to raise their sights higher.  As our income disparities continue to grow, and steadily more privation is visited upon the young, I’m worried that without realizing it, we’re backing into Aristotle’s vision.  Students at Georgetown dream of working at the Hague, while students at Northern Virginia Community College try valiantly to study on the bus.  And now a majority -- a majority! -- of public school students in America lives in poverty.  

Community colleges work against the drift towards polarization.  They’re built to enable everyone, no matter how modest the background, to raise their sights.  But for that to happen, the students need to have enough time and calm in their lives to take advantage.  The more we “means-test” the opportunity to take a breather, the more we betray the purpose of public higher education.  

Do students need the help?  We have over a trillion dollars of student loan debt, and students who still struggle with the stuff of daily life.  Yes.  They need it, and we need them to get it.