Janine Jackson interviewed educator Kevin Kumashiro about student debt forgiveness for the June 28, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Gee, corporate media, tell us how you really feel.
While Big Media’s coverage has lots of room for arguments against proposals from presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and <others, for full or partial cancellation of US families’ trillion-plus dollars in undergraduate and graduate school debt, it’s remarkable that we’re even having a conversation about such a radical idea. And in some ways, howling, like one Fox pundit’s “Hey, Bernie, I’ve Got $500,000 in Student Loan Debt—but You Can Keep Your Government Handout” seems like a sign of fear—fear that when it comes to access to education, people are ready to think big.
Our next guest says if we’re thinking big, let’s think really big about the role of education—who gets it, and why—in US society. Kevin Kumashiro is former dean of the School of Education at the University of San Francisco, founder of Education Deans for Justice and Equity, and author of, most recently, Bad Teacher!: How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture. He joins us now from California. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Kevin Kumashiro.
Kevin Kumashiro: Janine, thanks so much for having me.
JJ: When you’re watching corporate media debate on an issue you care about, it’s hard to know whether to spend time combating the particular myths and misinformation in the conversation as it is, or to simply have a different conversation, with different premises and, frankly, participants.
If people are saying they oppose “government handouts,” for instance, you may feel a need to say, “Well, what about handouts to corporations?” But then you’re still stuck in this frame of seeing government as a separate force, apart from people, that’s giving things and taking them away, rather than a system that’s meant to be working to serve the common good.
And then what do you make of the arguments, those that we are hearing, against those plans?
KK: I think it’s really exciting that student debt relief is being elevated to the level that it is. It’s about time that we’re having this conversation. As you’ve mentioned, we know that there is over $1.6 trillion in student debt currently; that affects about 45 million people in this country. And this is a number, this is an amount, that has actually ballooned over the past couple of decades.
So one of the things that I think the proposals force us to think about is, what are our priorities right now, and how should that be reflected in our national budgets? Budgets reflect priorities, and if we were to fairly tax the rich and the corporations, and if we were to invest in education rather than in instruments of violence and repression, like prisons and war and so on, I think we would be able to create a budget that reflects that. This is absolutely affordable.
One of the things that I like to argue, however, is that as ambitious, as controversial, as some people think that these proposals are, I actually would say that they don’t quite go far enough, in the way that we’re talking about it still.
And what I mean by that is, right now, the debate seems to be, how do we make education more affordable?—as if education is a commodity, where those who have the wealth can afford to buy the best.
And what I would say is, “Yeah, we could engage in that debate, but maybe the bigger debate is, should education be seen and treated as a commodity in the first place?” Right?
Education, I think many of us would argue, is so fundamentally important, not only to individual wellness and livelihood and success, but also to the health and well-being of the community and the society, right? It strengthens democracy, it strengthens participation, social relations, global health. And so one of the things we should be thinking about is how education should be a fundamental human right for everyone. And what did it mean to invest in that? Where pre-K through college, you have the right to get the level of education that you need to be successful and happy in the world. And I think that’s where I would like to see the conversation going. And, hopefully, that’s a reframing that we are heading towards.
JJ: Well, I have seen sympathetic portrayals of people trapped in student loan debt. USA Today, on June 26, had an article evoking how people can get caught up, and how they are left open to predations from scam debt-consolidation companies, for instance. And then on another tack of the issue, the Washington Post had a data-driven piece about the negative impacts on the overall economy of student loan debt, which is something that I know that you’ve thought about, and that noted that the $1.6 trillion in debt that US families are carrying has doubled since the mid-2000s, which you also just said, and which a lot of newspaper articles leave out.
I would also say that media are doing a pretty good job of leaving most of the moralizing to the op-eds—you know, things like “I Worked as a Janitor to Keep My Student Loans Low. Wiping Debt Punishes Students Like Me,” which was in USA Today.
But what I’m not getting is what you’re talking about, which is the idea that, in reality, this is a bigger question about the role of education in society. I wonder how you see us moving the conversation from this specific conversation about Warren, about Sanders, and those plans; how do we push it to that bigger dialogue that you’re looking for?
KK: Yeah, it’s a great question, because overlapping with the ballooning of student debt over the last two decades is something that’s fueled that ballooning, which is the disinvestment by the public sector in public education.
So higher education is a great example, where it’s hard to call public universities public universities, because such a small percentage of their budget actually comes from the public sector. So what we’ve seen in the past 20 years is a massive decline, in some cases half, maybe even more than half, lost—in terms of what the states used to be contributing to, for example, state-run universities.
And where does that shortfall now get taken up? Well, some of it gets taken up in fundraising. And some of it gets taken up in corporate sponsorships. But the vast majority of budget shortfalls gets taken up by tuition increases. So there’s a direct connection between disinvesting in public institutions—in other words, making them less public—and seeing the students take on the burden.
And when we talk about the difference between public and private education, I think it’s also important to think about who do these universities serve. Right? Public universities serve a far more racially diverse population, they have more first-generation students, more working-class students, more immigrant students; they’re actually serving the students most in need.
And I think for many public universities, that was the vision, right, is that they would actually be the universities for the people; they were a counter to the elite private universities.
And so when we see public universities less able to serve their mission of reaching this much more diverse, underserved population, because we’re disinvesting in them, why are we not surprised, then, that the people with the least resources are now shouldering the greatest burden, in terms of trying to get education?
So, yeah, I think pushing the conversation, in terms of saying, “Well, what is the responsibility of society to educate its next generation? And how do we build up institutions where everyone can really benefit from that?”
And let me just say one more thing to even push the conversation a little further. One of the things that I like to argue is that we should not be debating, how do we give equal access to the institutions, to higher education, as it currently exists. That actually isn’t what we should be debating.
Because the reality is that higher education is not equitable right now. The current state of higher education is that it’s sort of like public schools—you have a handful of very elite institutions that serve the more elite population. And then you have a vast number of underfunded, under-resourced institutions that are serving the masses.
We don’t want to give equal access to that. What we actually want to do is level the playing field, by saying that the institutions themselves need to be more equitable.
So when I talk about reforming education, and thinking about the funding of education, I don’t argue that we simply need to equalize how individuals finance their education. I actually argue that we need to be thinking more equitably about the funding of the system, and how that then changes the hierarchy that currently exists between educational institutions. We need to be changing the system of education, not simply individual access.
JJ: And some of the opponents on this particular issue of debt forgiveness, they, I think, have a more comprehensive vision, because some of them are the same people who are also fighting affirmative action—in higher education, in particular; some of them are the same who are against the very idea of public education that you’re talking about.
And I feel like latent in a lot of debate is the idea that education is supposed to be unobtainable for many, because otherwise, it’s not as valuable as a stratifier, as a screen. And among other things, to pick up on that you just said, that’s not the historical vision of education in this country, is it? I mean, if you look back at the history, education had a democratizing impulse behind it.
KK: So that’s such a great reminder, is that the history of education in this country is a very complicated and contested one. And when we look throughout the last century and a half, for example, what we can see is that different groups have argued for competing purposes of education.They’ve put forth different arguments of what education should be about.
So what I like to argue is that, let’s start with kind of public schools, K–12, elementary, secondary schools. When we first created public schools in this country, we didn’t create them for everyone; we created them for only the most elite. And as we were forced to integrate more and more, we just came up with more and more ways to divide and sort them, such as through segregated schools, or tracked classrooms or labeling, discipline and disenfranchisement.
And so, when we think about the achievement gap, or this gap in performance among students, many people say that that’s a sign that schools are failing. I like those who make a slightly more provocative argument, that actually the achievement gap is a sign, in some ways, that schools are succeeding, that they were doing exactly what they were set up to do.
So one of the things that we need to be arguing is not that we simply need to tinker with the system because it’s not really working well. What we actually need to recognize is that the system was built on really problematic assumptions, ideologies and exclusions from its very beginning. And our job is not to wish them away; our job is actually to dive into that contradiction and that messiness, and to say, “Well, how do we work in institutions that maybe were never intended for us, but still make them into the liberatory, revolutionary, democratizing institutions that they have the potential for?” Right?
Alongside the history of sorting and stratifying, you have a equally long history of people arguing that schools can be a democratizing force, and have been very forceful and persuasive at changing policies and institutions to move us in that direction. Schools have always been the site of struggle.
And this is another moment when we need to dive in and say, “Yes, we need to struggle, and we need to put forward a much bolder vision than we’re currently pursuing.”
JJ: Just finally, to return to media: I think part of what resists the bigger and more comprehensive thinking that you are encouraging—I mean, obviously, if you’re thinking about access to education, a natural question is, “Well, what jobs are there for people?” You know, assuming they we had access to education, it has to be a part of a bigger picture.
And part of how media resist that conversation is the way they atomize topics of coverage. So you’ll find this story over here about student debt forgiveness, but it won’t even talk about how people plan to fund that; it’s sort of separated, and so it becomes this idea in isolation.
And that, I think, inhibits not just public understanding of any given issue, but also our imagination, and our ability to believe in the possibilities of change.
KK: Yeah, I love that way of putting it, because it reminds me that education, so often, is talked about with really narrow boundaries, the way we think about what education should be all about. Many people are fixated on the idea that it’s about job preparedness.
And, yeah, of course education is in some ways about preparing us for our future role in the economy. But I like to say that education is also about teaching us to think, and teaching us to question, and teaching us to build a better tomorrow and a better society.
In other words, education isn’t simply to help us succeed in the world as it is. Education is actually about helping us to imagine and create the world that doesn’t yet exist. And that can be most scary to precisely the people that you’re talking about, the corporate elite, the most powerful, the most dominant.
Why? Because they benefit the most from the system as it is, right? And so it’s not surprising that they’re going to be the most vocal and the most forceful and violent in attacking the proposals that can fundamentally transform schools.
But that’s exactly what we need to be doing. That’s exactly what we should be expecting. And I think, in many ways, that’s exactly what we’re seeing. So all the more reason we need to dive in with much more confidence, but also with much more complexity, as we push the envelope.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Kevin Kumashiro. His most recent book is Bad Teacher!: How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture. You can follow his work at KevinKumashiro.com. Kevin Kumashiro, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
KK: Thanks again for having me.