In the midst of another mass shooting of school children, revealing again the deep illness and trauma of murderous violence the nation has failed to address, as well as the ongoing war in Ukraine, where arguably global democracy hangs in the balance, dependent on the successful resistance of the Ukrainian military, the issue of student loan forgiveness may not seem to convey the same urgency or assert itself as a policy priority at this moment.
And yet, if we understand fully the implications of forgiving student loan debt from a broader perspective of our national values and collective well-being, I think we can see that there is much at stake for promoting—indeed, protecting—our democracy in this decision.
To be fair, the average American reading CNN or following coverage generally about debates around student loan forgiveness would never guess that crucial social and democratic values—and the promotion of democracy itself—are at stake in this decision.
The issue is almost always talked about in virtually purely economic terms—how such loan forgiveness would provide relief to struggling Americans or serve to stimulate the economy overall.
To be sure, forgiving student debt would be a boon to the economy.
College debt levels have topped $1.7 trillion and, according to many economists, constitute a major drag on our economy. Think about it: college graduates saddled with debt are reluctant, and frankly unable, to purchase a home, start a family, or create a small business, constraining key sectors that drive economic growth and vitality under capitalism such as the housing market and entrepreneurial development.
According to a study from the Levy Institute, canceling student debt would spur economic activity to the tune of creating between 1.2 and 1.5 million new jobs in the first few years, creating tax-paying citizens who buy houses, start families, create businesses, and so forth.
But there is much more at stake in forgiving debt; and particularly as we mourn the children murdered in Uvalde, we must recognize the need to create a democratic culture that prioritizes mutual aid and foregrounds the importance of the concept of the public good.
Forgiving student loan debt is not just a matter of the government handing out “free money” to an educated class that is defaulting on its obligations, as critics of forgiveness legislation so frequently put it. Its importance extends even well beyond the benefits proponents highlight.
Rather, a chief statement forgiving student debt would make is that providing access to higher education, where the people of the nation can cultivate their talents and abilities to the highest degree, is in fact a public good that serves all of us, the nation—and, indeed, the world—as a whole.
Our nation benefits when we cultivate our collective intelligence, developing the nation’s people to figure out how best to grow food, generate energy to warm and cool our homes and fuel our lives, address climate change, govern ourselves, and obviously much more—all for the good of the public. Indeed, our land grant public universities were created, at their inception, particularly to educate the citizenry to do the work necessary to make our society and economy operate. Initially, such universities tended to emphasize instruction in fields such as agricultural and military sciences, recognizing the needs to feed and defend the nation. Those are public goods.
We all benefit when each of us is enabled and encouraged to pursue and develop one’s talents to the fullest.
We should all be able to recognize, for example, when we stop to think about it for two seconds, that private corporations very much benefit from our public education system, particularly our higher education system. This system basically provides an educated workforce for these companies often for free, given that corporations such as Amazon have a track record of paying little to no taxes. We could easily forgive student simply by transferring the cost, through a fair system of taxation, including a wealth tax, to those who are actually benefiting the most from having an educated workforce.
Too often, education, particularly higher education, is talked about and viewed merely as the private interest of the individual seeking a good job and a nice life.
It’s important we see higher education as a public good, in the ways I’ve explained, and not simply a private individual interest or benefit.
Social, political, and economic democracy depend on people having access to higher education and the opportunity to fully cultivate their abilities so they can contribute to the public good.
At root, too, in seeing higher education as a public good that should be available to all is a recognition of our interdependence and thus hopefully, too, of our need to act out of spirit of mutual aid.
Cultivating this ethos, this value, of mutual aid, sadly, is sorely lacking in American society today and, arguably, this lack has much to do with the erosion of and threat to American democracy.
We have created a culture antagonistic to its own people. Failure to pass gun legislation, to protect kids at school—these are all failures to promote a democratic culture that recognizes the value of each individual and seeks to enable the free and full development of each individual.
Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and civic leader in Philadelphia during the formation of the early American republic, said, “Every man in a republic is public property. His time and talents—his youth—his manhood—his old age, nay more, life, all belong to the country.”
This is an interesting, and it seems to me accurate thought. As much as it’s distasteful to think about people as property, I do take the point that we have all invested in each other in this nation by supporting the public sphere through our taxes. Each and every individual does owe something to the commonweal for their development as a person and, yes, even for their achievements. One couldn’t become wealthy, for example, without the economic and social infrastructure we all help provide.
Forgiving student loans is an opportunity for the nation to create policy rooted in a recognition of the importance of investing in one another for our collective benefit and well-being and for the sustenance of our democracy.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.