Virginia Foxx has “Little Tolerance” For Your Student Loan Debt

As ThinkProgress recently reported, Representative Virginia Foxx recently said on G Gordon Liddy‘s radio show that she has “little tolerance” for those suffering from massive student loan debt:

I went through school, I worked my way through, it took me seven years, I never borrowed a dime of money. He borrowed a little bit because we both were totally on our own when we went to college, totally. […] I have very little tolerance for people who tell me that they graduate with $200,000 of debt or even $80,000 of debt because there’s no reason for that. We live in an opportunity society and people are forgetting that. I remind folks all the time that the Declaration of Independence says “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” You don’t have it dumped in your lap.

To hear the quote in some context, listen to it here:

This is yet another example of the submerged state problem— the inability or refusal of many people to perceive the the way government benefits them personally, preferring instead to see a narrative of self-reliance– creating a dangerous historical blindness.

Foxx graduated from UNC in 1968— which means she went to college from 1961 to 1968: smack-dab in the middle of the period of unprecedented growth in higher education that lasted from 1945 to 1975. This time period was also (and not coincidentally) a time of a great influx of federal dollars into higher education– universities were awash in federal monies, from GI Bill tuitions to Cold War  and Space Race research funding to direct subsidies on higher education to attempt to keep pace with the postwar baby boom.

I don’t mean to downplay Rep. Foxx’s commitment to her education or the sacrifices she made to get there. It can extremely difficult for a student from a poor family to succeed in higher education, especially when they are financially on their own. However, no matter her struggle, it doesn’t lessen the fact that it was simply much easier to do what she did in the 1960s than it is today. The numbers make this abundantly clear:

To take another flagship state school from the southern mid-Atlantic region, tuition and fees for a full-time student at the University of Virginia in 1970 (two years after Dr. Foxx’s completion of her Baccalaureate) was $484 for in-state students. If we go by the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Consumer Price Index Inflation Calculator, that is approximately $2,862 in today’s dollars. However, when we look at the current tuition and fee rate for a full-time, in-state, returning student (in other words, the student who is getting the best deal in terms of price per credit hour) is $11,584 a year. That’s about four times the inflation-adjusted 1970 price.

Even if we overlook the fact that she had a partner to help her financially and share costs and that it took her almost twice the “normal” amount of time to matriculate, Dr. Foxx is positing that avoidance of debt is possible for students based on her own experience at a time when school cost approximately a quarter what it does now. This is simply not a tenable model of behavior for students in the current academic economy.

Representative Foxx’s comments would merely be frustrating and irksome if she was some random congressperson. But this is a former higher education administrator, and the Chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training, who is serving as such at a time when unemployment among young adults is at a 60-year high, and when many are anticipating student loans to be the next economic “bubble” to burst.

It is essential that our citizens– especially those who choose to serve the nation by leading it– are able to perceive the topography of history, to see how historical forces shape the facts of our world in ways that cannot be blotted out by ideology or partisan concern. Dr. Foxx is either unable or unwilling to do so when it comes to the facts of university finance, and this is especially problematic given her position. And her willingness to express a lack of sympathy for individuals who are truly caught between the massive bureaucracies of the loan providers and the skyrocketing price of tuition, rather than targeting either of these systemic problems, is especially troubling.


Eric Schmidt and the Submerged State Problem

Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, speaking at the Edinburgh TV Festival, recently decided to explain to the British public exactly what was wrong with their computer industry– their education system. A quote from Schmidt’s talk, posted on GigaOm, really grabbed my attention as a historian of media and technology:

“The UK is the home of so many media inventions,” he said. “It’s interesting that you invented photography, you invented television, you invented computers in both concept and in practice — it’s not widely known, but the world’s first office computer was built in 1951 by Lyon’s chain of tea shops. Interesting. Yet nobody, none of the world’s leading players in these fields are from the UK. That’s a problem.”

Now while I’m sure that the British public was pleased as punch to have Schmidt come over and lecture them on their nation’s historical achievements and its subsequent inability to live up to those achievements, I wonder if anyone in the audience immediately noticed what a tin ear for history Schmidt seems to have.

The British definitely do deserve a lot of credit in the early history of computing. And Tim Berners-Lee, a product of British schools somewhat later, has had a little bit of influence himself. The fact is, though, that– as Schmidt was arguing– the British influence on the computer market isn’t what one might have expected it to be in the 1950s. But for Schmidt to pointedly lay that on the feet of British teachers is historically inaccurate, to put it mildly.

Schmidt is letting an ideologically-driven mythos of the history of computers drive his interpretation of history at the expense of very basic facts.

Silicon Valley likes to think of itself as a meritocracy. Every company starts with scrappy, nerdy college kids in a garage somewhere, college dropouts become multibillionaires, and the internet is a place where information wants to be free– and make the deserving very, very rich. Internet wonks and tech firms are full of techno-libertarians who believe that computers make the market work better, and that markets fix everything in the end. It’s an understandable belief. Computers are a disruptive technology, and disruptive technologies always (initially) upset rigid class boundaries. For this reason, tech is full of people who made it to the top because of skill, intelligence, and perseverance in a way that older industries are not.

However, this fact has led to blind spots about the history of the industry, and why the computer industry looks the way it does. The fact is that the US government spent its way to US dominance in the computer market in the era when the British really had a chance to be players.

This is a widely-established fact, a matter of public record, even if it isn’t often brought up in the mythos of American computing and Silicon Valley. For a single, easily readable account, see Roy Rosenzweig’s historiographical article “Wizards, Bureaucrats, Warriors, and Hackers: Writing the History of the Internet,” recently collected in his posthumous volume Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age (most of which, ironically, is available for free on Google Books):

That the Cold War. . .fostered the development of digital computers is relatively easy to show. In 1950, for example, the federal government– overwhelmingly, its military agencies– provided 75 to 80 percent of computer development funds. Even when companies began funding their own research and development, they did so with the knowledge of a guaranteed military market. Such massive government support enabled American computer research to destroy foreign (mostly British) competition; the American hegemony in computer markets– routinely attributed to American free markets– rests on a solid base of government-subsidized military funding. “The computerization of society,” writer Frank Rose aptly observes, “has essentially been a side effect of the computerization of war.”

So why this collective amnesia in the tech industry about who has been filling its coffers for most of the last half-century? I would argue that it’s a problem of what Suzanne Mettler has described as “the submerged state.” That is: beneficiaries of government successful government programs have a tendency to forget that they are the beneficiaries of government programs. They tend to think of their success as their own, over-emphasizing the importance of their own accomplishments and underestimating the institutional structures that allowed them to achieve them. Just like how 45% of recipients of unemployment insurance claimed to not be beneficiaries of government programs, the American tech industry sees government grants and contracts as a right, as something earned, not as a hand up.

That someone as intelligent as Schmidt could overlook this difference in subsidy defies reason, especially since he himself is a beneficiary of that same fountain of money. Google would never have existed without the Department of Defense’s funding of the proto-Internet ARPANET, or without military and other government grants and contracts with Stanford where Larry and Sergey did the original work on PageRank, just to name the two most obvious.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think that students do need a “license to tinker” And if Schmidt is honestly trying to get the British to follow Barak Obama’s lead in funding more education Engineers, I support that. He’s right, “the world needs more engineers.” My primary reason for writing this is primarily to point out that blaming the British tech market for not keeping up with America’s on issues of curricula seems, historically speaking, colossally unfair.

But there’s something more, too– I think that Schmidt’s tenuous grasp on his industry’s history belies the difficulty with his desire to return to 19th century standards of education:

“It was a time when the same people wrote poetry and built bridges,” he said. “Lewis Carroll didn’t just write one of the classic fairytales of all time. He was also a mathematics tutor at Oxford. James Clerk Maxwell was described by Einstein as among the best physicists since Newton – but was also a published poet.”

This is all true, of course. But the issue that I have is this: in a time when America is in the middle of a blame-the-teacher-first “educational reform” movement, when the British government is in the middle of austerity reforms, a call for this sort of integrated liberal education is likely to fall on deaf ears, and more likely to be interpreted as a call to defund the humanities, rather than simply beef up funding for science education.

And this is dangerous. It’s dangerous because Eric Schmidt is a Very Clever Fellow, and he missed a very fundamental point about the history of the industry that has made him a billionaire. In a world where history becomes a generalist hobby for businessmen and engineers, where funding is taken away from the humanities, we are likely to only see far more misunderstandings like this. And failing to understand the history of a subject tends to make it very easy to make very, very bad decisions about the future.