I’d like to examine some of the assumptions that are made when one looks at the student protests in Québec through an inappropriate cultural lens. I’ll try to take them one at a time.
1. Student “Selfishness”
A common meme in English media and culture is that the students are simply being selfish, and unwilling to pay their ‘fair share’ of public education. In English Canada, as I mentioned in my last post, the understanding of education past secondary school has become a rather corporate experience, paid for by individual consumers at great (and increasing) personal cost. It is largely seen as a means to an economic end, and thousands of students in Ontario and elsewhere end up in debt to the University system out of a feeling of necessity, thinking that a degree is a laisse-passer to get a job. The education is not usually an end in itself, and the crippling debt that one incurs in this exercise in credentialism is merely seen as the price one pays for the degree itself. An extremely capitalist attitude, in other words, and one fraught with misconception, as James Côté and others have pointed out.
Under such a cultural understanding of education, the education of an individual student is just that: an opportunity for the personal economic advancement of a single person. As such, it is thought, it should be paid for by that individual, and not out of the common purse. Many commentators have forwarded the opinion that “I paid through the nose for my education; why should the students in Québec get a free ride at my expense?” This completely ignores the utterly different notion of the value of education in Québec. In that province, education for the masses, and full participation in industrialised society and economies, was not always a given. They were fought for. Taxes in Québec (personal taxes, that is; corporate taxes in the province are astonishingly low) are among the highest in all of North America as a result of the decision that education (and childcare, e.g.) benefit society as a whole, and not just individuals. Like health care, it is believed that everyone should be able to access it, regardless of income, and to be denied it for any reason is a violation of basic rights. We (mostly) subscribe to the argument when it comes to health care in English Canada, but for some reason not in regards to education past high school. The fallacious and extremely conservative claim that education is ‘for’ financial advancement certainly adds to this blind spot; under that model, after all, competition should be the dominant model, not cooperation. More on that some other time.
So let’s look at the claim that students are being ‘selfish’.
Actually, by any reasonable definition of the term, students are not being selfish. The current student population will not be seriously affected by the hikes. The students who will be affected are currently not yet in high school. Ergo, the students are taking a principled stand for the future of people who are not them. They’re doing this for their future society, not for themselves. In fact, they took a risk with their own academic year, and the money they spent on it. Hmmmm…..sounds like the OPPOSITE of selfish to me! In fact, though the Charest government offered them the opportunity to be selfish, they did not take it. The government offered to delay the implementation of the tuition hikes beyond the period when the current students would be at all affected. (They also simultaneously upped the fee hikes to something like 85% for that future generation of students.) This offer was rejected on principle.
So, despite repeated demonstrations and statements by students that their protests are notselfishly motivated, that remains the dominant meme in the English media. As to the claim, resulting from this fundamental misunderstanding of the principles involved, that “These students pay less than I did for university; therefore they have no right to speak,” leaving aside for the moment my last point, which was that their cultural and historical context is utterly different from other Canadians’, AND leaving aside the fundamental error of fact that such a statement comes from, let me address the logic of that ‘argument’.
A major flaw is the fact that it represents a race to the bottom. If your own circumstances are bad, but you can find someone somewhere whose situation is worse, it is not a strong argument to say either a) that your circumstances are therefore comparatively fine, and you have no right to try to better those circumstances, or b) that everybody’s circumstances should be as bad as that other person’s. Sour grapes, however, are a powerful tool of division.
Let’s say that Person A pays $5 for an apple. Person B goes elsewhere and pays $10 for the same fruit. Person B finds out about person A’s good luck, and instead of thinking, “Man, I got scammed…I’ll take it up with that unethical apple seller”, he thinks, “That stupid person A!! I’ll make his life miserable. How dare he get a better deal than me?” And then he goes to person A’s apple seller, and forces him to raise his prices to $10 as well. Result: everybody loses, except the apple merchants. How can we do this to each other? Is the Canadian ideal to just drag everybody down to the lowest, worst level possible ?
The illogic of that position should be obvious, and the only question remains, “Why would anyone think like that?” The question cui bono? (“who benefits?”) is a useful one. While we bicker amongst ourselves about $5, the CEOs of Apples, Inc. make $5M bonuses. Divide and conquer. This, by the way, is a staple of colonial education; if the colonised are fighting each other, they can hardly spare the attention it would take to fight their real oppressors. As Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan Nobel-nominated author and political writer, says in Decolonising the Mind,
[The colonisation of Kenya] was effected through the sword and the bullet. But the night of the sword and the bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and the blackboard. The physical violence of the battlefield was followed by the psychological violence of the classroom.
[…] Thus one of the most humiliating experiences was to be caught speaking Gikuyu in the vicinity of the school. The culprit was given corporal punishment – three to five strokes of the cane on bare buttocks – or was made to carry a metal plate around the neck with inscriptions such as I AM STUPID or I AM A DONKEY. Sometimes the culprits were fined money that could hardly afford. And how did the teachers catch the culprits? A button was initially given to one pupil who was supposed to hand it over to whoever was caught speaking his mother tongue. Whoever had the button at the end of the day would sing who had given it to him and the ensuing process would bring out all the culprits of the day. Thus children were turned into witch-hunters and in the process were taught the lucrative value of being a traitor to one’s immediate community.
[…]The attitude to English was the exact opposite: any achievement in spoken or written English was highly rewarded. [In the colonial education system, which advanced by qualifying exams,] nobody could pass the exam who failed the English language paper no matter how brilliantly he had done in the other subjects. [. . .] English was the official vehicle and the magic formula to colonial elitism.
Who benefits from this division? Those who divide, obviously. Those who wish to undo and negate the advancements made during the Quiet Revolution. Luckily, just because I already got scammed and paid for my $10 apple, that doesn’t mean my kids have to suffer — by the time they get to the apple cart, it’ll be $30 an apple! I see it (as the students in Québec see it) as my duty not to let that happen, even if I am not myself going to benefit proximally from low tuition costs.
While we’re on the subject, I might mention the vast social benefits that come from a more educated population. Contrary to the capitalist, consumer-model, where the only beneficiaries of education are the students themselves, on an economic level, everyone benefits from high levels of good education.
Here are just a few of the big points from a study on the fiscal investment returns of education:
•Parents’ education has strong effects on children. Thus the benefits of higher education accrue over extended periods.
•Higher parental education is associated with greater family investments in children in the form of parental time and expenditures on children.
•Children of more educated parents generally perform better in school and in the labour market, and have better health. A substantial amount of research concludes that education has a causal impact on health.
•Higher parental education is also associated with lower criminal propensities in children, and less child abuse and neglect. Lochner and Moretti(2004) calculate that raising the high school graduation rate by 1% will reduce the costs of crime by approximately $1.4 billion dollars per year in the U.S.
These estimates suggest that the social return to education is similar to the private returns associated with higher lifetime earnings,which are also in the range of 7-10 percent. Evidence suggests that the social returns to education are substantial and justify significant public subsidization of this activity. It seems like we’d be saving money in areas like health care and the justice system, in other words: sounds like a good argument against the ‘selfish’ moniker to me.