When Benjamin Franklin signed the Magna Carta in 1830, he did so to promote one simple ideal, one that touches each of our lives. It didn’t matter who you were, what color your skin was (even though it totally did, and still totally does), whether or not your live-in lover has hooves, hands, claws or a series of whip-like tendrils, what kind of car (horse?) you had, or even if you watched Two and a Half Men. No, what mattered was that there was something uniting us all at the core–a deeply entrenched but vague and unverifiable cultural belief, mired in the vestiges of Puritan self-castigation, that all we have to do is work hard and good things, success, wealth and a healthy, happy family will just sort of fall into place for us. Just like it did for the Fonz, before Mr. Cunningham lost that street fight to the Dog Whisperer. (I never really watched Happy Days.)
After all, Franklin did it for himself. Beginning his life armed only with prodigious natural intelligence, insatiable curiosity, comfortable, stable living conditions, steady income, white skin, lots of books in a time when they were few and expensive, the access to politics and society that come with being a Masonic Grandmaster and family access to education, craft apprenticeship and a constant flow of opportunities, he still somehow managed to claw his way to a position of cultural and scientific significance. After the life of steak, wine, call girls, fame and affluence tragically accompanying his rise to prominence, he passed away at home, his funeral attended only by close friends, family, the spirit of nascent modern democracy in the Western world and a modest 20,000 well-wishers.
Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re saying to yourself, “but I’ve only invented 4 things that revolutionized modern society, and I’m already well into my mediocre adulthood! How can I hope to rise to the level of genetic sorcery that gave America one of the most influential and accomplished intellectuals in worldwide modern history?” Lucky for you, you slimy dolt, Franklin lived his life according to these 13 virtues. I won’t list them here, because being too lazy to click a link to read 13 short sentences is the level of work ethic that keeps crossed fingers and state lotteries in business. To sum them up, though, it again goes something like this:
“Internalize the guilt, industry and temperance of Puritanism, behave in all ways in which you are being constantly watched by the unblinking eyes of countless austere judges, and attach the invisible but fiercely held belief of success to creating an automaton of the body human, a shell of the body physic, and a skeptic of the body carnal.” More or less. Being an affluent genius helps.
Anyway, these were printed in his Autobiography, and because he did them, and look at what he did because of them, these virtues piggybacked on the wide net cast by Poor Richard’s Almanack and his ubiquitous literary and social persona to create an imagined connection between Franklin and his virtues. Time has told the rest of the story, as Franklin is the most cited pop reference to the American Dream–people did not see these virtues as supplements to his life; rather, his life unfolded as it did because of them. See if you can spot the missing premise in the argument.
While the direct virtues have shifted over time, many adages based in them (e.g. “waste not, want not”, “if you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all”) still reinforce the already-lingering sentiment that there is a connection between what one believes in and what one achieves in the equation of progress or success. And because this is idiotic, insofar as assholes, sociopaths, liars, cheats and predators of all kinds are successful, we have brought correspondingly idiotic ideas into the conversation of the American Dream.
Politicians like to talk about the American Dream. Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and even Tricky Dick were in on the fun. And for some reason, basically every president keeps pushing this notion that a college degree is tied to the American Dream. I’m not sure why this is. If you told a farmer to spend $40,000 to build a storehouse he (it’s a male farmer) may never or only partially use, and tried to convince him that this prohibitive initial investment, which may never bear fruit, is still necessary to his lifelong success, he’d probably hit you in the face with something farmy. A shovel or a rake or something. Or if you asked a hairdresser to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to build a salon that can hold up to 80 clients, sure–he has the potential to cut a shit ton of hair and make a lot of money. He has a better chance, I’d say, of drinking that bottle of blue stuff they disinfect the scissors with to drown the pain. He may even accidentally cut himself while taking wild swings at you with a blow dryer while under a barbacide hallucination because you convinced him to mortgage the present for a future that was neither right, reasonable nor safe to assume.
Both shovel guy and hair guy are right. But don’t be fooled by these examples; women can make shitty decisions about the future too. This affects all of us. So in this ongoing dialogue on education, people are for some reason flabbergasted by the increasing cost a degree incurs. That’s totally bananas, I know, that universities charge more for a product in demand, cheapening the education received, devaluing a degree’s significance and saturating the market with too many equally qualified individuals while the same colleges are often overseen by embarrassingly unaware and detached CEOs-cum-administrators, singing in concert with a poorly supervised, short-sighted, over-generous and under-informed federal aid program–the combination of which creates a perfect storm of class, gender and race conflict with enforced economic disparity and damning hardship, prostituting education to any who care to pay the asking price. And they will pay–because they are terrified the invisible hand will pass over them when doling out happiness and stability to those who believed in the Dream. And the fruits of the Dream are sweet unto diabetic; I too dream of a life where I can tell my children they are special and talented while they fail Algebra tests and suck at soccer, then come home to a dinner of piping hot Arby’s while watching a TV show where a dick chef swears at strangers.
But there’s hope for me, and you, yet. The system may be broken, but that’s why we need to fix it. It’s shit wall-to-wall from the bottom up, but if we implement more creative ways to eliminate student debt, then more people will be able to get those jobs that don’t exist and do that work they never liked to begin with in order to earn the money they can’t but use to buy the shit they kind of don’t need and take their families on vacations to places that sell t-shirts that say “I’m with stupid… at the Grand Canyon” or “Pobody’s Nerfect in Niagra Falls!”
In this spirit, I’ve listed 4 innovative ways to help students deal with their debt. Don’t bother thanking me. You wouldn’t even if you wanted to.
1.) Whitewater rafting but with bees instead of water
Debtors would be placed into teams of 5, each team having someone from various different disciplines–for instance, one team might have one from the Humanities, one from Engineering, one from Medical/Nursing, one from Criminal Justice and one from whatever a Forestry person does. It’ll be rafting, in the sense that a raft in involved, but it’ll be more like two teams of people using a giant raft and their educations to work together and race to the finish against another team on a closed course full of weaponized bees. The winners get their loans forgiven; the losers are executed by (wait for it) bee stings. And since federal student debt can’t be inherited by another, this one would free(?) students from debt, one way or the other, 10 at a time. And don’t bother asking, because I already agree: 100% efficiency is good for a debt forgiveness plan.
2.) Steel Cage Death-Matches… between college presidents
Too often, we forget that the students are playing an integral but basic part in the post-partum Ponzi scheme that is college education. Students are thrust into a depressing and unforgiving real world after spending four years stealing and smoking the high school janitor’s cigarettes and daring underclassmen to have sex with the guy in homeroom who still wears Power Rangers sweatpants. It’s all very un-Franklin. That’s why students, many of whom are victims of economic and classist barriers so deeply infused into their daily life so as to seem the natural order of things, should get a pass. Every match would be public vs. private school: the winner, however, gets to maintain the student debt of their university’s students, ensuring losers will go bankrupt and winners stay afloat, living off the loan money of their now-pissed students. Students will instinctively root for the other president to win. This is easily the best way to watch some serious Animal Farm shit get real on campuses nationwide, and nothing brings students together like directed, collective hatred for the person overseeing everything wrong with their own university.
3.) Reasonable interest rates, promises against inflation and recession, realistic costs, judiciously policed loans and non-predatory educational practices to create a stable job market and qualified, non-desperate employment base for a country in the midst of industrial, technological and economic transition
I’ll see a dead sheep get a handy from Jesus Christ himself on Easter morning before we ever see even one of those things.
4.) College vs. College drinking contests
This one, in principle, is kind of a combination of the bee and death-match ones, only with livers and ennui instead of poisonous stings and desperation. And besides, you’re pushing tens of thousands of unprepared, debt-saddled kids out the door and into the street every year. You might as well let them use the one skill they practiced in college that will help them in the future. When you’re in college, it’s partying; when you’re in your thirties, its alcoholism; when you’re in your forties, it’s coping; from then on, it’s just the way it is.
At least they’re learning one life skill that’s recession-proof.