I imagine the graduating class of Morehouse envisions a brighter future than other 2019 graduates or the staff, faculty, and students who continue on at Morehouse. Unfortunately, Robert F. Smith’s admirable announcement to pay off the senior class’ debt did not occur in a vacuum. Smith’s gift stands in relation to two other recently launched media stunts that set dangerous precedent in terms of how debt is understood. The first is Paid Off, a game show where millennials emerge from their parents’ basements and compete to have their student loans, as the title suggests, paid off. The second is Burger King’s “Whopper Loans,” where a few lucky winners who use the BK app are chosen to have their student loan debt nullified. These examples, which I refer to as “BK charity”, are concerning because they treat student loan debt nullification as a prize to be won with the right luck. By framing the issue of loan forgiveness as a matter of charity, these stunts obscure the systematically unjust ways in which higher education is funded. As Paulo Freire put it: “in order to have the continued opportunity to express their “generosity,” the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well.”
Much is in the air concerning student loan debt, which is why the BK charity examples are pernicious in their emergence. On the one hand, those who pay attention to higher education know that the breaking point is near and a driving factor of the impending collapse is debt—the rise of which correlates with the increase of overpaid university administrators. And, the less conservative democratic candidates posturing for public approval have raised concerns over this same problem and proposed decent solutions that treat the problem as a systemic injustice. On the other hand, BK charity coincides with a narrative that suggests student loan forgiveness will somehow be a slight against those who have worked to pay their loans or against those who never had loans. Luckily, various polls suggest that this latter position is currently out of step with what many in the US think—people largely support student loan debt forgiveness, even those who do not have student loan debt, especially as it coincides with making the rich pay more (or even some) taxes.
Nevertheless, the way that BK charity could shift the framing of the problem is frightening because it reveals how the one-percenters are trying to avoid paying their just desert. A one-time payment to the graduating class of Morehouse is nothing compared to what Smith would have to pay in taxes over the remainder of his life, if he were required to pay his fair share. Mr. Smith is distinct insofar as he qualified his gift with a speech about communal debt and obligation, which shows that he is theoretically serious about what is at stake—elevating each other and recognizing those who have elevated us in an effort to build a just and equitable world; but, the issue is how Smith’s gift operates in relation to broader discourse about student debt and not his virtuous intent. Burger King’s charity is quotidian—$250,000—and the company will probably turn a profit on those who sign-up for the BK app. Though these charitable gestures seem nice, they are not correcting for the social-political wrongs that have caused our current unjust situation. More importantly, these sorts of charitable acts get taken up in a way that obscures how the wealthy are avoiding their obligations to the rest of us—even when these actions are considered beneficent in today’s world—and add insult to injury when they directly profit from these superficial attempts at addressing debt-bondage.
Despite being a problematic thinker, John Rawls is useful here because he was mostly correct in his assessment of how people in a liberal-capitalist world have been trained to think about justice: Justice as Fairness. One way that Rawls goes wrong is that his Theory of Justice emerges in abstraction, when it turns out that how we think of fairness is historically and contextually dependent. What we consider to be fair is not an abstract universal given. Our situation matters. And, it turns out that most people who are saddled with student-loan debt are struggling to make ends meet because of their debt. Nobody wants to take on crippling debt; rather, students choose to pursue education in an attempt at self-realization, toward a general betterment at the individual and communal levels of experience, and with the promise of a job that pays well enough to handle the debt while living a meaningful life. We work for an education in the hopes of elevating ourselves, finding a good job, meeting romantic partners, and having a better life. Indeed, we are told that education will help us liberate ourselves, to realize the mythical ‘American dream,’ and promises are made of loan forgiveness after 10 years of qualifying payments—promises that are proving empty. Unlike previous generations, however, students are making these pursuits at a historical moment wherein predatory actors have turned an institution that should never function like a business into a for-profit enterprise. Education has been turned into a ponzi scheme when it ought to be treated as a public good that is common.
Hence, the conditions that have afforded the debt problem matter in formulating our response and must be kept in mind as this debate intensifies, lest we forget that spontaneous charitable giving will not satisfy the conditions of justice because it does not address the systematic nature of the problem nor compensate for what has already been appropriated—the education commons. It is true that many students take on debt in order to attend college, but the conditions of those debt contracts are unjust, made under false promises and duress, and those circumstances ought to be considered as we reflect on what ought to be done. Rather than think of student loan debt forgiveness as a prize, we ought to think of it as a reparative right that is owed by those predatory actors and profiteers who created this unjust situation. To quote Friere once more: “True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity.”