Debt and DisillusionmentRoundup
tags: debt, higher education, inequality, colleges and universities
Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new book on the history of torture in the United States.
For the last decade and a half, I’ve been teaching ethics to undergraduates. Now — admittedly, a little late to the party — I’ve started seriously questioning my own ethics. I’ve begun to wonder just what it means to be a participant, however minor, in the pyramid scheme that higher education has become in the years since I went to college.
Sometime in the late 1980s, the Airplane Game roared through the San Francisco Bay Area lesbian community. It was a classic pyramid scheme, even if cleverly dressed up in language about women’s natural ability to generate abundance, just as we gestate children in our miraculous wombs. If the connection between feminism and airplanes was a little murky — well, we could always think of ourselves as modern-day Amelia Earharts. (As long as we didn’t think too hard about how she ended up.)
A few women made a lot of money from it — enough, in the case of one friend of mine, for a down payment on a house. Inevitably, a lot more of us lost money, even as some like me stood on the sidelines sadly shaking our heads.
There were four tiers on that “airplane”: a captain, two co-pilots, four crew, and 8 passengers — 15 in all to start. You paid $3,000 to get on at the back of the plane as a passenger, so the first captain (the original scammer), got out with $24,000 — $3,000 from each passenger. The co-pilots and crew, who were in on the fix, paid nothing to join. When the first captain “parachuted out,” the game split in two, and each co-pilot became the captain of a new plane. They then pressured their four remaining passengers to recruit enough new women to fill each plane, so they could get their payday, and the two new co-pilots could each captain their own planes.
Unless new people continued to get on at the back of each plane, there would be no payday for the earlier passengers, so the pressure to recruit ever more women into the game only grew. The original scammers ran through the game a couple of times, but inevitably the supply of gullible women willing to invest their savings ran out. By the time the game collapsed, hundreds of women had lost significant amounts of money.
No one seemed to know the women who’d brought the game and all those “planes” to the Bay Area, but they had spun a winning story about endless abundance and the glories of women’s energy. After the game collapsed, they took off for another women’s community with their “earnings,” leaving behind a lot of sadder, poorer, and perhaps wiser San Francisco lesbians.
Feasting at the Tenure Trough or Starving in the Ivory Tower?
So, you may be wondering, what could that long-ago scam have to do with my ethical qualms about working as a college instructor? More than you might think.
Let’s start with PhD programs. In 2019, the most recent year for which statistics are available, U.S. colleges and universities churned out about 55,700 doctorates — and such numbers continue to increase by about 1% a year. The average number of doctorates earned over the last decade is almost 53,000 annually. In other words, we’re talking about nearly 530,000 PhDs produced by American higher education in those 10 years alone. Many of them have ended up competing for a far smaller number of jobs in the academic world.
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