American Students Should Take a Page from the Chilean Uprising

The strike by Chilean workers, students and citizens begins peacefully in Santiago. Photograph: Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

“In the United States of America, no one should go broke because they chose to go to college.” – President Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, Jan. 27, 2010

Chilean society has been rocked by over three months of protests, beginning as a student uprising demanding affordable education and culminating in workers, environmentalists, LGBT rights activists, and others demanding reforms ranging from “building electric dams in Patagonia to improving education.”

The unrest began when students started taking to the streets en masse to demand “the elimination of a voucher system that supports private universities and demanding free, higher quality education at public universities.” The student revolt’s de facto leader, as it were, is Camilla Vallejo (@camila_vallejo) who has come to be known as “Commander Camila”. According to The Guardian, Vallejo has the ability to shut down whole sections of Santiago. Her call for better, cheaper education, has galvanized nothing less than a major populist uprising:

“Her press conferences can lead to the sacking of a minister. The street marches she leads shut down sections of the Chilean capital. She has the government on the run, and now even has police protection after receiving death threats.

Yet six months ago, no one had heard of Camila Vallejo, the 23-year-old spearheading an uprising that has shaken not only the presidency of the billionaire businessman Sebastián Piñera, but the entire Chilean political class.”

Chilean student leader Camila Vallejo sits among a peace sign created from empty teargas canisters used by police against protesters. Photograph: Roberto Candia/AP

And now, incredibly, student leaders and teachers’ union leaders met with President Pinera for the first time this past Saturday. While both sides found the talks productive, there hasn’t been an agreement on affordable education hammered out yet.

Let’s turn to America now.

Student loan debt is projected to reach $1 trillion by June of 2012. An unjust and downright punitive student loan debt system exists for borrowers, locking them out of discharging their debt in bankruptcy and bringing the full force of the Department of Education down on people who default. This is the same government that ensures that lenders get their money paid back in full (subsidized student loans) and then come after the financially crippled for the bank’s profit. There is much more to be outraged about with this immoral system that ensnares the newly graduated, trapping them in a twisted sort of indentured servitude to a profit-driven education industry. Many of you are probably acutely aware of just how disgusting our higher education system has become, however, as default rates have skyrocketed–and the numbers available are likely conservative, and represent for-profit colleges only. Private college graduate default rates aren’t publicly available.

Where’s the mass outrage on campuses over obscene tuition hikes? Why aren’t graduates organizing to fight back against the lack of protections for people who are forced to default? I asked higher education justice advocate Cryn Johannsen (@cjohanns), founder of All Education Matters, why America (despite massive income inequality rivaling Rwanda and Nepal, a worsening economic outlook, and a more dysfunctional education system that leaves graduates tens of thousands of dollars in debt after graduation) isn’t seeing an uprising even approaching what Chile is experiencing:

“There have been numerous protests this past year, especially in response to tuition hikes. Much like the poor coverage of protests in Wisconsin and Indiana, as well as the protests against harsh immigration laws in Georgia and elsewhere, corporate media fails to cover these stories.”

And while it’s true that there have been a number of protests related to tuition hikes, as well as push-back against state-by-state education budget cuts (not to mention Pell grants on the federal level), one wonders what it will take to get students organized to push back against the tyranny of the higher education system as a whole. Perhaps inconsistent mainstream coverage of student protests contributes to a lack of momentum, much like the town of Budros in the Palestinian territories was experiencing, until independent media began to spread the word about their nonviolent resistance movement (which in turn galvanized other towns.) It’s more complicated than that, of course, but it can’t be denied that political ideas and movements snowball when attention is paid to them, and their popularity increases.

Johannsen continues:

“Just like other groups and facets of U.S. society, students have been depoliticized here. Instead of being citizens, they are repackaged as “consumers.” The language is key. People lose a sense of what they belong to, especially when they are rarely, if ever, referred to as citizens. That means civic engagement is undermined by the constant barrage of messages to consume.”

The scourge of consumption is certainly one factor of many to consider in the depoliticization of America’s student population. Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and author Chris Hedges writes eloquently of the depoliticization of American universities, which were once hotbeds of resistance and critical thought. Thanks to people like Johannsen, the lack of consumer protections for student borrowers is starting to be examined in Washington D.C., although predictably there are powerful interests vested in maintaining the status-quo when it comes to the student loan industry: the industry as a whole has spent over $62 million lobbying Congress over the past decade.

Perhaps as austerity sets in, and many of these education cuts really go into effect, students will see the inequity of continually-rising tuition while educational resources dwindle due to draconian budget cuts–and perhaps that will be the moment when the spark is lit. After all, it took Chile three months to really gather the numbers that made the country’s political elite sit up and take notice–and discontent was brewing long before protests broke out into the street, undoubtedly. America may just take a little longer, right?

Young demonstrators run away from police on horseback. Photograph: Victor Ruiz Caballero/Reuters

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