Thomas Jefferson Would Have Supported Student Loan Forgiveness
While I was on vacation, one policy President Biden announced that had led to a massive boost in his popularity was student loan forgiveness. According to a post on the White House website, President Biden has said he is going to forgive up to ten thousand dollars of student loan debt from people in the lower and middle classes, with that amount becoming twenty thousand dollars if the person in question received Pell Grants. Of course, Republicans criticized this — so Biden used the White House Twitter account to point out how many of these same Republicans had accepted loan forgiveness during COVID-19.
Honestly, I didn’t have much to say about this outside of the fact that I support student loan forgiveness and that the popularity boost the administration got shows that Biden should be going on the aggressive more often and promoting actual left-wing ideas that help the American people. However, I decided to finally talk about this topic when I found a post on Tumblr from 8/25/2022 last night that reminded me of a fact that is often forgotten in this debate:
The student loan debt thing got me thinking. Fuck the founding fathers of course, but “I am compelled to study war and politics so that my sons might have liberty to study philosophy and mathematics” is a great line and I think about it every time some fool starts complaining that life doesn’t suck as much as it used to.
For those unaware, the quote mentioned is from a letter John Adams wrote to his wife on 5/12/1780. In the actual letter, Adams goes even further, saying that his sons should only study those things so his grandchildren can study even less practical fields:
My sons ought to study Mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Music, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelain.
Before we continue, I should note that leftists have had some reserve about using American heroes to promote their policy, especially ever since the start of the Cold War. In my opinion, this is a mistake — if only because tying our ideas back to people who the American public already loves and admires helps both normalize these policies and get the public onboard. As long as the use of these figures is not historical revisionism, then I think pointing out the American roots of left-wing ideas whenever possible is worthwhile.
I mention this because one of the founding fathers who would certainly not only support student loan forgiveness, but also be shocked and abhorred by the fact that we even have student loans in the first place, was arguably the most important one, Thomas Jefferson.
Before his death, Jefferson wrote an epitaph that mentioned his writing of the declaration of independence, his authorship of the Virginia statue for religious freedom, and his founding of the University of Virginia. These were the three accomplishments that Jefferson — who was President for eight years, Vice President for four, and the first Secretary of State — was most proud of. It should also be noted that Jefferson never charged tuition for the University of Virginia, which was instead publicly funded through tax payer money.
One thing that is commonly forgotten in this debate is just how little college used to cost. Senator Elizabeth Warren recently pointed out that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, one of the leading critics of student loan forgiveness, went to a college that cost him $330 a year. McConnell graduated from the University of Louisville in 1964, meaning the cost for a full year would be $3,153.91 once adjusted for inflation. Meanwhile, if McConnell wanted to go to college in Louisiana today, even assuming he was an in state resident going to a public university, the average cost for a year would be $9,358. In McConnell’s home state of Kentucky, a year of public in state education would cost an average of $10,674. Even if Jefferson’s home state of Virginia, a year of public education for a resident of the state would average a cost of $13,413.
The average cost of one year at an in state university is $9,212, with out of state students having to spend an average of $26,382. Thomas Jefferson believed that higher education should be universal, something that many Americans agreed with until the last half century. However, like many things in American politics, this changed in the 1960s — and like most things wrong with America today, it can be blamed on Ronald Reagan.
The post World War Two conservative movement had always had a very negative relationship with higher education. William Buckley, considered the person behind modern conservatism as well as the founder of National Review and a good friend of Reagan’s, first became famous for his 1951 book God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom”. (McGeorge Bundy, who later became National Security Advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, wrote an article debunking many of the claims in the book for The Atlantic.) In it, Buckley argued that Yale had been taken over by atheists and communists who were teaching students to value collectivism or something — it didn’t make much sense, but it was hugely popular at the time (although even Buckley himself believed that was because it had an introduction by the already popular John Chamberlain), especially among those who could not get the educated on their side and thought that was the fault of the educated.
Naturally, this hostility only became worse during the Vietnam War, when students were burning their draft cards and protesting American interventionism. This was helped by the fact that anybody in college was automatically exempt from being drafted, meaning many enrolled out of protest. Plus, the loudest critics of American foreign policy were professors like Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, both of whom became famous because of their anti-Vietnam War activism.
Reagan was elected governor of California in 1966, and he constantly attempted to suppress local protests. The most infamous example was Bloody Thursday on 5/15/1969, where he sent state police to stop a protest going on in Berkeley against support for Israel. Reagan also campaigned on the promise to “clean up the mess at Berkeley,” in response to the Free Speech protests that took place in 1964 and 1965. To give everybody an idea of what Reagan thought about Vietnam more generally, here is what he had to say on 10/10/1965:
It’s silly talking about how many years we will have to spend in the jungles of Vietnam when we could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it and still be home by Christmas.
Reagan quickly cut funding to state higher education, and Republican governors all across the country did the same. According to them, higher education was a place people go to become communists that hate America, so people shouldn’t fund it. Of course, this was all nonsense back then and it remains nonsense today — but it did a great job at convincing the public to go against their own best interest.
Ironically, going after an institution because it doesn’t agree with you is much closer to something the Soviets would do than anything Chomsky or Zinn — both of whom were anarchists — would ever call for if they were in power. The entire reason we’re in this mess today is because a number of conservatives could not believe that people would disagree with them, so they removed the institutions that gave people the education needed to disagree with them. It is a tactic only used by those who cannot win arguments, which makes sense given what the Republican Party has since become.