By John Spritzler

August, 2002

Jim Hightower is a Texan famous for his left-of-center activism and writings, including his book, If The Gods Had Meant Us To Vote They Would Have Given Us Candidates, and a just-started newsletter called The Hightower Lowdown. The last issue of the Lowdown had a good exposé of Wal-Mart's anti-working class policies. The current issue (May 2002) is headlined, "Let's make higher ed. free for all Americans" and consists almost entirely of reasons why that would be a good idea.

Having read the previous Lowdown's Wal-Mart feature I was prepared to enjoy the next issue's article on higher education, but as I read the article I realized that there was something very disturbing about it. That feeling was confirmed when I got to the passage that read:

Free higher education also is a natural fit for our new global order, a fast-spinning world in which employees can forget about such old-fashioned niceties as corporate loyalty and job security, no matter how much of yourself you've dedicated to the company. Washington and Wall Street tell us that we must expect to get dumped frequently and scramble for new work, usually requiring higher skills. Okay, so in a wealthy nation like ours, which has become the world model for this new chaotic economy, let's lead the way in providing secure footing for our people by making sure that an infrastructure of free education and training is always in place. If this is the way the new world is going to be, let's adjust for that world.

In this passage Hightower explicitly declares that he accepts Washington's and Wall Street's "new global order" and only wishes to make it easier for people to "adjust for that world." When a man like Hightower -- famous for lashing out at the likes of George W. Bush and Wal-Mart, author of a book critical of all mainstream politicians, and highly regarded on the left -- repudiates the very idea of overthrowing the Washington and Wall Street elite and creating a very different world than their "new global order," one has to wonder: What's up with Hightower's Lowdown?

Hightower's apparent unwillingness to consider democratic revolution -- the obvious commonsense goal for Americans fed up with the domination of our lives by corporate elites and politicians working on their behalf -- prevents him from talking about the benefits of free higher education truthfully. What do I mean by that?


Hightower claims that the GI Bill, which made higher education nearly free for GIs returning home from World War Two, was passed because "such politically diverse forces as progressive labor unions and the American Legion" backed it enthusiastically, and "business and political leaders...simply didn't know what else to do." And he claims that the Bill had only positive results ("The GI Bill worked and it's now recognized as one of the most useful acts Congress ever passed...every dollar invested produced a $7 increase in our nation's output.") A more truthful discussion of the GI Bill would have examined its role in the actual context of the class struggle going on during those post-war years. Keep in mind that during the war, despite the fact that virtually all of the "progressive labor unions'" national leaders tried to enforce a No-Strike Pledge in obedience to President Roosevelt and the corporate class he represented, rank-and-file workers went on strike anyway, even though the only way they could do so was with wildcat (unauthorized by the union) strikes. "When the war came to a close on August 14, 1945, the American workers had chalked up more strikes and strikers during the period from December 7, 1941, to the day of Japanese surrender three years and eight months later, than in any similar period of time in American labor history." Historian Jeremy Brecher notes that during the war, "Workers virtually made extra holidays for themselves around Christmas and New Year's, holding illicit plant parties and cutting production to a trickle. Workers often created free time for themselves on the job by other means. On one occasion, workers in an aircraft plant staged a necktie-cutting party in the middle of working hours, roaming through the plant snipping off ties of fellow workers, supervisors, and managers. The wildcat tradition and organization gave workers a direct counter-power over such management decisions as the speed of work, number of workers per task, assignment of foremen, and organization of work...Industry representatives claimed a decrease of  "labor efficiency of 20 to 50 percent during the war period." After the war ended, a huge strike wave began. "The first six months of 1946 marked what the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics called 'the most concentrated period of labor-management strife in the country's history,' with 2,970,000 workers involved in strikes starting in this period" including not only industrial workers but teachers, municipal workers and others. "By the end of 1948, 4.6 million workers had been involved in strikes; their average length was four times that of the war period."

Contrary to Hightower's assertion that big business leaders just "didn't know what else to do," the GI Bill's purpose, from their point of view, was twofold. It was an attempt to replace the working class outlook for improving one's life -- "Make the world better for everybody by acting in solidarity against the 'necktie-wearing' class of employers" -- with the elitist view promoted in colleges and universities -- "Make the world better for yourself by getting a degree and rising above others in a 'career.'" The GI Bill helped to distance many working class people from their parents' culture of solidarity and integrate them into the corporate culture of individualism. The effect of this transformation, to the extent that it succeeded, has been to enable corporate leaders to control people more effectively than during the "necktie-cutting" days before the GI Bill. Additionally, the GI Bill was an attempt to convince working people that if they accepted corporate control of society they would enjoy benefits (like college education) that workers had never had before.


Hightower promotes free higher education by arguing that it will raise everybody's income. "Today a basic bachelor's degree is an all-around money maker, typically providing 75% more earning power than a high-school diploma and often adding more than a million bucks in additional income over a lifetime of work." In truth, the supposed economic benefits to workers from being able to go to college are questionable. The transformation of our society from one in which few working class people went to college into one in which a larger proportion do so has been accompanied by the growth of "lower tier" colleges, junior colleges and professional schools designed to prepare their students for "careers" in the new global economy that do not pay as much as people with only a high school degree used to make in jobs with a history of solidarity. This is why fewer married couples today than in previous decades can raise children on the income of one parent. And it is why people are working far more than the 40 hours per week that union solidarity once won. Hightower talks about the relation between higher education and earning power as if there were no class struggle going on over these things. But the truth cannot be told without taking the class struggle into account. Despite more people going to college now than before, our society is growing more and more unequal because the corporate elite want it to and, for the moment, they have the power to make it so. They will use their power this way no matter how many people have college degrees. When more people go to college, it just means that more jobs get defined as requiring a college degree; it doesn't mean the job pays more. (Some jobs in day care centers require a college degree but pay only $10.50 per hour.) It may be true that people with college degrees earn, on average, more than those without them; but it is a fallacy to suppose, as Hightower suggests, that if everybody had a college degree they would automatically earn, on average, what the smaller number with degrees earn today. It doesn't work like that. College degrees don't determine what jobs pay. The employers determine what they will pay. And they make this decision in such a manner as to maximize their control over the working class, one method of which is to have very unequal pay for different categories of workers. When few workers have college degrees, employers pay those with degrees more. But if all workers had college degrees, employers would find some other excuse to pay most less and only a few more; unless, of course, worker solidarity actions like strikes made this impractical. Furthermore, insofar as people learn in college to rely on their individual "merit" to rise in the world rather than to rely on solidarity to make the world better for everybody, the "college-degreeing" of the working class will only help corporate leaders control and exploit it more easily.


Hightower argues for free higher education by promoting the illusion that America is a "land of opportunity." He writes, "Fundamentally, education is opportunity, which is what America is all about." Let's stop for a moment and consider what this really means. What is the "opportunity" that capitalist America is all about? All of the inequality imposed by capitalism, and all of the dog-eat-dog competition it relies on to control people, is justified by people at the top of society with appeals to an individualistic and fundamentally selfish value expressed by the notion that "as long as I have an opportunity to rise to the top it doesn't matter how unequal our society is or how much I have to screw other people to succeed." Working class culture rejects this "opportunity to succeed" nonsense. When the company says it will give raises to the "most deserving" employees, the ones who "merit" it, workers see what's really going on. It's a way to divide and control. Teachers, for example, have consistently opposed "merit" pay for this reason. Yet here is Hightower, espousing this anti-working class value as an opportunistic way of defending his call for free higher education. Once again, he is trying to deny the reality of class struggle and make it seem as if the benefits he ascribes to free higher education can be obtained by adopting the values and accepting the power of the corporate elite rather than by challenging them and aiming to defeat them.


The only argument for free higher education that Hightower makes that seems truthful to me is his point that people should be able to learn things they are interested in. I could not agree more. But how can this happen in a way that leads to a more equal and democratic world? Hightower himself answers this question without realizing it. He begins his article on higher education by observing that whenever a politician announces a "bold" new plan you can be sure "that there's really nothing bold about it all," since it's been vetted by all the "big-money contributors." He adds that "People are yearning for a politics that, as we say in Texas, has hair on it. A politics that sweats, growls, brawls...that's worth the prize, that produces results for ordinary folks and the common good of our society." Again, I could not agree more. But if Hightower took his own advice here he would reject the big money-vetted language of "equal opportunity" and "adjusting" to the "new global order."

 The bold new plan we need is to aim for what we really want: a society in which education enables people to develop their talents and pursue their interests to help each other, not compete against each other to "get ahead" by serving the goals of big business; a society in which people share in the work as best they can and have equal access to what society has to offer, from material goods and services to higher education. Elite power and privilege does not fit into this kind of society.

So let's be honest about this goal of a good world where higher education is available to everybody. This is a revolutionary goal. To win it we will have to build a movement based on working class values of solidarity, not corporate values of individualism, and we will have to defeat the corporate elite, not "adjust" to it. You don't need a college education to understand this.


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