An excerpt from an excellent interview Michael S. Wilson did with Noam Chomsky for Modern Success magazine. (posted here at AlterNet)
Chomsky: Well one of the main problems for students today — a huge problem — is sky-rocketing tuitions. Why do we have tuitions that are completely out-of-line with other countries, even with our own history? In the 1950s the United States was a much poorer country than it is today, and yet higher education was … pretty much free, or low fees or no fees for huge numbers of people. There hasn’t been an economic change that’s made it necessary, now, to have very high tuitions, far more than when we were a poor country. And to drive the point home even more clearly, if we look just across the borders, Mexico is a poor country yet has a good educational system with free tuition. There was an effort by the Mexican state to raise tuition, maybe some 15 years ago or so, and there was a national student strike which had a lot of popular support, and the government backed down. Now that’s just happened recently in Quebec, on our other border. Go across the ocean: Germany is a rich country. Free tuition. Finland has the highest-ranked education system in the world. Free … virtually free. So I don’t think you can give an argument that there are economic necessities behind the incredibly high increase in tuition. I think these are social and economic decisions made by the people who set policy. And [these hikes] are part of, in my view, part of a backlash that developed in the 1970s against the liberatory tendencies of the 1960s. Students became much freer, more open, they were pressing for opposition to the war, for civil rights, women’s rights … and the country just got too free. In fact, liberal intellectuals condemned this, called it a “crisis of democracy:” we’ve got to have more moderation of democracy. They called, literally, for more commitment to indoctrination of the young, their phrase … we have to make sure that the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young do their work, so we don’t have all this freedom and independence. And many developments took place after that. I don’t think we have enough direct documentation to prove causal relations, but you can see what happened. One of the things that happened was controlling students — in fact, controlling students for the rest of their lives, by simply trapping them in debt. That’s a very effective technique of control and indoctrination. And I suspect — I can’t prove — but I suspect that that’s a large part of the reason behind [high tuitions]. Many other parallel things happened. The whole economy changed in significant ways to concentrate power, to undermine workers’ rights and freedom. In fact the economist who chaired the Federal Reserve around the Clinton years, Alan Greenspan — St. Alan as he was called then, the great genius of the economics profession who was running the economy, highly honored — he testified proudly before congress that the basis for the great economy that he was running was what he called “growing worker insecurity.” If workers are more insecure, they won’t do things, like asking for better wages and better benefits. And that’s healthy for the economy from a certain point of view, a point of view that says workers ought to be oppressed and controlled, and that wealth ought to be concentrated in a very few pockets. So yeah, that’s a healthy economy, and we need growing worker insecurity, and we need growing student insecurity, for similar reasons. I think all of these things line up together as part of a general reaction — a bipartisan reaction, incidentally — against liberatory tendencies which manifested themselves in the 60s and have continued since.
Wilson: [Finally, ]I’m wondering if you could [end with some advice for today’s college students].
Chomsky: There are plenty of problems in the world today, and students face a number of them, including the ones I mentioned — the joblessness, insecurity and so on. Yet on the other hand, there has been progress. In a lot of respects things are a lot more free and advanced than they were … not many years ago. So many things that were really matters of struggle, in fact even some barely even mentionable, say, in the 1960s, are now … partially resolved. Things like women’s rights. Gay rights. Opposition to aggression. Concern for the environment — which is nowhere near where it ought to be, but far beyond the 1960s. These victories for freedom didn’t come from gifts from above. They came from people struggling under conditions that are harsher than they are now. There is state repression now. But it doesn’t begin to compare with, say, Cointelpro in the 1960s. People that don’t know about that ought to read and think to find out. And that leaves lots of opportunities. Students, you know, are relatively privileged as compared with the rest of the population. They are also in a period of their lives where they are relatively free. Well that provides for all sorts of opportunities. In the past, such opportunities have been taken by students who have often been in the forefront of progressive change, and they have many more opportunities now. It’s never going to be easy. There’s going to be repression. There’s going to be backlash. But that’s the way society moves forward.