Victor Davis Hanson: The new American Helots

BY VICTOR DAVIS HANSON Published: June 16, 2012
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Ancient Sparta turned its conquered neighbors into indentured serfs — half free, half slave. The resulting Helot underclass produced the food of the Spartan state, freeing Sparta's elite males to train for war and the duties of citizenship.

Over the last few decades, we've created our modern version of these Helots — millions of indebted young Americans with little prospect of finding permanent well-paying work, servicing their enormous college debts or reaping commensurate financial returns on their costly educations.

Student loan debts now average about $25,000 per graduating senior. But the percentage of youths 16 to 24 who are working (about 49 percent) is the lowest since records have been kept. The cost of a four-year college education can range between $100,000 and $200,000 depending on whether the institution is public or private. Only 53 percent of today's college students graduate within six years. Student time spent writing and reading in college has plummeted.

Annual tuition keeps rising, usually at close to twice the rate of inflation. It must, if colleges are to pay for a vast new administrative class that is excused from teaching to monitor sensitivity and diversity, raise money and comply with ever more race/class/gender federal mandates.

If today's indebted students graduate later and are trained to be more “socially aware,” they also have diminished writing skills, fewer facts at their command, and less practical ability to survive in the private sector. So the higher education paradox continues: borrowing more for a less valuable, more politicized education that takes longer, with waning ability to pay off the ever greater debt.

Often, first- and second-year students will take most of their classes from the new legions of part-time lecturers, who are on yearly contracts without much in the way of job security, pensions, benefits or status, and who subsidize the light teaching loads of the far better paid.

But our contemporary version of Helotage gets even worse. Desperate students now jockey for summer “internships” at public and private consortia — law firms, foundations, government bureaucracies and private companies. These internships neither pay much (if anything) nor necessarily lead to permanent jobs with the employer.



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