Plastic garbage cans set aflame by young people occupying intersections demanding an audience is a regular occurrence these days. Streetlamps have been ripped out of the ground. A couple of public buses have been torched. Many students are on hunger strike. Schools are taken over in citywide “tomas,” suspending classes for months. Some say the school year has been lost, while others say it was intentionally sacrificed as part of a larger struggle. Students lob paint balls at military trucks that drive up and down the streets blanketing the center of Santiago in eye-searing tear gas every Thursday. Water cannons and batons are used against the students, who fight back with stones. The marches began in May, protesting the huge costs of higher education in a country that is very clearly marked between the haves and the have-nots. But aside from the headline-grabbing incidents, the marches have not featured a great deal of physical violence against humans.
But one violent episode did take place on the balcony of the National Congress October 7th, just ahead of the non-binding plebiscite on educational reform held by the teachers union. Members of the Concert of Parties for Democracy and the Communist Party were trying to hoist a banner in support of student protesters in Chile. The banner said “Educación libre, digna y gratuita” (Open, quality, cost-free education for all). A back-and-forth scuffle ensued when the right-wing members tried to prevent them from hanging the banner. It ended with Representative Enrique Estay pushing and striking a secretary, Mildred Mella, while the others were shouting at him “She’s pregnant!” After the incident she was taken to the hospital upon experiencing a spontaneous abortion. When interviewed after the altercation, the Representative stated that Mella should not have been there if she was pregnant, and that the men around her shouldn’t have let her try to help lift a heavy banner. The whole event is on video.
This horrific episode is emblematic of a larger psychological problem we are facing. It was supposedly her fault that she was there when that man hit her and terminated her pregnancy. In the United States we are told that if we aren’t rich, it is our fault. How can we all become rich given the completely un-level playing field we start with? Besides, if we were all rich, wouldn’t that essentially equal an egalitarian society? That sounds like socialism. Upon reaching said level of “rich-ness,” all things being relative, we would no longer be rich in comparison to our neighbor. Again, that sounds more like social democracy. We would be materially cared for, but many of us would continue to overconsume. Others would maybe realize that excessive spending and hoarding serves no purpose, unless you count the spiritual black hole that we are stuffing up with all of those things trying daily, continuously, steadfastly to fill. But I digress.
The truth of it is that education in many developed nations is ridiculously costly. The plebiscite held earlier in October pulled one and a quarter million votes. 95% say they want tuition-free higher education. 89% are opposed to education being for-profit. Almost everyone voted to end government subsidies to private, for-profit institutions, which make up 78% of the university system according to the 2011 Global Education Digest put out by UNESCO. Even with numbers like these it is not guaranteed the people of Chile will get what they want (the plebiscite was non-binding). The business community says this is impossible. How is it possible, then, that the high-quality public universities in Argentina, right next door, are all tuition-free for resident and foreign undergraduates alike, while Chile’s economy overall is doing better than theirs?
I don’t propose to have the solution to all funding issues, but I do know that for-profit is one way to hurt students. “For-profit” means that the purpose of teaching the next generation of young people at its very root is based on wealth-creation, but it does not go to the students. This does not seem right. Furthermore, profit motives lead to hugely increased enrollment and large classes. Degrees become worth the paper they’re printed on at fast-food chain colleges. Education is too important to make big bucks off of it. In the U.S., we churn out hundreds of thousands of debt slaves annually who continue in their coffee shop job they had through college. A debt slave cannot question our current social systems. A debt slave must punch a time clock. A debt slave stays awake at night worrying about how to feed their kids, or whether they’ll ever have enough money to even have kids. A debt slave is kept quiet. Or, wait, they were until now.
People are waking up. Our basic needs and drives link every last person fighting for change. Egyptians wanted to end the regime they were living under. Occupy Wall Street wants people to be considered as more important than banks and private, profit-making institutions that concentrate wealth among the select. Chilean students want the right to learn without sacrificing their future. Everyone wants to have the chance to live life and experience being a fully developed, loved and loving human being. Anytime there is a regime, an institution or a system that prevents us from going after our birthright, revolution – change – is mandatory.