A “Vocation” Is Not an Excuse for Theft

A “Vocation” Is Not an Excuse for Theft June 17, 2015

There are a lot of reasons Lee Siegel defaulted on his student loans.

Well, I should back up.  There are a lot of reasons not to pay back your student loans.

There are a lot of reasons not to pay back your student loans.

Some of them are written into the terms of the loans themselves: the college fails, the college or the bank committed fraud in issuing the loan, the student dies.  Lenders recognize, then, that there are good reasons not to pay back your student loans.

Money_CashStudent loans can be discharged in bankruptcy when the borrower faces “undue hardship” (read: abject poverty out of which there is no likely exit) or when the student becomes too disabled to work.  Courts recognize, then, that there are good reasons not to pay back your student loans.

Rank injustice, in the form of classism, sexism, or racism, say, is a good reason to refuse to pay (even if lenders and courts tend not to recognize it as a good reason).  When a system is carefully constructed to keep poor people poor, women in subordinate positions, and minorities unable to participate in the goods of society, while offering the pretense of equality and charging tuition to participate in the pretense, a great big “Up Yours” in the way of defaulting on student loans may be the most honest course of action.

Something more than “having big student loans” is required as evidence of that sort of rank injustice.  Some sort of evidence that society has colluded in preventing someone from paying back those loans would be, you know, helpful.  Evidence that a person had been systematically denied the opportunity to work, or systematically underpaid relative to other workers, or systematically denied the sorts of things one needs to be able to work, like a home to live in or freedom from the constant sexual advances of coworkers.

But I grant the point: injustice justifies some (some) behavior that might otherwise be considered wrong.

And, frankly, some colleges unscrupulously admit students that are not equipped for college and are unlikely to succeed.  Some colleges admit students who need help and then ruthlessly refuse to provide it.  Some colleges care more about filling their football rosters than educating their student-athletes.  Certainly there is a range of behaviors that a college might undertake that are not (yet) legally considered fraud but prompt widespread outrage.

Again, evidence of that sort of misbehavior helps–evidence that goes beyond a borrower’s distaste for the process or failure to succeed in the program.  But the misbehavior certainly occurs, and we as a society are learning to be appalled by it.

Society recognizes, then, that there are good reasons not to pay back your student loans.

Having a vocation is not one of them.

Even to say so is to misunderstand the concept of vocation: a vocation is a (divine) calling to life-long work that enriches others.  It’s not something society owes you.  You are not being punished, persecuted, or discriminated against if society fails to set you up in the Perfect! Life! for you! just the Very! Second! you happen to want it.

Vocations usually, in fact, involve introductory periods of hard work, low pay, drudgery, and the ever-present possibility of failure.  That sort of unfulfilling apprenticeship to fulfilling work is an intrinsic part of the process.  Yes, in fact, it does involve character.  Because most people want people of character to be serving as their doctors, lawyers, nurses, pastors, teachers, and so on.

There are good reasons to get the process over with quickly, to be sure.  But the process itself is not unjust or even worth avoiding.

Working at a decent-paying job that one hates, as a temporary measure for the sake of a reasonable goal, is something that grown-ups just do sometimes.

Working extra hours at a crappy job for a few years, when one is young in one’s career, or until one can afford to do what one really loves, is something that grown-ups just do sometimes.

Doing work that one loves, doing work one can be proud of, doing work that contributes to one’s sense of purpose and meaning–this is a good thing, and it is worth setting mere financial prosperity aside in order to do such work.  (Money doesn’t actually exist, after all.)

But setting integrity aside to pursue one’s passion is an entirely different matter.

Vague hints about feeling victimized by the sort of behavior that actually grinds other people into inescapable poverty or despair, leaving them unable to pursue any work, much less a “vocation”–this is frankly appalling.  Having the capacity and the opportunity to repay one’s debts and choosing not to for the sake of career satisfaction is in an entirely different universe than discrimination, and it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

Student loan debt is a problem. It’s becoming a public health crisis (economically speaking).  It’s unsustainable, and just as ecological unsustainability always harms the poor the most, it takes it greatest toll on those who most desperately need affordable education.

And Lee Siegel’s resentful screed has done absolutely nothing to help.  It is a self-interested, self-justifying piece of self-promotion, and I am genuinely sorry that anyone has read it.  It will make it all the more difficult to point out the ways the system really is broken and to engender the sort of compassion that will prompt constructive change.


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