Standing in line at the grocery store the other day, I had one of those conversations that seem like they should be taking place in a dramedy. As I waited for my turn at the checkstand, a burly guy behind me struck up a conversation about my coat, which is apparently the color of a UPS driver's. "Hey, UPS! Right on," he said with approval. He was slightly embarrassed when I turned and told him I didn't work for UPS so, in a gesture of rescue, I joked that I probably should go to work for UPS since its employees are paid far more than teaching assistants.
"Well, if you're a TA, then you're probably working on a high degree, so you'll be making good money in no time... unless, you know, you're studying history or something." He laughed and shook his head as if a person might as well spend a few years translating Beowulf into Klingon.
We laughed together for a second or two until I told him that's precisely what I'm studying. Then he cleared his throat. "Shit, I should stop using that joke," he said.
I told this story before one of my history seminars at Washington State University, but it didn't get too many laughs. Most, if not all, of us are in grad school on tuition waivers — meaning, we work up to 20 or so hours per week attending an undergraduate history course, grading papers and tests, meeting with students during office hours and leading class from time to time. In exchange for this work we make about $1,500 per month, but the real benefit is not having to pay for school. As an out-of-state student, my aid package (including stipend and waiver) amounts to about $40,000 a year. Granted, I don't see the vast majority of that money, yet without it there would be no chance of me going to school.
I haven't had time to read the so-called "scam" tax bill currently laying over the body politic like a poisonous fog, but I'm apparently not alone. Based on what I've seen, almost no one has read the thing, including the Boss Baby in the White House, but the broad strokes are clear: The biggest tax code revamp since the Reagan administration is also the biggest windfall for corporate America ever. From the Washington Post to Forbes, Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal, analysts are in agreement that slashing the highest tier corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent is the heart and soul of the legislation.
I'm no economist, but I can scarcely imagine that untaxed tuition waivers for TA's represent a hitherto unexploited reservoir of revenue vital to the maintenance of the republic. As such, the mere consideration of taxing tuition waivers as income (which, thankfully, is only being considered in the House version of the bill) necessarily rests on a desire to make it harder to go to grad school. What's more, private college endowments are also on the block and certain provisions would make it harder for students to pay back loans.
This sacrifice of education for corporate profits fits not with an economic vision, but a wider social belief that learning is a quaint waste of time (at best) and politically suspect (at worst). Anti-intellectualism runs deep in the American character, but in this president, this Congress and this Republican Party, it has found the ultimate expression of Know-Nothing wreckerism.
Responding to the House bill, American Council on Education President Ted Mitchell wrote in a statement, "This is simply wrongheaded." True enough, but if history tells us anything, it's that being "wrongheaded" never stood in the way of anyone committed to book burning. In this case, however, the book burning is being attempted before the books are even written. Not that anyone should study history, of course. That would be silly. ♦
Zach Hagadone is a former co-publisher/owner of the Sandpoint Reader, former editor of Boise Weekly and current grad student at Washington State University.