Down to Earth: The Assault on Knowledge

Well, Congressional Republicans have passed the tax bill. The only thing remaining before it becomes law is reconciliation between the House and Senate versions of the bill.

I’m not the columnist to describe the full span of ways this bill will hurt the middle class. If you haven’t read about that yet, you should — I recommend a great piece written by historian Robert S. McElvaine in the Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2017/11/30/im-a-depression-historian-the-gop-tax-bill-is-straight-out-of-1929). That’s not to mention the ways the bill worsens life for the poor or gives undeserved breaks to the already rich.

But the bill’s attack on education and knowledge, including science education, and especially for the middle class? That’s squarely in my wheelhouse.

One of many reasons this bill means a lot to me and why I’m angry about its passage is that I likely couldn’t have become the person and professional I am today if this bill had been law when I was young.

After attending public school, I was fortunate to get accepted into Amherst College. I couldn’t have asked for a more enriching place to learn. Paying full tuition, however, was well beyond my family’s means. I relied on a mixture of need-based scholarships and loans to get through.

Those need-based scholarships were funded by Amherst College’s endowment. But under the new tax plan, endowments like Amherst’s will no longer be untaxed. The provision currently applies only to private schools with the largest endowments, but it means that some of the most prestigious colleges in the country will have fewer funds to admit financially needy students. Amherst has expressed a commitment to retaining financial aid for needy students, but has noted that the plan will cost the school tens of millions of dollars over the next decade.

At Smith College, where the endowment funds a third of all operating costs, “a Smith education would likely become more expensive, which could make it inaccessible for some, altering the diverse makeup of our student body, and potentially reduce the overall quality of education,” said Smith president Kathleen McCarthy.

Moreover, the tax bill will likely damage the ability of state schools like UMass to offer scholarships. Because state taxes will no longer be deductible in federal tax calculations, states that put a lot of money into education will get punished because their residents will face higher federal tax burdens.

When I reached my senior year, I knew I wanted to continue with a graduate degree. But like any good future journalist, I had broad interests, and I couldn’t decide whether to go on in geology or in political science, both of which I’d studied in school.

My dad, I remember, was worried about it. I remember him telling my mother, “In geology, graduate school will be straightforward, because she’ll get a stipend. In political science, the best choice would be law school, but where’s the money for that going to come from?”

When I chose geology, I was able to pay for my own small studio apartment and daily meals with the small salary I received for my work in the lab. Also, like most grad students, I received a tuition waiver.

Which brings us back to the tax bill. In the House version of the bill, the tuition waiver that helped make graduate school affordable for me would count as taxable income. The cost of that tuition is about the same as a graduate student stipend — these days, around $20,000. If the House provision stands, a graduate student’s taxable income will double to $40,000, making graduate school much harder to afford for many — and taxing them on “income” they don’t even actually earn.

Graduate students in the sciences work hard, often well into the night, in the laboratories of their advisors. The work they do doesn’t just train them. The students are the labs’ main workforce, so their efforts are critical to the continued function of research programs that develop cancer drugs, industrial chemicals, novel plastics and materials, mathematical theorems, computer technologies, geologic maps of mineral and oil deposits, genomic therapies, you name it.

Without graduate students, there would be no new university research powering our economy.

Taxing tuition waivers didn’t remain in the Senate version of the bill, and hopefully the provision will stay out as the House and Senate try to reconcile their bills. To me, though, it’s a sign of how far this Congress and administration will go to try to block ordinary citizens from acquiring advanced knowledge.

It’s more than an attack on higher education — it’s an attack on knowledge itself, an attack on the democracy of learning, where income shouldn’t dictate whether you can pursue your education to the fullest.

Of course, this assault on knowledge isn’t new. It’s as old as human society.

It killed Socrates when those who couldn’t handle his truths imprisoned and executed him by poisoning him with hemlock. It brought Galileo to court for proving the Earth orbited the sun. It put Rachel Carson through years of slander and threat when she dared to challenge the power of pesticide companies whose poisonous chemicals were killing nature and giving people cancer.

It tried to silence those who understood that cigarettes turn your lungs black and can give you emphysema and cancer. It’s trying to suffocate the science of climate change as I write.

This bill represents the newest temporary victory in the attempt to crush the power of knowledge and learning. It won’t kill knowledge — but it does promise to help bring America to a new low in its ability to compete against other countries.

The attitude and impact aren’t limited to the tax bill. Recently, entrepreneur Frida Yu wrote a New York Times editorial about being denied an H-1B visa to stay in America for work. A Stanford-educated expert in artificial intelligence recently hired by a Silicon Valley start-up, she was deemed insufficiently qualified in a radical tightening of the H-1B program.

She might instead have stayed in America, contributing her know-how to creating new companies that would have created new jobs.

Now another country will snatch up this American-educated inventor and thinker from us. They’ll take the knowledge, the economic power, the engine of possibility she might have contributed to our nation.

We’re pawning off our intellectual strength, throwing it away for the short-term political and financial benefit of the few and the rich.

The Trump administration has fueled resentment against the educated as relentlessly as it has sought to stoke racial resentments and gender conflict. Don’t listen to the scientists and the thinkers and those trained with advanced degrees, Trumpists say. The educated are the “elite” and they’re out to get you.

But the America I believe in has always sought to make a good education not the province of the elite, but available to everyone.

The truth is, making people suspicious of education and the educated is the best possible way to keep them down. If someone doesn’t know the truth, it’s easy enough to tell them any lie.

There are plenty of ways we could improve access to education in this country. We could fund smaller class sizes and larger salaries for teachers. We could provide free community college. We could increase funding for state universities instead of shrinking it. We could broaden federal loan programs.

And colleges and universities, too, should recognize that the rising cost of tuition has gone out of control in recent years. To deflect justifiable anger and frustration about the cost of higher education and the financial position of these institutions in the community, colleges and states should seek to identify the reasons for the increases, and do whatever they can to curtail rising costs.

But this bill, this Congress, this president, are doing nothing to increase access. Instead, they’re making higher education less accessible still. And I’d argue that that’s no accident, but a direct move to spur resentment and division by attacking the educated and denigrating knowledge.

From an ordinary middle class background, I made it through my education, and I finally paid off my last few loans a few years ago. I’ve worked and contributed what I learned over the years as a laboratory assistant and an environmental consultant and a science journalist and a teacher of science writing.

And from knowing what it did for me, I want others to be able to have their own journeys of knowledge. That’s the United States we deserve — not the one we’re being given.

Naila Moreira is a writer and poet who often focuses on science, nature and the environment. She teaches science writing at Smith College and is the writer in residence at Forbes Library. She’s on Twitter @nailamoreira.

 

Naila Moreira

Author: Naila Moreira

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