In 1711, the Enlightenment poet Alexander Pope wrote: “To err is human, forgiveness divine. Pope’s point was that human beings should aspire to be like God and forgive sinners. We forgive an individual or a group because they have done wrong, even if they do not deserve forgiveness. To forgive someone does not mean to excuse the individual for the wrongs he has done. Although the forgiven benefit from absolution from their crimes and sins, the emphasis is on the kindness of the forgiver. Those who forgive embody the best in society.
In higher education these days, the term “forgiveness” seems most often heard around a financial problem: student debt in relation to tuition fees. We regularly talk and read in the news media about “student loan cancellation” which would allow individuals to not have to repay federal student loans that they borrowed for their post-secondary education. About 43 million Americans have student loans; average student debt is close to $ 40,000 and over 2.5 million borrowers owe at least $ 100,000.
Policy makers have been on different sides of the issue. President Biden recommended that $ 10,000 of the student loan amount be set aside each year for national or community service; Senators Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer have demanded $ 50,000 for loan cancellation. Republicans are generally against forgiveness. And within these continuing debates, people have made various arguments about which loans should be canceled and how much. For example, some have pointed out that those who could benefit the most from a loan forgiveness are African Americans and Latinos. Others claim that those who rack up the largest loans are medical students who will be able to repay their loans without significant harm.
All of these arguments, however, are fundamentally flawed.
Let me share a personal story. A young man I mentored recently visited us with his new wife. Gustavo (a pseudonym) grew up in a poor Los Angeles neighborhood with his mother. In high school, he worked 15 hours a week packing groceries and gave the money to his mother to help her increase her salary; she worked full time in a grocery store. He was a good student, and although he attended a historically weak high school, he was admitted to a University of California campus. He was good at math and I encouraged him to specialize in a math related area. He graduated from college, went on to earn a master’s degree in teaching, and participated in Math for America.
For the past few years, Gustavo has taught grade eight math at a kindergarten to grade 12 school where very few students are “college hardware”. His students adore him, and before the pandemic hit, he arrived early for work and left late so he could tutor students to help them reduce their math anxiety. In recent years, he has had about twice as many students working at the school level than the average for his school. He also coaches a long distance running club for his institution. He is enrolled part-time in a doctoral program and will complete his doctorate in about a year.
Gustavo and his new wife have all the enthusiasm and excitement of any new couple. They are in love, they plan to start a family, and they eventually want to buy a house. In many ways, they are living the American dream. The dream that Gustavo lives is also a life that, as a society, we must admire: he worked hard, he obeyed the rules, he embodies integrity, he is a Latino who teaches in a field where there is has too few colored men and he’s a good teacher.
The failure of the American Dream, however, is that it has racked up $ 90,000 in loans, of which about $ 60,000 is education-related debt. As a society, citizens are able to forgive some or all of Gustavo’s debt.
But what has he done that demands forgiveness? Why are we even in a position to forgive him? He has no sin to confess, and he has done nothing that we should be magnanimous about.
The only mistake he made was being born and raised in a poor family. Poverty should not require forgiveness. Indeed, the society which allowed the individual indebtedness is the one which must ask for atonement. Gustavo, by the way, does not ask for forgiveness for the loans he has accumulated on his own, such as buying a new car. He is beginning to realize, however, that without some form of loan eradication, he will not be able to buy a house and raise a middle class family.
A new state of mind is needed
Some will say that we should not quibble over a word. Who cares if a loan is “forgiven” until the individual is debt free? It’s the same kind of thinking that defines undocumented students as illegal aliens, as if they came from another planet, and LGBTQ people as gay men in need of psychiatric help. Language constitutes and is at the same time constituted by the culture in which we live. To suggest that the poor need forgiveness is to maintain power relations that benefit some and marginalize others like Gustavo.
In American society, we still have the mentality that we hold the power to forgive people for their poverty, as if the poor created the conditions in which they were born and live. Until we change our beliefs about the nature of poverty, we’ll end up in circular arguments about whether anyone deserves $ 10,000, $ 50,000, or whatever in debt relief.
Such thinking should be anathema in a democracy which considers that through individual initiative and hard work a person will thrive. Gustavo and countless others like him have done exactly what the American Creed has established: work hard, play by the rules, give back to the community, and you can share the American Dream. No one should have to be forgiven for this.