Lee Siegel writes a powerful philippic for the New York Times Sunday Review entitled “Why I Defaulted on My Student Loans.” It may not be entirely clear from his rant that he’s no kid, but the same age as me. That being so, I call bullshit. Siegel is full of crap and playing his audience for fools.
Siegel begins his facile spin in his first paragraph, painting the banker who gave him his student loan as his own personal merchant of Venice.
ONE late summer afternoon when I was 17, I went with my mother to the local bank, a long-defunct institution whose name I cannot remember, to apply for my first student loan. My mother co-signed. When we finished, the banker, a balding man in his late 50s, congratulated us, as if I had just won some kind of award rather than signed away my young life.
No. The “balding” man, an interesting detail recollected by someone who can’t recall the bank, didn’t congratulate Siegel “as if” he won an award, but as if he was just enabled to get an education. It might fairly be said that is a prize, a college education which he would otherwise not be capable of obtaining.
Siegel wasn’t the first 17-year-old to come from a family of little means. Most of us demonstrated a sufficient grasp of our parents’ limitations to make choices based upon reality. Not Siegel. He was special.
By the end of my sophomore year at a small private liberal arts college, my mother and I had taken out a second loan, my father had declared bankruptcy and my parents had divorced. My mother could no longer afford the tuition that the student loans weren’t covering. I transferred to a state college in New Jersey, closer to home.
There is a vanity that goes with attending a “small private liberal arts college.” So very elitist. But lest you put it in context of today, as Siegel seeks to do by throwing in his red-herring excuse farther down his op-ed, college tuition was higher at “small private liberal arts colleges” but hardly what it is today.
This is a trick, taking a problem out of context while concealing the difference. And even within such colleges, there was significant variation in tuition that made some truly elite, while others more modestly expensive. Since Siegel went to college, tuition has risen at multiples of the cost of living. Back then, it just wasn’t that big a deal.
And then, there were scholarships for the smart, but poor, kids. See anything about a scholarship in there? Neither do I. Maybe that was a message to Siegel, that however special he thought he was, it wasn’t shared by the institution. They would suffer his admission, but they weren’t going to finance him. He wasn’t worth it.
But he adds insult to injury, after being compelled to leave his small private liberal arts college to attend, gasp, a state school in New Jersey. How dreadful. How humiliating. How worthless.
Maybe the problem was that I had reached beyond my lower-middle-class origins and taken out loans to attend a small private college to begin with. Maybe I should have stayed at a store called The Wild Pair, where I once had a nice stable job selling shoes after dropping out of the state college because I thought I deserved better…
And there you have it. It’s not that there wasn’t a college for Siegel, but that Siegel was too special for a college he could afford. “Because I thought I deserved better.” Deserved, as in he was owed, he was entitled. It was his right to have whatever he thought he deserved.
But Siegel’s not done testing the stupidity of his readers.
It struck me as absurd that one could amass crippling debt as a result, not of drug addiction or reckless borrowing and spending, but of going to college. Having opened a new life to me beyond my modest origins, the education system was now going to call in its chits and prevent me from pursuing that new life, simply because I had the misfortune of coming from modest origins.
There was no “crippling debt,” as one sees today. College tuition at the University of Pennsylvania in 1975 was $3,430. Per year. In 2014 dollars, that comes out to $15,401.89. Still want to cry Siegel a river?
For someone as special as Siegel, however, the “chits” called by this onerous system were more than he could bear.
Years later, I found myself confronted with a choice that too many people have had to and will have to face. I could give up what had become my vocation (in my case, being a writer) and take a job that I didn’t want in order to repay the huge debt I had accumulated in college and graduate school. Or I could take what I had been led to believe was both the morally and legally reprehensible step of defaulting on my student loans, which was the only way I could survive without wasting my life in a job that had nothing to do with my particular usefulness to society.
I chose life. That is to say, I defaulted on my student loans.
Siegel has a choice, to honor his obligations or to be an egocentric, flaming narcissist, entitled to take money upon a promise to repay or to enjoy the life he wanted to enjoy, to indulge his happiness at other people’s expense. Isn’t it all about him? Doesn’t he deserve to be whatever he wants to be. Is he not entitled to the life he wants, no matter what promises he made, obligations he undertook, responsibilities he assumed?
Of course he is. He’s special. Special people are absolved of promises, obligations and responsibilities. In fact, we are all absolved of promises, obligations and responsibilities, because we are all special. Right? Right?!?
There is much wrong with the system of financing higher education today, and even more wrong with its costs. But none of this applies to Lee Siegel, both because things were very different when he took out his loans, when he went to college, and because he possesses the shameful ability to lie to himself and his readers to shift the blame off his own flagrant lack of integrity to everything around him, whether real or imagined.
Lee Siegel is a deadbeat. It’s not because of any faux contention of moral reprehensibility, but a perverted self-delusion of narcissism and entitlement. What he lacks is integrity, and no college, at any price, can teach him that.