In 1711, the Enlightenment poet Alexander Pope famously wrote, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” Pope’s point was that human beings should aspire to do as God does and forgive sinners. We forgive an individual or group because they have done wrong — even if they do not deserve forgiveness. To forgive someone does not mean to excuse the individual of the wrongs they have committed. Although the forgiven benefit by having their crimes and sins absolved, the emphasis is on the goodness of the forgiver. Those who forgive exemplify the best in society.
In higher education these days, it seems we hear the term “forgiveness” most frequently around a financial issue: student indebtedness over college tuition. We regularly speak and read in the news media about “student loan forgiveness,” which would enable individuals not to have to repay federal student loans they borrowed for their postsecondary education. Roughly 43 million Americans have student loans; the average student loan debt is close to $40,000, and more than 2.5 million borrowers owe at least $100,000.
Policy makers have been on different sides of the issue. President Biden has recommended that $10,000 of a student’s loan amount be forgiven annually for national or community service; Senators Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer have argued for $50,000 of loan forgiveness. Republicans are generally against forgiveness. And within those continuing debates, people have made various arguments about specifically whose loans should be forgiven and how much of them. For example, some have pointed out that those who could most benefit from loan forgiveness are African Americans and Latinos. Others assert that those who accumulate the largest loans are medical students who will be able to repay their loans without any significant harm.
All those arguments, however, are fundamentally wrongheaded.
Let me share a personal story. A young fellow whom I have mentored visited us recently with his new bride. Gustavo (a pseudonym) grew up in a poor neighborhood in Los Angeles with his mom. During high school he worked 15 hours a week bagging groceries and gave the money to his mother to help augment her salary; she worked full-time at a grocery store. He was a good student, and even though he went to a historically low-college-going high school, he was admitted to a University of California campus. He was good in math, and I encouraged him to major in a math-related field. He graduated from the university, subsequently earned a master’s degree in teaching and was involved in Math for America.
For the last several years, Gustavo has taught eighth-grade math in a K-12 school where very few students are “college material.” His students love him, and before the pandemic hit, he arrived early for work and left late so that he could tutor students one on one to help reduce their math anxiety. Over the last few years, he has had approximately twice as many students who are working at grade level as the average for his school. He also coaches a long-distance running club for his institution. He has enrolled part-time in a doctoral program and will complete his doctorate in about one year.
Gustavo and his new wife have all the enthusiasm and excitement of any new couple. They are in love, they intend to start a family and they eventually want to buy a house. In many respects, they are living the American dream. The dream Gustavo is living is also a life that, as a society, we should admire: he has worked hard, he has played by the rules, he personifies integrity, he is a Latino man teaching in a field where there are too few men of color and he is a good teacher.
The failure of the American dream, however, is that he has accumulated $90,000 in loans, of which about $60,000 is education-related debt. As a society, the citizenry is in the position of forgiving some, or all, of Gustavo’s debt.
But what has he done that requires forgiveness? Why are we even in the position of forgiving him? He has no sins to confess, and he has done nothing for which we should be magnanimous.
The only error that he has committed is that he was born into, and grew up in, a poor family. Poverty ought not require forgiveness. Indeed, the society that has enabled individual indebtedness is the one that should seek expiation. Gustavo, by the way, does not seek forgiveness for those loans that 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 be unable to buy a home and raise a middle-class family.
A New Mind-Set Is Needed
Some will suggest that we ought not quibble over a word. Who cares if a loan is “forgiven” as long as the individual no longer has any debt? That is the same sort of thinking that defines undocumented students as illegal aliens, as if they are from another planet, and LGBTQ individuals as homosexuals in need of psychiatric help. Language both constitutes and is constituted by the culture in which we live. To suggest that the poor need forgiveness is to maintain the relations of power that benefit some and marginalize others like Gustavo.
In American society, we still have a mind-set 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 will end up in circular arguments about whether someone deserves $10,000, $50,000 or whatever in debt relief.
Such thinking should be anathema in a democracy that holds that through individual initiative and hard work a person will thrive. Gustavo and countless others like him have done precisely what the American credo has set out: work hard, play by the rules, give back to the community and you will be able to share in the American dream. No one should have to be forgiven for that.