It cannot quite be that education itself is a rare and precious commodity. Educational material abounds on the Internet, covering everything from quantum electrodynamics, computer programming, comparative literature, or even how to make contraband. But the Internet is also a steady reminder that most of us aren't especially knowledge-hungry, and can live long happy lives completely oblivious of, say, European history.
What is most salable is not the information, but the fantasy of what information buys for a person. Or rather, what it allows them to no longer fear for themselves. California Common Sense notes that, adjusted for inflation, public colleges and universities received 13% less government funding in 2011 than they did in 1980. In comparison, state correctional programs received 436% more in 2011 than they did in 1980. This is not a haphazard comparison—America has the highest incarceration rate in the world and between 1980 and 2006, saw a huge jump, from under 500,000 to almost 2.5 million people in prison.
Awareness of that looming industry of punishment is one of the concretizing elements in all class fantasies, the fearsome phantom used to create a stigma about poverty as something that drives people to criminality because, as the saying goes, a person "doesn't know any better."
On an institutional level, we learn in order to escape fear. And after 30 years of lost funding, an eager group of investment bankers has created a funding scheme to sell off the few last remaining parts of worth left in public universities: the piece of paper that says a person "knows better," that he’s qualified to escape his present and save himself in some mythic future that comes with a discrete admission fee.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.