September 26, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The debt game

By |2018-03-21T19:06:43+01:00July 13th, 2015|"Psych Dept."|
The 1966 French TV film "La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV" (The Taking of Power by Louis XIV) focused on the king's shrewd means of keeping his court in line.

oberto Rossellini’s 1966 French TV movie”La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV” opens with a tailor and retainers fitting young King Louis XIV for a new outfit. The tailor steps back to let the king see his garishly glorious image in the mirror. He looks embarrassingly silly, but his face remains set and determined. “More lace!” he commands, “More brocade!”

What a superficial young boy, we think. How vain and narcissistic. When he next appears in court, everyone tries to smother smirks. They realize they’ll soon be compelled to follow his fashion sense.

Later in the film, we see he’s had a lavish palace built in Versailles. The nobles begin to realize they’ll have to move there, far from the seat of the Parisian government. They also realize they won’t be able to afford such increasingly ostentatious expenses.

All they can, they realize, is borrow from him. His clever strategy emerges. The more they borrow, the deeper their debt, until the king all but owns them.

I got my undergraduate degree in 1970, and my first job was at minimum wage. I rented an apartment in Boston (near Northeastern University and the Museum of Fine Arts) with four rooms, a large kitchen, and a bow window. It wasn’t in the greatest of shape but decent enough to fix up with a coat of paint or some floor sanding. No roaches or mice. My rent was one week’s take-home pay. Back then, we were advised never to pay more than a week’s wage on a month’s rent.

The state college I had attended cost two weeks of the same minimum wage. Boston’s big, prestigious universities ran about a year’s minimum-wage income. A lot, yes, but how many years salary would it cost to go to Harvard or MIT now?

Why am I talking about this in a column on psychology?

Because these facts have changed the way we live.

They’ve affected our children, our family lives, the kind of degrees young people pursue, and more importantly, whether high school students even have the possibility of attending college.

How many students from modest income families who took out huge loans to get a degree choose to study any of the liberal arts? Why are so many students studying business and information technology and other more practical subjects? I know many of these kids would have loved to study the humanities, but realized that going in that direction wouldn’t lead to jobs that would help pay back their student loans (providing they could even find jobs). In some cases, families openly pressured them to study disciplines that might make them some money.

What’s the result?

Students are shunning the kind of education that teaches them to question the world around them and form their own ideas. They’re opting instead for a very job-oriented education targeted at earning a decent salary so they can start to tackle loans and hope to earn enough to buy a home and support a family.

So back to Louis XIV. These days, the film seems strangely prophetic. It serves as a wonderful metaphor for young people’s predicament today. Universities raised their fees exorbitantly, while the idea of a university degree became more and more essential even for low-level jobs. The state provided loans, giving students entry but also saddling them with incredible amounts of debt. It begins to sound very familiar.

Discovering the ultimate goal of any action demands paying attention its actual outcome. The long-term outcome of these exorbitant loans has been that fewer and fewer students are choosing fields of study that require critical thinking. They’re forced into the status quo. Interesting. I wonder who benefits from that.

About the Author:

Elaine Luti has been a psychotherapist in private practice for more than 30 years. She has taught psychology at various universities in Italy. Her interests include calligraphy, cooking, singing, and reading. She has grown children (and grandchildren) and lives with her husband in Rome.