Victor Davis Hanson

But our contemporary version of Helotage gets even worse. Desperate students now jockey for summer "internships" at public and private consortia -- law firms, foundations, government bureaucracies and private companies. These internships neither pay much (if anything) nor necessarily lead to permanent jobs with the employer. They are not even quite medieval apprenticeships, which at least led to membership in a guild and future journeyman or master craftsmanship advancement.

At best, college students intern over the summer to hone "skills." But isn't that also a frank admission that standard college fluff such as a mandatory ethnic studies class, an Earth in the Balance course or a Construction of Manhood seminar is not seen by employers as proof of either erudition or marketable job skills?

So why aren't Americans more worried about our new Helots?

Society has all sorts of ingenious ways of disguising exploitation. Record numbers of broke graduates are returning home rather than finding well-paying jobs and establishing their own households.

With room and board subsidized by parents, indentured 20-something youths who are interning or working part time can still approximate the thin veneer of the good life -- possessing a car, cell phone and computer. The result is that college graduates without a job, a title or much income can appear affluent when they are on temporary leave from their parents' basements.

Baby-boomer parents -- the luckiest cohort in American history in terms of Social Security payouts, pensions and job compensation -- often grumble that they are now rechanneling their disposable cash to their kids. The idea of inheritance has gone from a death benefit for survivors to an ongoing living subsidy from mom and pop. Permanent cash supplementation to Helot children is a new twist in parents' retirement planning.

Overpriced colleges are rarely truthful about the new Helotage. For example, often they offer incoming students Club Med-like gym privileges: rock-climbing walls, aerobics and yoga classes, and hip weight rooms. Such glitzy distractions fool students into thinking that they are already part of the privileged classes -- without awareness that upon graduation, few of the newly indebted will make enough to enjoy commensurate perks at private clubs on their own dime.

Strip away the fancy degrees, the trendy fluff classes, the internships with prestigious employers and the personal gadgets, and a new generation of indebted and jobless students has about as much opportunity as the ancient indentured Helots.

Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.