Victor Davis Hanson

Ancient Sparta turned its conquered neighbors into indentured serfs -- half free, half slave. The resulting Helot underclass produced the food of the Spartan state, freeing Sparta's elite males to train for war and the duties of citizenship.

Over the last few decades, we've created our modern version of these Helots -- millions of indebted young Americans with little prospect of finding permanent well-paying work, servicing their enormous college debts or reaping commensurate financial returns on their costly educations.

Student-loan debts now average about $25,000 per graduating senior. But the percentage of youths 16 to 24 who are working (about 49 percent) is the lowest since records have been kept. The cost of a four-year college education can range between $100,000 and $200,000 depending on whether the institution is public or private. Only 53 percent of today's college students graduate within six years. Student time spent writing and reading in college has plummeted.

Annual tuition keeps rising, as it has over the last 50 years, usually at close to twice the rate of inflation. It must, if colleges are to pay for a vast new administrative class that is excused from teaching to monitor sensitivity and diversity, raise money, and comply with ever more race/class/gender federal mandates.

In addition, students support a new grandee class of professors who teach lighter loads, enjoy better benefits, retire earlier -- and now offer instruction in a vast array of courses and disciplines that simply were never part of the traditional curriculum.

If today's indebted students graduate later and are trained to be more "socially aware," they also have diminished writing skills, fewer facts at their command, and less practical ability to survive in the private sector. So the higher-education paradox continues: borrowing more for a less valuable, more politicized education that takes longer, with waning ability to pay off the ever greater debt.

Often, first- and second-year students will take most of their classes from the new legions of part-time lecturers, who are on yearly contracts without much in the way of job security, pensions, benefits or status, and who subsidize the light teaching loads of the far better paid.

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.