Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Santorum's Education: "What a Snob!"

This past weekend, when Rick Santorum wasn't busy saying John F. Kennedy's speech on separation of church state made him throw up, he was making this attack on President Obama on the subject of higher education:
Obama says he wants everyone to go to college. What a snob. [applause] There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor and trying to indoctrinate them. [applause]
As is usually the case, the words Santorum uses to attack others are far more revealing of himself than of his targets.

First, Santorum's statement is simply false. The president has not said that everyone should go to college. He has said that everyone ought to have the opportunity to go, and that people with the desire and ability should not be prevented simply because they can't afford it. This, to Santorum, constitutes snobbery.

Second, there's the hypocrisy. In his failed 2006 bid for re-election to the Senate, Santorum's position was the same as Obama's. His campaign website bragged about it, in fact:
Rick ... is equally committed to ensuring that every Pennsylvanian has access to higher education. Rick Santorum has supported legislative solutions that provide loans, grants, and tax incentives to make higher education more accessible and affordable.
But that, to my mind, is far from the worst of it. What I find especially interesting (and disturbing) is what Santorum's comments reveal about his attitude toward education.

To him, college is simply indoctrination. In his universe, college is not a place for reasoned discourse, the search for truth, or the battle of ideas. There is only the imposition of ideas by those with an agenda to "remake" others in their own image. (If I recall my psychology indoctrination in college correctly, I believe this is called "projection.")

Why is college like this? Because, in Santorum's words, we are in the midst of a "spiritual war," and the "Father of Lies" has long since conquered academia. Seriously.

Santorum explained all this in a speech he gave at Ave Maria University in 2008:
Satan has [been] attacking the great institutions of America, using those great vices of pride, vanity, and sensuality as the root to attack all of the strong plants that have so deeply rooted in the American tradition.... The place where he was, in my mind, the most successful and first successful was in academia. He understood pride of smart people. He attacked them at their weakest, that they were, in fact, smarter than everybody else and could come up with something new and different. Pursue new truths, deny the existence of truth, play with it because they're smart. And so academia, a long time ago, fell.... the other structures that I'm going to talk about here had the root of their destruction because of academia. Because what academia does is educate the elites in our society, educates the leaders of our society, particularly at the college level. And they were the first to fall.
In Santorum's spiritual war of good v. evil, God v. Satan, academia is already in thrall to the Father of Lies. So what goes on there is not education, but indoctrination. And what students are indoctrinated with is evil. And the only proper response, of course, is to indoctrinate them with good.

In all the hub-bub about Santorum's remarks, people have largely ignored the significance of what he said after the attack on the president and liberal college professors:
Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image. [laughter] I want to create jobs so that people can remake their children into their image, not his.
This is, I'd argue, even more revealing. When put together with his earlier comments on academia, Santorum seems to be suggesting that Obama, by trying to get people to go to college, is doing Satan's work. God created us in His image, but Obama wants to "remake you in his image"--by sending you to institutions that have fallen to Satan.

Note, Santorum does not conceive of education as a vehicle for empowering people to make themselves into what they want to be. No, in Santorum's Manichean world, people can only be remade in the image of good or of evil.

Santorum has rather famously walked the walk on this subject, by home-schooling his own children (something he says he would continue to do as president). He has argued against government involvement in education, implying that (ideally at least) all parents would home school their children--or at least have that option--so that they may remake their children in their own image. What other godly way is there, after all? Academia has fallen to Satan.

Santorum's vision of education has no relation to my experience, either as a student or a teacher. I went to twelve years of Catholic school. We had religion classes and and went to Mass.  But I'm confident that the nun with the ashen visage who taught me chemistry in high school didn't indoctrinate me with much of anything (other than, perhaps, an aversion to science classes).

My English teachers, who taught me how to write, my history teachers, who taught me how to think critically, my math teachers, who taught me how reason my way through a problem--all of them helped me develop skills that I still use to this day. That is what education does.

I spent four years being indoctrinated by Satan's minions (i.e., liberal college professors) at Lafayette College, but among the things I remember most about that experience is debate, not indoctrination. Oh, some of them were pretty left-wing, no doubt. But they didn't teach me what to think, they taught me how to think.

(Santorum seems to have made it through the den of iniquity that is Penn State without being indoctrinated, but he doesn't feel others are able to withstand it. Evidently he thinks he is better than all those elites who succumbed. So who is the real snob?)

I recall my college advisor, who, knowing I was an Irish Catholic, made me take the side of Ulster Protestants in one debate on Northern Ireland, and later, knowing my liberal tendencies, made me defend apartheid in South Africa in another. She knew my politics, and though I am fairly confident she shared them, she did not reinforce them. She forced me to look at the other side, and take positions I found personally abhorrent because she knew that was how I would learn. She pushed me to think differently. She did the very opposite of indoctrination. Because that is what a good teacher does.

I've tried to emulate her example in my own career. Anyone who reads this blog knows where I'm coming from politically, but I take care to avoid letting my views affect my classes. I see my job as helping students to think critically, to write critically and clearly, and to argue well--not to simply mimic my point of view (and trust me, very few do).

Early in my teaching career, in 1993, I got a last-minute position teaching a graduate seminar, The United States: 1933 to the Present. More than most classes, that one engaged topics that were directly relevant to current events. If ever there was a chance to indoctrinate, this was it.

Since the class was in the evening, I had several adult students. One student was, I'd guess, not much younger than I was at the time--maybe even older. He was very bright, and very conservative. And we went back and forth for three hours every week, with the conversation sometimes continuing long after class ended.

The next year, when he was no longer my student, he got in touch with me when he heard I was applying for a full-time position at the college, and offered to to write a letter of recommendation for me. He later showed me a copy of it, in which he said he hoped the college would hire me, because no matter how much the two of us might disagree on the issues, the only thing that ever mattered in my class was the quality of his work. He had done well because he had done good work.

That's something that Rick Santorum, with his constricted, twisted concept of education, cannot understand. Maybe his version of education is indoctrination. But mine isn't, and that isn't what I learned from my mentors.

In our version, there is a battle, and there is an enemy. But the enemy isn't an opposing ideology or religion. The enemy is sloppy thinking. The enemy is bad reasoning. The enemy is lack of clarity. The enemy is assertion without evidence. The enemy is narrow-mindedness.

The enemy is ignorance.

The real "war" in education is knowledge v. ignorance, and Rick Santorum has told us all quite clearly which side he is on.

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