Many Republicans have voiced views similar to those of Barack Obama on the importance of all Americans obtaining at least some higher education. And even if many Republicans have differed with the Obama administration on many student-aid issues and how best to encourage higher educational attainment, few have cheered the idea of Americans stopping their education before the post-secondary level.
The Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, however, is doing just that. As far back as December he was calling colleges “indoctrination centres” for the Left, and he has questioned the idea that scientists know what they are talking about with regard to climate change. Starting a few weeks ago – much to the amazement of many academics – he began challenging the idea that more Americans should go to college. He has now repeated his criticisms, this time in front of cameras in an appearance in Troy, Michigan on Saturday. Mr Santorum again called Mr Obama a “snob” for wanting all Americans to go to college. There are “good, decent men and women”, Mr Santorum said, who are proud of the skills they have and which were “not taught by some liberal college professor”. He added, comparing himself with the president: “He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his.”
Although Mr Santorum’s implication is that Mr Obama wants everyone to have a college education like his (a liberal arts degree followed by a law school, undertaken at elite institutions), most of the Obama push for expanded higher education has been about community colleges and job-training programmes. The president has spoken far more about the need to give working-class people tools to advance their careers (through certificate and associate’s degree programmes) than he has about four-year liberal arts degrees.
On Sunday, Mr Santorum stood by his comments about higher education not being needed by many Americans. On ABC’s This Week news programme, he said: “There are lot of people in this country that have no desire or no aspiration to go to college, because they have a different set of skills and desires and dreams that don’t include college. To sort of lay out there that somehow this is – this is – should be everybody’s goal, I think, devalues the tremendous work [of] people who, frankly, don’t go to college and don’t want to go to college.”
Talking Points Memo, a liberal news website, reported on Saturday that Mr Santorum – in his unsuccessful 2006 Senate re-election campaign– seemed to endorse higher education policies remarkably similar to those of Mr Obama today. The site found a copy of Mr Santorum’s campaign website from that year, which said: “In addition to Rick’s support of ensuring that primary and secondary schools in Pennsylvania are equipped for success, he 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.”
Not only did the website show Mr Santorum to be endorsing higher education for all (Pennsylvanians), but it even quoted him as supporting federal spending for that purpose: “Rick Santorum supports increased funding for Pell Grants, and since 2001 funding for the Pell Grant program has increased by 47 percent. Pennsylvania students have benefited tremendously from Pell Grants; providing a college education for our state’s youth who otherwise might not be able to afford one.”
Mr Santorum’s campaign was asked about the apparent contradiction between his views in 2006 and today, but no reply has been received.
However, The Tampa Bay Tribune’s PolitiFact news service is reporting that Mr Santorum has – since 2008 –linked higher education to the work of Satan. In a 2008 talk at Ave Maria University in Florida, Mr Santorum discussed how Satan had attacked “great institutions of America”.
Where did Satan start? According to Mr Santorum: “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. 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.”
Mr Santorum’s broadsides against higher education are producing considerable blog commentary – and may even prompt some college presidents to speak out in ways that they normally avoid. Brian Rosenberg, the president of Macalester College in Minnesota, normally adheres to a strict rule of not speaking out about politicians or policy debates, believing that the role of a president is to provide a space for all views to be heard and not to endorse a particular position or imply that a college has an official position on such issues. In fact, he feels so strongly about this that he made it the subject of a convocation address that he adapted for an essay for Inside Higher Ed.
But Mr Santorum has tested Professor Rosenberg’s limits. He wrote on The Huffington Post website that the statements Mr Santorum is making about higher education are so wrong that it is appropriate for a college president to condemn them. “It is not much of a stretch, I would submit, to see the claims that (1) wanting to see more students attend college is bad for our country and (2) colleges are indoctrination mills, as ones with which a college president should publicly disagree, and that a presidential candidate who makes such claims is at least as much a threat to our collective mission as any law or court ruling,” Professor Rosenberg wrote. “So with all due respect to my responsibilities as a fundraiser and as a guardian of open discourse on my campus, I am prepared to make the case that stating publicly that I am appalled by the views of Rick Santorum is not only my right but my responsibility.”
He added: “I am appalled by the views of Rick Santorum. Now excuse me while I go check on the water flow in the indoctrination mill on the northeast corner of the Macalester campus.”