Many Republicans have voiced views similar to those of President 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 postsecondary level.
Rick Santorum, however, is doing so. As far back as December he was calling colleges "indoctrination centers" 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 started 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 Saturday in Troy, Mich. Santorum again called President Obama a "snob" for wanting all Americans to go to college. There are "good, decent men and women," Santorum said, who are proud of their skills that were "not taught by some liberal college professor." He added, comparing himself to President Obama: "He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his."
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While Santorum's implication is that President Obama wants everyone to have a college education like his (a liberal arts degree followed by a law school, attending elite institutions), most of the Obama push for expanded higher education has been about community colleges and job-training programs. He has spoken far more about the need to give working class people tools to advance their careers (through certificate and associate degree programs) than he has about four-year liberal arts degrees.
On Sunday, Santorum stood by his comments about higher education not being needed by many Americans. On ABC’s “This Week," he said that ”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 site, on Saturday reported that Santorum -- in his unsuccessful re-election campaign to the Senate in 2006 -- seemed to endorse higher education policies remarkably similar to those of President Obama today. The site found a copy of 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 include Santorum 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."
Inside Higher Ed asked Santorum's campaign about the apparent contradiction between his views in 2006 and today and has not heard back.
But The Tampa Bay Times' PolitiFact news service is reporting that Santorum -- since 2008 -- has linked higher education to the work of Satan. In a 2008 talk at Ave Maria University, Santorum discussed the way Satan has attacked "great institutions of America."
Where did Satan start? According to Santorum, "The place where he was, in my mind, the most successful and first -- 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."
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, normally has a strict rule about 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, not to endorse a particular position or imply that a college has an official position on such issues. Rosenberg feels so strongly about this that he made it the subject of a convocation address that he adapted for an essay in 2009 for Inside Higher Ed.
But Santorum has tested Rosenberg's limits. He wrote in The Huffington Post that statements Santorum is making about higher ed are so wrong that it's 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," 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."
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