Rick Santorum, who has three college degrees, recently admitted that he really stuck his foot in his mouth when he described President Obama as a “snob” for “wanting everybody to go to college.” But he didn’t exactly retract his statement. Instead, he suggested that his wife’s take on the issue was what he meant: he said that the President’s comment was “snobbish,” but that doesn’t make the President a “snob.” He also said that he thinks colleges are dangerous because they “indoctrinate” young Americans with liberal ideas and that college causes students to lose religious faith.
Santorum’s statements have created yet another clichéd “firestorm of controversy” in a Republican primary season that seems to churn out a new such controversies every week. In this case, the controversy reveals that there is significant disagreement even within the party itself over the role of higher education in the United States. For example, Republican Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie took exception with Santorum’s position, agreeing with President Obama that some form of higher education or post-high school job training is necessary in today’s economy, arguing that
We need to have an education system in New Jersey and all over the country that makes all of our kids, college or career-ready. It should be their choice. And not every kid wants to go to college, but I think we should aspire to let every child reach his maximum or her maximum potential. And if Senator Santorum’s against that, then I don’t think that makes any sense. And I certainly don’t think the president’s a snob for saying that. I think that’s probably over the line.
While Christie’s statement could be seen as part of his endorsement of Santorum’s rival Mitt Romney, both of whom are fighting for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, I think there is more to it than that. The division in the Republican Party over higher education exemplifies a split in the party between ultra-conservative and moderate Republicans, a split that has its roots in history. To determine if the modern day Republican Party is truly hostile to college education and whether or not Santorum’s comments are step with American views in general, it is important to trace the evolving views of the party in the twentieth century. When we do this, we find that Republicans have often been torn over the importance of a college education and the role the federal government should have in promoting it.
Republican Support for Education in the 20th Century
The Cold War that emerged in the aftermath of World War II ushered in an era of tremendous support for higher education. First, as Paul Krugman pointed out in The New York Times,
One way in which Americans have always been exceptional has been in our support for education. First we took the lead in universal primary education; then the “high school movement” made us the first nation to embrace widespread secondary education. And after World War II, public support, including the G.I. Bill and a huge expansion of public universities, helped large numbers of Americans to get college degrees.
Second, higher education was seen as a weapon against the Soviet system that was busy creating a vast scientific infrastructure, evident in the launch of the Sputnik satellite. In 1960, Vice-President Richard Nixon, a conservative anti-communist Republican, then running for president against Democrat John F. Kennedy, argued that the need to improve and expand education in the United States was a “life or death challenge”:
What I am saying is simply this: We are living in a civilization and in a world and at a pitch of crisis that put an ultimate premium on sheer brainpower – fully developed and unstintingly applied. We dare not waste it; we dare not misapply it; we dare not be satisfied with standards of mediocrity. Because the blunt fact is that anything less than performance at a sustained level of excellence will endanger for all time to come the fulfillment of our goals and our dreams.
To that end, Nixon suggested the following:
Just as important to a vital educational system as its elementary and secondary schools are its colleges and universities, public and private. The present Federal program of low-cost loans for dormitory construction should be continued – and greatly expanded into a program of both loans and matching grants for classrooms and laboratories and libraries as well. Furthermore, Federal grants should be provided to help finance State commissions to survey and inventory their higher education needs – an imperative first step in planning effective action.
Matching grants to help our colleges meet the demand for rapidly increasing enrollment are especially important for this inescapable reason. Tuition charges do not begin to cover the total educational cost per student. Each new student added to the rolls puts an added burden on the operating budget. Help is needed if we are to provide adequate opportunity to the growing number of young Americans – an additional million, at least, during the next 5 years – who want and deserve education beyond the high school.
Though they might have had reservations about some aspects of higher education (Nixon especially viewed college campuses as centers of opposition to his policies when he became president), Republicans of this era largely viewed the colleges and universities of the United States as a vital part of the nation’s growth as world leader in economics and politics. Democratic presidents such as Lyndon Johnson further supported the funding of higher education as part of the expansion of equal opportunity and democracy within the nation.
Republican Criticism of Higher Education in the 20th Century
The support for higher education articulated by the post-war presidents, both Republican and Democrat, began to fragment during the Vietnam War. While Governor of California, Ronald Reagan fielded the anti-Vietnam War protests of college students by arguing that the campuses were hotbeds of traitorous liberalism populated by “cowardly fascists” who endangered the nation. Just before federal troops shot and killed four students at Kent State University in Ohio, Reagan famously announced his plans to end the disorders at California state campuses: “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement!” His governorship was also marked by significant cutbacks on the funding of higher education, and he argued that California “should not subsidize intellectual curiosity.”
Reagan was a new kind of Republican, a conservative on social issues who married the concerns of the growing Religious Right with the “small government” fiscal policies that grew in opposition to the expansion of the social welfare state in the twentieth century. It is here that we find the roots of today’s conservative suspicion of higher education, because these conservatives (which can also include members of the Democratic Party) argue that today’s college campuses are dominated by a “liberal elite” that, to use Rick Santorum’s words, “indoctrinates” American students. This charge has become a frequent talking point of conservative Americans and continues a thread of anti-intellectualism that has often been present in some aspects of conservative thought in the 20th century.
It is this aspect of Republican views on higher education that are the roots of Santorum’s recent comments. More importantly, however, Santorum’s position on higher education may not be in step with what most Americans think about college, which is still viewed as part of the American Dream:
- Every day, more studies demonstrate that those who go to college earn more money.
- Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, argues that Santorum’s views are out of touch with what most Americans believe because “The proportion of Americans who say higher education is essential for success has roughly doubled, to about 60 percent, over the past decade.”
- Studies show that students do not, in fact, lose their religious faith when they attend college. According to FactCheck.org, “Those not attending college were more likely to stop going to religious services and to report they no longer had a religious affiliation than their college-going cohorts, according to data cited in a 2007 report published by the Social Science Research Council and unearthed by PBS.”
Therefore, Rick Santorum is not only essentially deviating from what most Americans believe and want, but also carrying forth a traditional Republican suspicion of higher education that emerged in the 1960s. But Santorum’s views on higher education are not the only ones espoused by Republicans, as Governor Chris Christie demonstrated in his comments. Clearly, Republicans are split on the issue. What that means for Americans voters is that it is even more important to think for themselves, determine what their education needs and goals are, and vote accordingly.