Jacob Heilbrunn

Is "We Don't Need No Education" A Good Republican Campaign Plank?

Is President Obama a snobbish elitist for wanting American kids to go to college? For over a century, the American ethic for immigrants has been to work your way up, get an education, move ahead, become part of the American dream. Rick Santorum, however, seems to indicate that this is all hogwash. Your children will simply get brainwashed when they attend college into liberal orthodoxy.

Disquiet on the right with elite colleges has been a longstanding theme. It began with William F. Buckley, Jr.'s God and Man At Yale. It continued with Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. But none of these works decried learning. They complained that it wasn't being carried out better. And their complaint was that not enough students were being exposed to the classics, but, rather, trendy and superficial works that would not sufficiently cultivate higher thought, that would leave them mentally impoverished.

WIth Santorum, conservative warning have been reduced to a parody of themselves. To listen to Santorum, you might think (there's that dangerous word again!) that America resembles North Korea or Pol Pot's Cambodia or Mao's China. But the Republican Governors who met in Washington this weekend and took issue with his latest remarks had it right. The notion that education is a bad thing is an inversion of reality. At a moment when China and a host of other countries are zooming ahead of the United States, which has managed to keep pace partly by recruiting top students from such countries, it is a peculiar campaign plank to denounce the idea of trying to improve your mind and your job prospects. It amounts to a bizarre form of American exceptionalism--know-nothingism elevated to a sanctified virtue. Yet America's obliviousness to the rest of the world--the mindset that we can carry on as we please, damn the consequences--derives from such impulses. One can only wonder what China or Europe's leaders think as they hear Santorum demonizing education.

Of course Santorum's stance is hypocritical as well. As Eugene Robinson observes in the Washington Post, Santorum does practice what he so loudly preaches. Two of his daughters attend college. His father had a Ph.D. Rick Santorum has an MBA and a JD. Their is no shortage of degrees in the Santorum household, in other words. Of course Santorum can argue that his students and teachers tried to brainwash him at Penn State. But the truth is that most schools are not hotbeds of liberalism. It's the mistake of ideologues to assume that everyone else has some kind of political agenda. H.L. Mencken, who did not attend college, captured the college ethos for a number of students better when he wisecracked that he had better things to do than sit in the bleachers wearing a racoon coat and cheering on the football team.

Yes, a college degree has become debased in the sense that it's a ubiquitous credential. But woe to those who don't have one. It's almost impossible to land a job without possessing one. It's a sign that a person can at least navigate a higher education system and come out bearing minimum credentials for entering the work force.

If Santorum is successful in upcoming Republican primaries, it will be a true danger sign for the future of the GOP. The Republican Governors, including Virginia's Robert McDonnell, clearly recognize the peril that he represents. Santorum, drunk on his recent successes, is lurching out of control. He could take the entire party down with him.