Is the Political Right Anti-Education?

It may appear to the casual observer that many in conservatism are opposed to public education.  That may only be half true.  A closer look seems to reveal that even those who attack “secular, liberal” academia really want a system that promotes corporate special interests



Following Romney’s recent sweep in the Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington, D.C. primary elections, it seems that Rick Santorum’s opportunity to win the GOP nomination for President is rapidly evaporating.  But the former Pennsylvania Senator’s candidacy will not go unnoticed for the scar it has left on some of the right’s view about a college education in this country.

To most people the real ill affects of a college education today is the huge debt students are left with for most of their life and the uncertainty we once held that higher education is a sure easy path to high salary jobs.  But to the convoluted thinking of people like Rick Santorum, a college education is something to be avoided, supposedly because it separates a child from their conservative roots, including their religious bearings.

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said Wednesday that “the left” uses universities to indoctrinate young people for the purpose of “holding and maintaining power.”

“It’s no wonder President Obama wants every kid to go to college,” said the former Pennsylvania senator. “The indoctrination that occurs in American universities is one of the keys to the left holding and maintaining power in America. And it is indoctrination.  …  Because you know 62 percent of children who enter college with a faith conviction leave without it.”

Santorum went on to encourage his audience not to “give money” to colleges and universities that he said are causing harm to the country.   SOURCE

A report has shot down the notion that most kids lose their faith commitment after leaving college.  In fact, it found just the opposite.

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.   SOURCE  

Santorum is himself a product of higher education.  His bio on Wikipedia says that he attended Penn State University.  Penn State is by no means a liberal college nor is it a conservative christian school.  To listen to Santorum though you would have thought he somehow lost his faith commitment there but you wouldn’t be able to tell from his espoused views today.

So what’s really going on with Rick and other right-wing extremists that attack any higher education that doesn’t replicate the mission statements of Bob Jones, Oral Roberts or Falwell’s Liberty Universities?  Is it, as Santorum implies, a deep abiding orthodox view of his faith.  One that prompts him to assault some of the finest institutions of higher learning in the world.  Could it be a political slight of hand to garner the religious vote, or a little bit of both?  Could Santorum also be an unperceptive proxy for some to keep “the masses” just smart enough to support legislation that works against most people’s own self interests, allowing the reins of political and financial control to remain firmly in the hands of a select few?


Control Through Fear

My 3rd grade teacher at St. Cecilia’s elementary grade school in the sector south of Dallas called Oak Cliff, was Sister Mary Florence.  Normally I would not recall a teacher’s name this far back unless there was some event imbedded in my mind that kept it there.  There was such an event.

During catechism classes one day, Sister Florence was describing in great detail, the punishment of hell for those who died with sin-stained souls.  Such a concept was, to say the least, terrifying for us at our young age.  And though it would be years later before I began to question the dogma of the church and some of the more unlikely elements of the faith, I found myself asking a question of Sister Florence that day which showed signs of this future trait, along with how rigid fundamentalists protect their turf from critical thinking that challenges dubious and arcane views.

Allowed to ask questions on the subject if we raised our hands, I proceeded to question whether the notion that such a fiery death was a reality.  Hoping, as only a child my age would, that God may have other ways to punish “sinners”, I simply asked, “what if there were no hell Sister?”  Before I could get the second half of my question off of the tip of my tongue – “how then might God makes us pay for our sins?” – Sister Florence had grabbed the yard stick from the chalk board behind her and with eyes fiercely glaring at me walked briskly down the aisle to my seat.

She commanded me to put my hands out, “palms up” and then gave them several healthy raps with the wooden ruler.  I still recall the redness and the sting to this day.  When she had finished her punitive act she put her face within about six inches of mine and said “Don’t ever think there isn’t a hell or you may well wound up there.”

Years later, in a related matter, as a married, adult member of an evangelical Methodist church (yes, Sister Florence, I left your precious Catholic Church) I was sitting in a bible study class.  I don’t recall the exact topic but I do remember the man leading the instruction that day.  He was a gentle, kindly person with deep convictions about the religious orthodoxy of christianity.  Many questions about the how we come to believe what we do within our faith system had been filling my head in the months leading up to that point.

I wish I could recall what exactly was said by the bible study leader to spark the question.  All I seem to remember is that it had a bearing on what he felt we “know” and what I saw more of as what we “believe”.  I also remember presenting myself as a “devil’s advocate” and then said something along the lines of “we might want to remember that we truly don’t know anything that can be ‘proven’.  It is our strong belief in our faith that gives us a personal sense of knowing that we have a relationship with God, Jesus, etc.”  The purpose of this comment was to remind everyone, including myself, that our religious doctrines are not absolutes that should go unchallenged in our search for spiritual “truth”.

He was taken aback by this question but avoided responding to it, until in the next Sunday’s bible study class.  He began the session by declaring that as christians we are obligated to affirm that we “know” that Jesus Christ was real and is our personal savior and that without affirming this we are a mockery to our faith.  Our study of the faith, he said, was to be based on this “knowledge” and should not be challenged.  He gave me a glance when he said this and I knew this had been intended for me.

In both these experiences I learned that challenging traditionally accepted views was not only frowned on but was deemed worthy of punishment or subject to being ostracized.  Critical thinking towards traditional relIgious precepts has always been considered heretical by the Church for reasons that have more to do with the leadership retaining their authority over their “sheep” than it does with living a sinful nature.


Diversity Threatens Our Comfort Zones

Religious liberty ... but only for the right kind of christians?

So what is it about Santorum that predisposes him to view higher education as an evil that robs our children of what he feels are their basic conservative roots.  It could well be something much like I myself  experienced when I first went to college and had my southern conservative views not equally shared by people outside my comfort zone.  Most young adults experience a culture shock when they attend a university where diverse views are freely and openly expressed, something not commonly experienced on one’s home turf.

Local politics dictate the subject matter in most home school districts, and prior to that, social values are often firmly entrenched by the family.  The limited view one has of the world is quickly broadened once they enter an institution that not only has a faculty brought in from around the country but from around the world as well.  It is this broader perception and scope that colleges originally served which many parents sought for their children who had been brought up in the rural confines of early America.

But in earlier times the population was not as ethnically and religiously diverse as it is today so “straying from their roots” was pretty much an unknown concept at that time.  America though, like the rest of the Western world, has changed and with that change the white, anglo-saxon protestestant view of things no longer carries the weight it once did.  In order to serve a widening cultural diversity and view life in more contemporary terms, colleges became truly universal in their scope over the more parochial views held in the 18th and 19 centuries.

There are of course those christian colleges that instill christian fundamentals within their students.  Many have prayer calls during the day and bible study is required.  But if christian parents and local churches have done their job properly, a child’s “faith conviction” is apt to survive their experiences at non-religious institutions of higher learning.  The report from seems to indicate this.

For those kids whom Santorum claims fall away from their religious moorings after attending a secular university, the problem may not lie with what they learn outside their tight knit social structure at home.  It may in fact be symptomatic of those kids whose religious teachings were so extreme as to lack substantial credibility and failed to stand up to close scrutiny by more astute skeptics.  Such “falling away” could also be a reflection of how poorly a child’s mentors back home were seen walking the walk they preached to youthful ears.


Control Through Educational Curriculum and Costs

Whatever the reason, it is clear that Santorum is less concerned about what kind of message he sends to those who hear him deride higher education, than he does about appealing to that emotional aspect of politics that continues to divide this nation.  Of all the equalizers we have as a society, eduction should be esteemed rather than berated.  To narrow the focus of education along strict religious concerns hurts us as a country that already ranks far below other industrial nations.   

Santorum’s remarks can be seen as an attempt to assimilate his evangelical views more into the law of the land, but they may also serve a need to insure that today’s youth are exposed to only “the right kind of education”.  That is to say, that type of education which enables what Adam Smith referred to as the “vile maxim”, promoted by powerful wealthy interests.  Santorum’s words are familiar to those who have studied the evolution of public education in America.

“Mass public education is one of the great achievements of American society. It has had many dimensions. One purpose was to prepare independent farmers for life as wage laborers who would tolerate what they regarded as virtual slavery.

The coercive element did not pass without notice. Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that political leaders call for popular education because they fear that “This country is filling up with thousands and millions of voters, and you must educate them to keep them from our throats.” But educated the right way: Limit their perspectives and understanding, discourage free and independent thought, and train them for obedience.”   SOURCE

Santorum’s message then, on the surface, appeals to fundamentalist christians, but could equally serve those goals of people like the Koch Brothers, members of the Carlyle Group and many of those who run the nation’s most powerful corporations who control the legislation coming out of our state governments through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)


Education That Serves the Special Interests of a Few

Colleges and Universities are no longer seen primarily as centers of learning but as a business who serves the profit motive.  Less regard is being given to the quality of education and more to the business model that aims to see higher returns on their investment.   The serious cuts to education at all levels does nothing to inhibit the wealthiest from continuing their education, while putting a financial strain on middle and lower income families.  “Tuition increases trap students into long-term debt and hence subordination to private power”  notes linguist, philosopher and political activist, Noam Chomsky.

Where education becomes less accessible to the children of all family income levels there is a grave possibility that any industrial nation may devolve into the feudal systems of the middle ages; where most act out there life as indentured servants to a wealthy gentry.  By calling for people to withhold their financial support for colleges that don’t meet his seal of approval, Rick Santorum aids and abets that effort that reduces our democracy to an oligarchy that he seems to answer to.

Which shall rule—wealth or man; which shall lead—money or intellect; who shall fill public stations—educated and patriotic freemen, or the feudal serfs of corporate capital….   – Wisconsin’s Supreme Court Justice, Edward G. Ryan, 1873

15 responses to “Is the Political Right Anti-Education?

  1. First. let’s remember Santorum is not a born Pennsylvanian, (Virginia birthed him. LOL) and we threw his butt out of our political system. Second, I read an article about him where both his frat brothers and some of his professors at PSU were appalled by how he described his experiences there – ostracized because of his conservative beliefs. None of them remember this man being this conservative and while PSU was not liberal in the 70s and 80s, he describes it as if it were Berkeley. The school is in the middle of farm country. The professors like most academics are more liberal, but the community itself is not. And Univ. of Pittsburgh where he did his grad work is equally as befuddled about his comments about his time there as well. Anyway you look at it, Santorum is an idiot and Pennsylvania is glad he is gone. We hope the rest of the country sees what we saw. He had educational opportunities at great schools and was able to pay in-state tuition, yet he thinks not everyone should have a shot at these same educational opportunities. He is an elitist joke.

    • It appears Pennsylvanian’s have their own version of our Rick Perry, Donna. Sadly though, the voters here have yet to reject this corporate lackey.

    • From what I have read of Penn State Donna, it is a world class university that grew from a small agricultural college in the mid 1800’s. One of the distinctive traits of a Penn State athlete is they usually have some of the highest GPAs, compared to other schools. That says a lot about how education has precedence over their athletic programs. But according to Santorum, this has no real value if they have abandoned their “faith commitment.

  2. You better watch what you say, or you’re gonna end up in a realm of Hell where penguins rap your knuckles with rulers all day 🙂

  3. The reality is that the GOP isn’t against education, but they want education to reflect their values, which is free-markets and religion. They don’t believe in free thinking critical scholars but rather those that would truly indoctrinate, just in the way they prefer. As for the great mob who man the riveting gun, they need nothing more than the basics. Romney has suggested that college kids should take care of themselves and that they won’t be getting a dime from the government to help out. Of course you are most right, that the polling and studies prove something quite different than they allege. When your message only resonates with a small percentage, you have to blame it on somebody of course, and so it’s liberal indoctrination with lies, like evolution and climate change that are to blame.

  4. My son is in third grade and if a teacher ever did that to him, well….

    I went to a Christian Lutheran college. My professor of both Theology and World Religions (I took two classes from him because I liked him so much) was an ordained Lutheran Minister, Orvis Hanson. When he taught World Religions he told of how he was a missionary to China in the late forties and quit because he learned that the Chinese in the region he visited had a religious tradition that worked well for them and he felt it wrong to try to convince them to change. That led to a rather heated discussion.

    Dr. Hanson was a very mild, gentle person, who calmly defended his view with good humor, even as some students were pushing him. He emphasized tolerance, and in theology class he brought up academic disputes that questioned core Christian (Lutheran) tenets. My World Religion class did two things – his tolerant approach caused me to give up having one religious view – I left the Christian faith. The second was it caused me not to see atheism or pure secularism as the only alternative. A tolerant respect for all religions and recognition of the limits of pure rationalism and materialism has helped me maintain a strong sense of spiritual faith even without one religious “home.” And that from a Christian college and an ordained Minister professor!

    • Oh Scott. Things were so different back when I was a kid in catholic school.

      I once was tied to my seat by the same nun because I got out of my seat too often to go to the trash can or pick up my pencil I sometimes accidentally on purpose dropped. I remained tied to my seat too even when the bell rang for a fire drill, where every child was supposed to proceed outside in an orderly fashion.

      I do remember breaking the weak tethers to my seat and joining my classmates outside. Oddly, Sister Florence never punished me for that rebellious act. She was perhaps relieved that I had done something that allowed her to escape disciplinary action from the Mother Superior.

  5. Please forgive the following quote’s length. It is by Richard Rorty.

    “It seems to me that the regulative idea that we heirs of the Enlightenment, we Socratists, most frequently use to criticize the conduct of various conversational partners is that of ‘needing education in order to outgrow their primitive fear, hatreds, and superstitions’ … It is a concept which I, like most Americans who teach humanities or social science in colleges and universities, invoke when we try to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic, religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own … The fundamentalist parents of our fundamentalist students think that the entire ‘American liberal establishment’ is engaged in a conspiracy. The parents have a point. Their point is that we liberal teachers no more feel in a symmetrical communication situation when we talk with bigots than do kindergarten teachers talking with their students … When we American college teachers encounter religious fundamentalists, we do not consider the possibility of reformulating our own practices of justification so as to give more weight to the authority of the Christian scriptures. Instead, we do our best to convince these students of the benefits of secularization. We assign first-person accounts of growing up homosexual to our homophobic students for the same reasons that German schoolteachers in the postwar period assigned The Diary of Anne Frank… You have to be educated in order to be … a participant in our conversation … So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. We are not so inclusivist as to tolerate intolerance such as yours … I don’t see anything herrschaftsfrei [domination free] about my handling of my fundamentalist students. Rather, I think those students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft [domination] of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents … I am just as provincial and contextualist as the Nazi teachers who made their students read Der Stürmer; the only difference is that I serve a better cause.”

    I have experienced University professors single out Christians by making it a point to stump for the ridiculousness of religion — Christianity especially. Right in line with Rorty’s sentiment.

    • I know that Rorty’s comments seem to you to reflect the entirety of liberal academia but I can assure you it doesn’t. As a student who went from mundane conservative views to what I felt were liberating liberal views, I often found myself championing the liberal causes with professors who were both tolerant and objective, challenging my premises rather than rewarding them.

      You might want to keep in mind too John that for every “liberal” professor who fits Rorty’s account, there are those “conservative” professors that are equally guilty of playing favorites, especially in fundamentalist christian institutions of higher learning. Don’t ya think?

      That being said, the point I was making, and the one you seem to be dismissing is that people who make comments about higher education like Santorum do so more to the detriment of education than to correct some flaw that may exist.

      Values and standards that are well grounded within our kids long before they go into the world on their own never really face any serious challenges against weak arguments from some other points of you. They may adapt to other strings of thought but they don’t necessarily change their core values, at least that has been my experience.

    • BTW, John. You’re aware I’m sure that Rorty was an avowed atheist and as one source points out, was “for a more engaged Left dedicated to narrowing the wage gap, alleviating poverty, reducing social injustice, and pursuing other historically Progressive causes.”

      It was the political liberalism in this country that Rorty was trying to distance himself from, not the practical applications of social justice which is more representative of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

  6. As a university professor, I and my Poli-Sci colleagues are proud of the fact our conservative students believe they are treated with respect and fairness, even though we are (and they know it) liberal. It’s something I strive for. I remember the first class I taught. It was “American Foreign Policy” in Spring 1991. The Iraq war had broken out (the first one) and I was opposed. It was clear in class I was opposed, but I tried to be fair. Two ROTC students in the back kept whispering to each other and I wondered what they thought. When the course ended (I was still an ABD grad student) they came up to me. “Thank you,” they said. “I know you have a view different than ours, but we appreciate that you didn’t try to ram it down our throats and you treated our perspective fairly.” I felt really proud at that moment. One added, “Many other professors aren’t that way.” Ironically, I think political scientists are more “balanced” because that’s politics — disagreement is good, treat perspectives with respect. Other disciplines often have a more politicized faculty.

    • Scott,

      What I remember back in the early seventies is similar to what you describe here. I don’t really recall any professor trying to dominate the subject matter or pushing their point of view on dissenters. Such people were the exception rather than the rule and those exceptions were kept in check for the most part by students who got to rate their instructors at the end of the year.

      • Good/provocative post. Student evals don’t compensate for the fact that, in the end, professors assign grades. I’m less convinced professors’ subjectivity is “kept in check”. Many times students have complained to me about the need to censure themselves in other classes. I’m also less convinced that this equally true of liberal students. The academy writ large tilts way to the left and too often succumbs to groupthink. I suspect Scott and his colleagues (and I like to think myself) are outnumbered by those whose ideology unwittingly compromises genuine inquiry. Also, to say “higher tuition traps students” is to say their families and them don’t have any agency. Yes, tuition inflation is problematic, but students don’t have to take on six figure debt to graduate if they start saving early on, work part-time during school, start at community colleges, maybe live at home, attend less expensive publics, etc.

      • “tuition inflation is problematic, but students don’t have to take on six figure debt to graduate if they start saving early on, work part-time during school, start at community colleges, maybe live at home, attend less expensive publics, etc.”

        Good points Ron. BTW, I corrected your spelling error with the word “censure” and eliminated your response that addressed it.

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