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Rick Santorum's Populist Pandering: Education as Elitism

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Presidential politics continues its typical dishonest and disgusting path toward what we can all look forward to -- a vote next November and an end to the misery. The latest weirdness comes courtesy of Rick Santorum who is desperately trying to distract the right wing from his occasionally pragmatic voting record in Congress. Last week he called President Obama a snob for saying that everyone should go to college. He went on to say that the reason Obama wants everyone to go to college is so that liberal professors can indoctrinate them in the president's socialist ideology.

The absence of truth in Santorum's statement is breathtaking. First, much of the president's emphasis on higher education has been directed toward sciences and technical education -- especially in two-year community colleges. Second, the president's emphasis on education has little to do with elitism and everything to do with America's economic survival. We are in an increasingly brain-based economy. Labor that used to require muscle now must have the capacity to run complex, labor-saving machinery. Even crafts increasingly utilize machines and computer-generated designs in their production processes. Santorum does no favors to anyone when he equates education with elitism.

I was thinking about Rick's ridiculous rant when I was reviewing applications to several masters programs I direct. What is notable about the applicant pool is its increasing international composition. In particular, we are seeing more and more applicants from China. Today, America's research universities are still the best in the world, and attract applicants from all over the globe. However, a generation of Santorum's ideological crusade against universities could weaken this national asset, and require our grandchildren to learn Mandarin before they could enroll in the world's top universities. That would only be the most visible impact of allowing our universities to slip. The more devastating impact would be economic.

If you examine economic progress and growth over the past century, you see constant technological invention and manufacturing innovation. Think of modern life and the modern economy without the electric grid, light bulbs, the auto, the refrigerator, the radio, the jet, TV, cable, the computer, the internet and on and on. Think of modern manufacturing without computer-controlled machinery. Think of shipping without containers and bar codes. Participation in this economy requires education. Leadership in the global economy requires constant scientific and technical invention and innovation.

An anti-educational theme by a modern presidential candidate is beyond astonishing. It's hard for me to believe that he really feels this way, and it makes me think that in the campaign to appeal to the Republican base, these guys will say just about anything their focus groups tell them might play. The problem will come if President Obama somehow manages to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory and one of these fellas actually becomes president. They might have to deliver on some of their extreme promises.

Republican primary voters are far from representative of the broad American public. Americans are not a bunch of socialist, atheist, drug addicts -- but they increasingly live in households that do not conform to 1950's stereotypes. Children are increasingly being born to single parents. More and more women work outside the home. Contraception and abortion rights are widely supported and in fact assumed as fundamental rights. Support for gay rights and gay marriage continues to grow. Much of America's population increase in the past several decades has come from immigration. American values have evolved along with America's society. We are not the same place we were fifty years ago. There is still a sense of community, charity, obligation and personal responsibility hard wired into our culture. But we are more tolerant, less violent, more health conscious, more exposed to global media. When I was growing up, being a parent was a type of status. By the time I became a parent, parenting had become a verb -- a set of actions one is responsible for taking. One of those actions is to make sure your children are educated and prepared for the world of work. The American majority does not think that you are a snob if you think everyone should be given the opportunity to go to college.

To find a contrast to Santorum's anti-intellectual approach, we need look no further than New York's City Hall. As a key element of New York's economic development strategy, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his team have worked hard to attract a new engineering school to New York. They have allocated land and $100 million in infrastructure and attracted a team led by Cornell University to build this new school. And it is not as if New York lacks engineering capacity. Cooper Union, NYU-Poly and Columbia all have excellent engineering schools. But the Mayor correctly decided that the 21st century New York City economy needed more. His goal is to foster high tech start-up companies. As someone who generated considerable wealth from his own high tech start-up, Bloomberg has a crystal clear understanding of the technical foundation of the brain-based economy.

Similarly, in Arizona, Arizona State University President Michael Crow has worked for the past decade to establish what he has termed the "New American University," a college that conducts education and research in service to economic development and other societal goals. Writing in the Washington Post this past November, Crow observed:

"The only path forward for the United States is to continue on this historical trajectory of perpetual innovation, a path forged by education. Following the Second World War, our nation emerged to lead the world in educational attainment, and from there led the way to scientific discovery, new business start-ups, new industrial sectors like biotech, pioneering military preparedness, and astonishing feats of human creativity and technological genius, like landing humans on the moon or creating an Internet economy. We are now falling from the lead on many of these indicators of success."

Crow concludes by noting the close connection between higher education and economic wealth: "In order for our nation to retain its economic competitiveness, we need to change higher education's criteria for, and measurements of, success."

As Crow indicates, educational institutions must change if they are to continue to play a key role in the nation's economy. But Santorum's attack on education is the wrong approach. I admit, working at a great research university, I am far from an objective observer. In fact, as the chief operating officer of a research institute that employs hundreds of scientists, I am as biased as one could be. But come on Rick. Pander about something else. (How about the separation of church and state?) Education is fundamental. It is the basis of wealth in the modern world. Americans understand that connection. I suspect you do too.

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