A few days ago Doug Craig, a fellow blogger at the website of the Redding Record Searchlight posted a blog titled “Are Americans Dumb?”about Rick Santorum’s infamous attack on the President’s comments about the universal value of higher education. Santorum had the following to say:
“President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob. There are good decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate them...Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image”.
I suspect that Santorum, who has a BA, MBA, and JD, doesn’t actually believe what he’s saying. He was simply tapping into an unfortunate strain of no-nothing politics that is alive and well in U.S. culture, stoked primarily by well-educated right-wing elites who see critical thought fostered in a communitarian environment—the hallmark of higher education—as dangerous to their own interests.
Craig went on to cite statistics which show the general decline of the U.S. workforce in terms of its competency. The fact that the statistics note “a gap between the nation’s high- and low-skilled workers” suggests that the decline has nothing to do with a disdain for education on the part of workers in the U.S., but rather problems of access.
My eyes wandered to the “comments” section, and some of the things I read there illustrate something disturbing about the way that some people view higher education. In addition to some climate change-denying hyperventilating, one commentator remarked, “The bottom line is that there are many ways that motivated people can acquire the information they need to succeed in the marketplace. ‘Going to college’ isn’t the magic pill that some believe it is”.
Another commentator wrote, “It has been my experience that ‘common sense’ decreases as intelligence increases. A academic degree does not ensure intelligence, nor does lack of education guarantee stupidity. Some of the smartest people I have met have the least formal education”.
I think there is a misunderstanding here, wilful or otherwise.
When our President said that college was something that “every family in America should be able to afford” he was not saying that college was a “magic pill”, or that everyone “must” go, or that you have to go to college to be “smart”. Those are simply the words that his critics, for one reason or another, put in his mouth to serve their own ends.
I’ve never met anyone who believes that you have to go to college to be smart, or that higher education somehow makes a person more worthy. Rick Santorum was absolutely right to say that “some people have incredible gifts with their hands. Some people have incredible gifts and...want to work out there making things”. I suspect that the President also agrees with him. Unlike Rick Santorum, I personally believe that people who work with their hands, and create things with their labour deserve the same wage and the same treatment as people who teach at a university or manage hedge-funds or speculate with real estate or destroy national economies for a living. That’s not a popular view, I realise, but that’s beside the point in this context.
However, there is a world of difference between saying that “college isn’t for everyone”, or that people don’t “need” college to be successful, and to say that there isn’t something that higher education could offer to everyone. The same people who hold the acquisition of knowledge in such contempt, and who would like to leave our workforce to the mercy of market forces are today trying to introduce the heartless logic of the market economy into higher education, and to sell the view that the purpose of a university education is to get a student a job doing something which gives instant gratification to a corporate-run economy.
To me, higher education at its best should be something a little bit different. It should be about giving people the opportunity to study something they’ve always been interested in but never had the time to explore...whether they undertake that study when they finish high school, or whether they feel like they need a break from work mid-way through life. There should be a place for people whether they want a degree or simply the opportunity to take a class here and there, something that California’s higher-education structure has traditionally sought to accommodate but which is being degraded as austerity forces community colleges to keep community members out of classrooms to cut costs.
Higher education should be about putting people together for a short time in a community where they can study and debate matters of civic importance. Those who pretend to stand up for workers on the right often claim that good, hard-working Americans don’t have the luxury of thinking about the esoteric matters that occupy students in “elitist” universities...esoteric matters like the character of our democracy, the nature of our physical earth, the place of our nation in the world, what a moral economy looks like, our relationship to technology, and how we should order our society. And if that is true, then it’s something to bemoan and to fix, not to celebrate, because a national community which by the nature of its inequality excludes people from participation in those conversations has a problem on its hands.
Higher education should be about conversation, community, critical thinking, and self-enrichment. Many of the things that students here at Berkeley learn in the classrooms are as relevant to the lives of blue-collar citizens as to the next generation of researchers, lawyers, or historians for that matter, and it is condescending and divisive of those on the No-Nothing Right to suggest otherwise. A person is not a lesser person for not going to college, but a society is much weaker for not allowing someone who wants to work as a mechanic, a farmer, a janitor or a craftsman the opportunity access higher education.
Higher education should enrich a learning experience. To take my field, you can read a history book in the comfort of your home. But you miss out on the range of perspectives and insights that will emerge in the course of a conversation with others about the book. And you aren’t challenged to think as critically about what you’ve read if you aren’t asked to think about it in its context or in relation to the knowledge that others—whether fellow students or instructors—bring to the table. You don’t need a university to have those conversations, but it provides a structured space to have them...and could be affordable and accessible if we chose.
People will say that we don’t have the luxury of making higher education affordable to anyone who wants that experience. And I say that after the Koch Brothers make the same wage as the workers Rick Santorum was pretending to celebrate, we can have a conversation about what we can and can’t afford as a nation.
And anyone who dismisses the relevance of higher education, or its capacity to better their lives in some way—even if it has nothing to do with their career of choice—is doing themselves a disservice, though one far less than that rendered by those who try to pretend that education is “elitist”.
The best answer to this embrace of ignorance that I can think of came from Malala Yousafzai, a 16-year-old Pakistani girl who was nearly killed by the Taliban for daring to demand that girls should be permitted to go to school. In a passionate and moving interview with JonStewart, Yousafzai, who the Taliban have said they would attack again if they could, remarked that “People will be thinking, just going to school and learning about chemistry and physics and maths, and that’s it. Going to school is not only about learning about different subjects. It teaches you communication, it teaches you how to live a life, it teaches you about history, it teaches you about how science is working, and other than that you learn about equality, because students are provided the same benches: they sit equally. It teaches students how to live with others, how to accept each other’s language, how to accept each other’s traditions and each other’s religion. It also teaches us justice. It also teaches us respect. It teaches us how to live together”.
And as our troubled world shows—a world in which a 16-year-old girl has to brave death to sit in a classroom—these are things we could all understand a little bit better.