Too much education a bad thing?

Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum made headlines recently when he called President Barack Obama a snob for promoting higher education.

“President Obama has said he want everybody in America to go to college,” Santorum said last week. “What a snob. There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day, and put their skills to the test, who aren’t taught by some liberal college professor (who) tries to indoctrinate them. I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his.”

While that seemed to win over many voters who had not attended college in Michigan (where Santorum was speaking), his message did not quite strike the right notes. (And it’s not just because it was ironic that a college graduate with both an M.B.A. and a J.D. was making this statement).

The home to some of the finest institutions of higher education in the world, and that is something to be proud of. Our education system needs reform, for sure. One of the main ways that higher education needs to be reformed has to do with its price. In an era where more and more jobs are holding a bachelor’s degree as a prerequisite for work—rather than a mere preference—the simple truth is that college-educated students are more competitive and generally earn more than their non-college educated counterparts.

It seems beside the point to note that Obama’s vision for the future includes making all kinds of post-high school educational programs affordable, including community colleges, trade skill programs, and other programs that fall outside the realm of the 4-year bachelor’s degree.

That all college professors are liberal and are trying to indoctrinate students is also a severe exaggeration. I’ve had professors who promoted liberal agendas—and I’ve also had professors who have promoted conservative ones. A vast majority of my professors, however, only promoted my ability to reason and think things through for myself; in essence, they taught me how to realize when someone was trying to push an agenda on me… which made me less susceptible to any agendas whatsoever.

I was reassured of this recently after speaking to a Fulbright scholar who is a teaching assistant at a local university. He was worried that a professor he works with was presenting a flat picture of his culture; without any direct exposure to the non-Western world, the Fulbright scholar was afraid that students in the professor’s class would only be learning half the facts—and worse yet, wouldn’t be aware of it.

“Students are smarter than you think,” I said.

Sure enough, only a few weeks later, my Fulbright friend came back to report: the professor’s students had begun questioning the views that were being presented in class. And it wasn’t just that. They were seeking out viewpoints that opposed their professor’s so they could reason through the issues themselves.

That’s the strength in the American education system: that there is room for debate. That’s precisely what good colleges—and professors—encourage. It’s not like that everywhere in the world. Many countries still operate under the idea that professors lecture and students sit quietly, absorb what’s being told to them, and regurgitate it on exams. The American way, however, no longer means just lectures. Many professors either use a combination of lecture and discussion sections or eschew lectures altogether.

In any case, you don’t need to go to college to know how to think for yourself and reason through things, but to suggest attending college somehow renders those abilities moot just sounds silly.

And let’s not forget that not all the learning that goes on in a college even has anything to do with liberal or conservative agendas. There is an awful lot of information that students learn and memorize in college that prepares them for the workforce that has nothing to do with Santorum or Obama. Representative case in point: in calculus class, I’m pretty sure derivatives are politically neutral.

I do agree with Santorum’s statement that there are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day, and put their skills to the test, but who haven’t attended college. But a good work ethic is not something that only one group (either college graduates or non-college graduates) can claim.

And for the record: I’m all for creating jobs. I just fail to see how job creation and further education are mutually exclusive. 

A modified version of this column was printed this past week by the Southbridge Evening News and other Stonebridge Press newspapers.

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