Why Rick Santorum has a point about higher education

Matt K. Lewis | Senior Contributor

“College is not for everybody — but more importantly — everybody is not for college,” says Dan Flynn, author of  “Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America,” when asked about former Sen. Rick Santorum’s controversial comments about higher education.

In fairness to Obama, advocating “higher education” does not necessarily equal advocating that everyone should obtain a four-year degree. But by the same token, it is clear that there has been a push among some liberal elites to encourage near-universal college attendance.

Santorum’s comments might have been misdirected at Mr. Obama, but his general concerns were no less valid.

“When you open up the gates of universities without regard to aptitude,” warns Flynn, “the result is to drag the school’s down to the lowest common denominator, rather than uplift the dim.”

This rings true to me. I hated my high school years, largely because they were a waste of time. Part of the problem was that teachers had no control over the classrooms, and thus spent much of their time on disciplinary matters — not on education.

By the time I reached college, however, that was no longer an issue. But Flynn argues that creating a system in which everyone is coerced into college would “transform universities into glorified high schools.”

Flynn’s new book highlights successful people who have taken untraditional routes to achieve success.

For example, he profiles famed science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury, who, upon graduating from high school (during the Great Depression) couldn’t afford to go to college. Instead, Bradbury spent three days a week at the public library — for a decade. (Or, as Good Will Hunting might have said to Santorum’s critics: “You dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fucking education you coulda’ got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.”)

Flynn also writes about Mortimer Adler, who dropped out of high school, and yet, wound up with a Ph.D. from Columbia. “He thought education shouldn’t just be the avocation of youth,” Flynn explained. “It should be the vocation across a lifetime. This meant, essentially, that education needn’t be constrained by schooling.”

“It was rather fitting,” Flynn said, that when Adler got on the cover of TIME magazine in 1953, the sub-headline read: “Should professors commit suicide?” As Flynn notes, “what Mortimer Adler was really offering was education without the middlemen.”

Flynn said he was especially amused to see George Stephanopoulos — of all people — on ABC News’ “This Week” grilling Santorum over the issue. “Here was a guy who left the Clinton administration — and what did he do? — he didn’t have to look for a job — he got hired by Columbia University,” says Flynn.

“Now, why did this guy get hired as a professor at an Ivy League institution. Was it because he had a Ph.D.? No, he didn’t have one. It’s because he was a liberal.”

Flynn believes Santorum’s comments “struck a nerve” with Stephanopoulos because, like many liberals, he used “academia as sort of a revolving door between jobs.”

Santorum, of course, was also criticized for arguing Obama wants everyone to go to college so he can “remake you in his image.” The overt indoctrination argument struck me as being a bit much. On the other hand, as Flynn told me:  “Hillary Clinton went to Wellesely as a Goldwater girl — and she came out as a supporter of the Black Panthers.”

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