Rick Santorum Is Right

Peter Wood

Rick Santorum’s recent remarks about higher education have produced guffaws in some quarters, consternation in others, and explications de texte in still others. Here and there they have also met with a few attaboys and some scattered applause. The reaction within the academy varies between outrage and cynical amusement. None (or at least very few) appear to see Santorum’s various criticisms of the university as adding up to a view that needs to be reckoned with as intellectually serious. That’s a mistake.

Some of Santorum’s remarks came in a speech he presented in Michigan on February 25 at a meeting of Americans for Prosperity, a group the Washington Post fairly characterizes as part of the Tea Party movement. Santorum wasn’t the only speaker at the event. Mitt Romney, Michelle Malkin, and Andrew Breitbart also addressed a crowd of about 1,200. But Santorum’s remarks stole the show. The minute and a half video of the point where he characterizes President Obama as a “snob” is worth watching, but here’s the literal transcription:

…get value in the marketplace for their skills.

And I know what it means to have those manufacturing jobs at those entry levels that get you in there and gives you the opportunity to accumulate more skills over time and rise so that you can provide a better standard of living for your family. And that those opportunities for working men and women… Not all folks are gifted in the same way. Some people have incredible gifts with their hands; some people have incredible gifts and use them–and want to work out there making things.

President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college.

What a snob. (Laughter, applause)

There are good decent men and women who go out and work hard every day. And put their schools to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor that is trying to indoctrinate them.

Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college.

He wants to remake you in his image.

I want to create jobs so that people can remake their children into their image, not his.

This wasn’t a one-off excursion on the topic of higher education for Santorum. He has visited the subject fairly often, perhaps most famously at a speech at a Baptist church in Naples, Fla., on January 25, when, as CBS News reported it, he said:

It’s no wonder President Obama wants every kid to go to college. 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. If it was the other way around, the ACLU would be out there making sure that there wasn’t one penny of government dollars going to colleges and universities, right?

If they taught Judeo-Christian principles in those colleges and universities, they would be stripped of every dollar. If they teach radical secular ideology, they get all the government support that they can possibly give them. Because you know 62 percent of children who enter college with a faith conviction leave without it.

And he urged his audience not to give money to college and universities that are “undermining the very principles of our country every single day by indoctrinating kids with left-wing ideology.”

Rosenberg’s Contumely

He has made more remarks in this vein and will continue to press his case. Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed earlier this week cataloged some of Santorum’s more memorable lines in “Santorum’s Attacks on Higher Ed.” Jaschik also drew further attention to the already widely noted statement, “What to Do About Rick Santorum?” by the president of Macalester College, Brian Rosenberg, published in the Huffington Post. Rosenberg set aside his own principle that college presidents shouldn’t engage in partisan politics to declare,

So with all due respect to my responsibilities as a fundraiser and as a guardian of open discourse on my campus, I am prepared to make the case that stating publicly that I am appalled by the views of Rick Santorum is not only my right but my responsibility.

I am appalled by the views of Rick Santorum.

Rosenberg cited two of Santorum’s views in particular as breaking this particular social compact:

It is not much of a stretch, I would submit, to see the claims that (1) wanting to see more students attend college is bad for our country and (2) colleges are indoctrination mills, as ones with which a college president should publicly disagree, and that a presidential candidate who makes such claims is at least as much a threat to our collective mission as any law or court ruling.

Rosenberg brushes aside the notion that his college or any like it could be an “indoctrination mill.” The very idea! But indeed Macalester College comes as close as any contemporary liberal arts college to giving substance to such a label. I have written elsewhere (“‘Collective Certainty’ at Work“) about President Rosenberg’s mixing of calls to civility with sneers at the ignorant Tea Party masses which he says the folks at Macalester “are constantly striving to rise above.” And I took note (“Macalester Preps for World Domination“) of the college’s vigorous embrace of that distillation of contemporary illiberal liberalism, “global citizenship.” Macalester has an institute devoted to its promotion. This matches about as closely as anything could to Santorum’s idea of indoctrination.

There is much more in this vein. I happen to be in touch with the head of a politically moderate group of Macalester alumni who make a point of their centrism by calling their organization the “MacMods.” They find the college’s current curriculum to be ideological and one-sided. I am also friends with an active emeritus professor at the college who sends me little updates on the campus follies. “Indoctrination” is a pretty strong word for the groupthink that characterizes the college, and probably not the word I would choose. But it is close enough.

The Book of Nature

Santorum has inflamed yet other sensibilities by characterizing President Obama’s worldview as rooted in a “phony theology” promoted by “radical environmentalists.” This comes from a speech the candidate gave in Columbus, Ohio, on February 18, here summarized by the Huffington Post. His jab at churches that blend trendy environmentalism with Christianity under the rubric of “stewardship” provoked some strong responses, including an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times by the paper’s former religion writer, Larry Stammer, who in “The Greening of Faith,” said Santorum is “as wrong on his theology as he is on the science.”

Santorum’s criticisms of colleges and universities and his dismissal of radical environmentalism are, let’s say, not unconnected. Two of the tent posts of the liberal orthodoxy in higher education are that college education is, in some form or another, good for everybody, and that people today face an existential threat from climate change which can best be met (or perhaps can only be met) by drastic changes in our carbon-based economy.

Some 674 colleges have signed on to the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment which takes as given the so-called “scientific consensus that global warming is real and is largely being caused by humans.” And proceeds from there to a pledge by the 674 institutions (representing a third of American college students) to the “development of a comprehensive plan to achieve climate neutrality as soon as possible.”

This is, to be sure, not a “phony theology” or a theology at all. It is mere scientism. But you don’t have to look very far on campus to find environmentalists who indeed take the next step into a woozy sort of Earth worship. My favorite example from a few years ago is the Emory University anthropologist, Peggy Barlett, who in an article in the journal Current Anthropology called for a flat-out repudiation of the ideals of disinterested intellectual inquiry and their replacement by a “re-enchanted” nature that would lead to “wonder, delight, awe, and meaning linked to both personal and political spheres of action.”

But when Larry Stammer in the LA Times objects to the phrase “phony theology,” he has a point. Stammer notes that there are

many environmentalists who see their activism as deeply rooted in scripture and faith traditions.

He cites contemporary examples, but he could just as well have gone back to John Calvin, who argued that humanity has direct knowledge of God because it is “sown in their minds out of the wonderful workmanship of nature.” Calvin made the “book of nature” central to his theology. It was there that ordinary people could see “God’s workmanship in his creation.”

Calvinist theology is not an accidental antecedent to contemporary environmentalism. Various observers have noted that the movement has deep roots in this branch of Protestantism. Many of the movement’s founding figures, such as John Muir and Dave Foreman (the founder of Earth First!), were raised in the Calvinist tradition, and though they became de-churched and skeptical of theology itself, brought a great deal of the logic and ethos of Calvinism into their new pursuit. Robert Nelson hit upon the perfect phrase for this when he described this strand of modern environmentalism as “Calvinism Minus God.”

Nelson’s book, The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion(2010) offers a rich historical account of Calvinist contributions to environmentalism. But Nelson is hardly alone in observing that contemporary environmentalism is a redemptive creed, with its own versions of sin, repentance, atonement, damnation, and apocalypse–especially apocalypse. The movement, of course, has a side that sticks to the claim that it is science, not theology. But the theological side is never far away. When Foreman was organizing Earth First! in 1980 he laid out a “Statement of Principles” that concludes, “Earth is Goddess and the proper object of human worship.”

That’s not a “phony theology.” It is theology plain and simple. And as it happens, Goddess Earth has plenty of votaries on the contemporary campus.


I am not enchanted with Santorum’s tone in these matters, but his points warrant more serious attention than academics are likely to give them. His statements are not just howls of anti-intellectualism or attempts to play to Tea Party resentments. They are part of a cogent view that accurately registers aspects of the dominant campus culture that academics themselves are disinclined to acknowledge, let alone discuss.

Americans are indeed way oversold on the value and importance of higher education. As a result, millions of students who possess no real aptitude for disciplined intellectual inquiry or abstract thought; who are bored with books, art, and music; and to whom science is an impenetrable mystery, troop off to college to acquire nothing much more than excess spare time and a lot of student-loan debt. But if Americans are oversold on higher education, they are also getting suspicious. A form of cultural defection is taking shape. It is evident in the disproportionate number of males who opt out of traditional college programs to go directly into the workforce, and it is evident in the rapidly growing online sector of higher education, where students can bypass most of the the ideologically bedizened parts of the curriculum to focus on skills-oriented transactional courses.

Santorum worries about the “62 percent” of college students who lose their faith. True to form, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni replies in “It’s a College, Not a Cloister,” that a losable faith wasn’t worth having in the first place:

What good are ideas formed and fortified in a protective cocoon, without exposure to other ways of thinking?

A nice question. If the idea is, say, global warming, the answer from at least 674 colleges and universities is a ringing affirmation of the wholesomeness of intellectual cocoons. The collective voice of American higher education favors no exposure to other ideas at all.

Some faiths are, as Santorum suggests, protected.

But if the idea is faith in traditional forms of Christianity or Judaism, there is a felt urgency on the part of many faculty members to rip that cocoon to shreds. There are lots of reasons for this hostility to traditional religion and the attempt to demonize it as the enemy of critical thought. But fairly high on that list in the last decade has been the unwillingness of traditional Judaism and Christianity to accommodate the new liberal consensus on homosexuality.

In his Times article, Bruni enunciates a view of higher education that is perfectly familiar these days. The job of college is to undo the “indoctrination that has sometimes occurred around the kitchen table.” Colleges are supposed to rescue young men and women from the views, assumptions, and values that they grew up with. Education is liberation, not so much from the trammels of their ignorance of higher things, as from their first eighteen years of immersion in the values of their families and communities.

American higher education has, by and large, adopted an adversarial stance to American culture. Its larger project is to redefine that culture in its own image by installing a new, supposedly more sophisticated one in its stead.

A Cogent Critique

The sophistication of this alternative is often spurious. Students aren’t seduced away from their families’ faith traditions or their positive attitudes towards American life in general by reading Aristotle or Bertrand Russell, or by a profound new ability to peel back the layers of theological arguments. It is way easier than that. Students are intellectually insecure. They don’t want to look dumb and they crave the approval of their peers and their teachers. Once students catch on that those rewards fall like ripe fruit at the feet of those who invoke the holy trinity of race-class-gender in their humanities and social-science courses, their “transformation” into newly initiated members of the smart is well on its way.

The trellis of secular ideology is firmly in place. Of course, there are lots of other inducements. “Leadership” in areas such as the pursuit of “diversity” and “sustainability” reinforces the sea-change.

Santorum’s various remarks about higher education evoke these matters rather than explain them. His purpose after all is to connect with a reservoir of popular resentment against the politicization of higher education and it would be beside the point to develop his points as an extended analysis. Those points are, however, part of a cogent critique of American higher education.

I should add that, though I am offering a defense of Santorum’s statements on higher education, I am not endorsing him or anyone else in the presidential race.

This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on February 29, 2012. 

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