Why all the bluster about education? It’s an election year, during an economic crisis, housing crisis, and impending education bubble burst – that’s why. But why is education, long regarded as one of the greatest inventions of civilized societies, such a divisive issue that one of the Republican hopefuls called President Obama a "snob" for having the audacity to suggest that all Americans could benefit from a college education? Is this just political posturing, trying to rally supporters, or is there a larger problem with American society which has made ‘education’ a bad word?
A Historically Touchy Subject
The idea that higher education is beneficial to everyone has come to national prominence during the Obama administration (Toppo & Marklein, 2009), but education for the masses has been a point of contention since the founding of this country. Statesmen, such as Jefferson and Rush (Benjamin, not Limbaugh), believed that universal (as they defined it) education was a benefit to the entire society and should be provided for in the U.S. Constitution (Bergstedt). Their desires were overruled by the majority of their peers who believed that education was the responsibility of the individual and local governments.
Horace Mann brought the issue to national attention in the 1830s by helping to pass the first compulsory education laws in Massachusetts (Encyclopedia of American Education), but education has remained a state responsibility to this day, with mixed results until as recently as the 1930s (Katz, 1976 The History of Compulsory Education Laws). Since then there have been numerous challenges to the idea of compulsory K-12 education. Given these ongoing challenges, the notion that all citizens would also benefit from higher education is relatively new and, apparently, no less controversial than the idea that everyone benefits from primary and secondary education. The big difference is that the President currently in office is the main backer of this latest initiative and has data to back up his assertions.
What Higher Education Offers
Doubtless, the debate over higher education for all is a complex one. Three points need to be clearly stated before addressing the debate however. 1. We live in a technology-based society which relies largely on advanced technological skills in its citizens to function, 2. Our public schools are largely failing to provide students with those skills because schools adhere to an outdated educational model, and 3. No one is proposing that "higher education for all" has to follow one specific model (the four-year-residential college, for example).
Given these three clarifications, particularly that there is a gap between the number of technologically skilled potential employees and the need for those employees (Carnevale, Smith & Strohl, 2010), there should be no question that higher education, particularly in the community college, vocational vein that President Obama has advocated for (Whithouse.gov, Enhanced State of the Union Address 2012), is an absolute necessity for economic recovery and advancement. Beyond this simple fact, higher education offers several other valuable enhancements to any life.
Baum, Ma & Payea, in their report for the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center, Education Pays 2010: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society (2010), explain the ways in which a higher education for the individual leads to a range of life enhancements such as:
- greater annual and lifetime earnings
- greater resiliency to under- or unemployment
- greater job satisfaction
- sense of accomplishment
- decreased reliance on public assistance
- more secure retirement
- lower occurrence of poverty
- lower rates of smoking and associated health problems
- increased affinity for exercise and the its health benefits
- lower rates of childhood and adult obesity and the associated health risks
- increased duration of breastfeeding and associated benefits
- improved school readiness for children
- increased parental involvement in children’s education
- higher voting rates
- higher rates of college enrollment for offspring
- higher rates of secondary and post-secondary completion
- increased interest in STEM fields
According to the authors, these findings apply to individuals participating in any higher education to a greater or lesser extent. This laundry list of benefits, regardless of the degree to which each occurs, should be enough to convince anyone that there is a significant benefit for the individual and society in higher education for everyone. Most of these points are self-evident and any politician from a privileged background should be able to see the evidence in their own personal and family history. So why is there resistance to this "snobbery?"
A Fundamental Disconnect
The political rhetoric, such as that by Santorum, which aims to make education, and particularly higher education, a bad word and the bastion of "liberal college professors" who want to "indoctrinate" the public (Santorum, Feb. 25, 2012), is designed to perpetuate a system which aims to keep a significant portion of the population uneducated and unemployed. What ‘indoctrination’ is he talking about? To be clear, I certainly strive to ‘indoctrinate’ my students in every class that I teach.
I aim to ‘indoctrinate’ them into a culture of being critical thinkers who listen to the arguments of all sides, conduct their own research, and make informed decisions about what is best for them. In my experience, this is the primary objective of most college professors. I do not, however, ‘indoctrinate’ my students to swallow whole the first 10-second sound bite they hear about snobbery, freedom, elitism, Eurocentric government, WMDs, or the myth of global warming.
There is certainly resistance to President Obama’s higher education agenda from both sides of the aisle (Alarkon, July 6, 2010), but the overwhelmingly anti-education rhetoric seems to come predominantly from one side only. Those who simply make unfounded claims about the dangerous elitism of higher education are the true indoctrinators and should be judged by the underlying motives behind the rhetoric that they expect the American public to swallow without the benefit of an educational lens through which to examine it.
Education is a good thing. It occurs naturally in all creatures – you never see a mother lion decide that teaching her cubs how to hunt is elitist or an elephant herd deciding that teaching their young where to find water would be snobby. Surely humans are more sophisticated creatures than lions or elephants, and that very sophistication should be a signal to us that we need to be more educated, not less. The President’s higher education agenda is enlightened, not elitist, and needs to be recognized as such.
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