Editorial: Rick Santorum’s remarks on higher education debunked

It’s no secret that the rising cost of higher education is rapidly making college a luxury that not all Americans can afford.  That’s why President Obama announced last month that his administration would be backing efforts to reform the system and help more potential students gain access to the financial security that accompanies a college diploma.  Responses to the president’s proposal were mixed, but the strongest by far was that elicited from GOP candidate, Rick Santorum.

Santorum called Obama a “snob” for suggesting that all Americans should aspire to attend college and went on to criticize institutions of higher learning as “indoctrination mills” wherein students are inundated with the liberal agendas of their professors and brainwashed into abandoning their traditional beliefs.  He backed up his argument by citing a study that supposedly showed that “62 percent of kids who enter college with some sort of faith commitment leave without it,” although he has yet to name the organization responsible for said study.

First off, it should be noted that President Obama never argued that all Americans should, at some point in their lives, attend a four-year university.  Rather, he suggested that every American “commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship.” The president’s primary goal here is clearly not to send every American to college regardless of their career aspirations.  He seems much more interested in ensuring that Americans are adequately prepared to face an increasingly competitive job market.

Now onto Santorum’s claim that the higher education system is bent on turning students away from their faith.  A study conducted by The Science Research Council in 2007 actually did find that 64 percent of college undergraduates had “curbed their [religious] attendance habits” since enrolling, but it also found that an even higher proportion (76 percent) of individuals of the same age that had not gone onto a four-year university had experienced a “decline in religious service attendance.” Clearly, then, there is no positive correlation between college enrollment and any notable decrease in religiosity.

And as for the notion that colleges are responsible for corrupting students by pressuring them into adopting liberal ideological beliefs, a little research shows that it, too, is relatively unfounded.  Though it is true that, in a recent survey conducted by the Young America’s Foundation, 57 percent of college professors identified themselves as liberal (as opposed to 20 percent that identified as conservative), there is no evidence that these professors are forcing their politics onto their students.

In fact, according to data collected by New York Times’ exit pollsters, there has been only one presidential election since 1988 wherein the majority of college graduates supported the Democratic ticket.  If America’s professors are secretly trying to convert their students into liberals, they aren’t doing a very good job of it.

Santorum’s claims are so riddled with misconceptions about higher education that it’s hard to believe he ever actually attended college. The university is, indeed, a place at which students are encouraged to question their worldviews, but no course curriculum demands that they relinquish them.

Undergraduates are often exposed to new perspectives on important issues like religion and politics in college, and it only makes sense that many would adopt more critical outlooks on their own views because of them.  But the goal is not to force students to credit one truth or set of truths over another—it is to give them a more complicated and well-informed context in which to understand those truths.

If a student leaves college without ever having questioned any of his or her beliefs, then a large part of his or her education has gone to waste.  The lessons we learn in college are, after all, supposed to affect the ways in which we understand and engage in the world around us—and if they don’t, what value (other than economic) do they truly hold?

What makes a statement like Rick Santorum’s so dangerous, other than its blatant falsity, is that it demonizes the processes by which we, as students, come to terms with worldviews other than our own.  Learning to think critically about one’s convictions is not the same as learning to reject them, and Santorum’s suggestion that the former is in any way allied with some form of liberal brainwashing is criminal.

College may not be for everyone, but it is no indoctrination mill.  Today, countless Americans depend on higher education to make them not only more competitive job applicants, but also more intelligent and well-thought individuals in their respective communities.  Until Santorum’s views on education reflect this, students should remain wary of his motives and, subsequently, his trustworthiness as a candidate.

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