Quite unexpectedly, Rick Santorum has made me think.
When the presidential wannabe said the other day that encouraging people to go to college is for snobs, criticizing President Obama’s efforts to promote higher educational achievement, he made me think of my parents. Humble, hard-working people who had little money but who wanted the best possible education for their kids. They sacrificed a lot of personal comfort and, I’m sure, often worried about the tuition bills. But they found a way to make sure that their seven children had great educations including college, because they firmly believed that education is the pathway to success and security.
Santorum’s curious remarks made me think of our recent Sower’s Seed lecturer Philonda Johnson ’05. Philonda talked about how she and her mother were homeless for a time when she was growing up, and how Trinity changed her life. One day during college she was wondering aloud about whether all of the hard work was worth it, and a classmate reminded her that the whole point of college is not about you, the student, but about the many lives you will change for the better with the power of your education. Philonda is now the youngest principal in the widely respected KIPP charter school organization, having established and now leading the DISCOVER Academy for preschool children.
What a snob.
Santorum made me think about the students who enroll at Trinity today, who have overcome so much pain and hardship in their lives to take the risk of a college education. I think of the essays our students write explaining why they want to come to college, essays that reveal remarkable life challenges but are full of hope about the potential for change in their lives. Here are young women writing about growing up on the mean streets of some of DC’s worst neighborhoods where teen pregnancy and violence are rampant, where African American or Latina women are told flat-out that they will never amount to anything. And still, our Trinity students rise, determined to refute the stereotypes, refusing to become “another statistic.” And other students write of growing up in other nations where violence and war plagued their families, where women could not hope to improve their lot in life; they want to come to college to get the education necessary to go back to those difficult places to help improve the lives of children.
I think of the men and women who work all day long, who then come to Trinity at night and on weekends to complete their undergraduate degrees, to earn master’s degrees, to get the education they need to be successful at work so that they can provide for their children.
I think of the Sisters of Notre Dame who had the radical belief that women should not be denied a higher education, who sacrificed so much to create Trinity College in 1897, who worked without taking any salaries for Trinity’s first 90 years so that our students could realize the great personal, professional and spiritual benefits of a higher education.
Mr. Santorum, by the way, holds an undergraduate degree from Penn State, an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh, and a law degree from Dickinson.
What a snob.
Time was when a college education was certainly for elites only. That was back in the day when women were barred from admission, when Black students could not get into many colleges because of racist policies, when low income students were few and far between.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt — a snob if ever there was one — signed the first great piece of legislation opening the doors of college wide to welcome the soldiers returning from World War II. The G.I. Bill of 1944 was the first of a half-century-long series of laws, now known as the Higher Education Acts, that provide federal financial assistance to ensure that Americans of all backgrounds can obtain a college education.
Far from being snobbish, the longstanding American public policy commitment to higher education is premised on the idea that education is the best economic driver we have, that higher learning promotes innovation, economic security and personal satisfaction that contributes much to a healthy, peaceful society. This public policy has shattered the old elitist model of college, replacing it with a broadly egalitarian system of equal access for all who have dreams of intellectual, professional and personal improvement through education.
Societies that have disdain for the educational advancement of their citizens are tyrannies. Dictators and terrorists thrive on ignorance. Democracy flourishes where the people are well-educated.
I think of the American military personnel who have sacrificed so much to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan so that the people of that nation can live without fear, can enjoy some of the gifts of this life, including the potential for democracy and robust educational opportunities.
In Afghanistan and elsewhere in this world, religious zealots impose their tyrannical will on people with methods that include denying citizens, especially women, the right to an education. Forced ignorance is a useful tool for zealots and tyrants.
I guess they’re not snobs, though.
Fortunately, in America, we do believe that church and state should respect each other’s realms, particularly as a way of protecting the right of all people to live in freedom and safe from religious bigots and zealots. Civilization has known too many moments of real oppression in the name of God. That’s why the founders of this nation took special care to insulate the religious and secular zones of freedom.
We also believe that education is essential to the creation of a good society that respects the rights and dignity of all persons.
If this be snobbery, let’s make the most of it!
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