Timothy Noah

Santorum: Who Needs Public Education?

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At a weekend appearance in Ohio, Rick Santorum said this about public education, according to the New York Times:

[T]he idea that the federal government should be running schools, frankly much less that the state government should be running schools [italics mine], is anachronistic. It goes back to the time of industrialization of America when people came off the farms where they did home-school or have the little neighborhood school, and into these big factories, so we built equal factories called public schools. And while those factories as we all know in Ohio and Pennsylvania have fundamentally changed, the factory school has not.

Where to begin? The idea that the government should be running schools goes back to the nation’s founding. Its principal advocate was Thomas Jefferson, who proposed (in Notes on the State of Virginia) that every child be entitled to three years of schooling free of charge (after that, parents had to pay). Horace Mann acted and expanded on Jefferson’s idea starting in the 1830s through his energetic advocacy of publicly-funded education. Mann was appalled by the quality of the “little neighborhood schools” that Santorum rhapsodizes about and he fought to raise standards for the teaching profession and to abolish religious sectarianism from public schools. Prior to the 20th century more than 90 percent of American teenagers didn't go to high school, and whatever “home schooling” they received on the farm was typically limited to learning how to tend animals and plant and harvest crops. Young people were lucky to have a parent who could even read the Bible; as late as 1870 fully 20 percent of the adult U.S. population couldn't read or write. Even if a farmer or his wife were literate, where was he or she supposed to find the time to teach the children much of anything? Education was, by and large, a luxury for the rich.

The spread of government-funded high schools during the first half of the 20th century, far from violating some pastoral ideal of the little red schoolhouse, made it possible for the first time for most Americans to receive any kind of education at all. With electrification and the rise of other technologies, a high school education became essential not only to holding many factory jobs but also, with the rise of new agricultural techniques, to managing a farm. America's emergence as the world's richest and most powerful nation would have been impossible without the spread of government-funded, government-regulated education to raise the skill levels of its workers. To pine for the days before public education became a practical reality is to pine for an America held back by mass ignorance and mass illiteracy. Santorum might as well say he’s opposed to knowledge itself. It's absolutely stupefying that a major presidential candidate would evangelize against education in this fashion.

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