Before we all dismiss Rick Santorum's latest attack on public education as just more fodder for the late night comedians, it's worth giving more thought to what it actually represents -- a fundamental attack on democracy and the institutionalization of a class-based two-tier society, permanently divided along lines of wealth and privilege.
For the two or three people who may have missed it, Santorum told a Tea Party rally Saturday that President Obama is a "snob" because he wants "everybody in America to go to college."
His belabored efforts to rationalize his attack on higher education as a fulmination against "liberal college professors," should not obscure the point that Santorum has repeatedly attacked all public education -- perhaps most evident in his promotion of home schooling -- and the wider implications of his comments.
For starters, you have to wonder what working class people -- those Santorum supposedly is seeking to pull away from Mitt Romney -- make of a candidate who ridicules the idea that their children should have equal access to higher education.
Isn't the idea that parents can provide opportunities for their children that they themselves did not have a basic precept of the American dream? Is this the better future for America that has been such a talking point in the Republican primaries to date?
The sad reality, of course, is that dream is rapidly vanishing for more and more American families.
As a CNN/Money report last June noted:
"Tuition and fees at public universities, according to the College Board, have surged almost 130% over the last 20 years -- while middle class incomes have stagnated."Concurrently, government financial support for colleges and universities has been in free fall, accelerated by the Wall Street-prompted economic crisis that has hit state and local governments especially hard.
In a December article, the Washington Post labeled the current trend "a historic collapse in state funding for higher education (that) threatens to diminish the stature of premier public universities and erode their mission as engines of upward social mobility."
The Post cited three prominent examples.
"At the University of Virginia, state support has dwindled in two decades from 26 percent of the operating budget to 7 percent. At the University of Michigan, it has declined from 48 percent to 17 percent.As state support dries up, tuition has skyrocketed, prompting growing protests by students and community supporters over the pricing out of more and more Americans who want to go to college.
"And at the University of California Berkeley, birthplace of the Free Speech movement of the early 1960s, the state share of Berkeley's operating budget has slipped since 1991 from 47 percent to 11 percent.
"Tuition has doubled in six years, and the university is admitting more students from out of state willing to pay a premium for a Berkeley degree. This year, for the first time, the university collected more money from students than from California."
For those able to navigate this hurdle, massive debt for student
loans puts more and more students at an even greater risk when they get
out of college. And with the continuing high jobless rates, many of
those students are looking at an increasingly bleak economic future.
"This year, student loan debt surpassed credit card debt, breaching the $1 trillion mark, at an average of more than $25,000 per student. Nearly 9% of loans defaulted in 2010, of those that began repayment in 2009, vs. 7% that began in 2008."All of that is the reality that has already created a two-tier system in American colleges and universities, one that is the ostensible target of the President's announced intention to cap interest rates on student loans.
That's one step. A better one would be more public financial support or even (close your ears deficit hawks) free higher education.
That was historically the goal of the courageous reformers over the past two centuries who fought to establish public education, and to make it accessible to everyone. Their goal was a more egalitarian society, one not based on permanent class divisions based on wealth and privilege.