Columns » Ernest Dumas

Anti-college rant could play well here

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The Republican presidential race turns to the South next week and Rick Santorum has found an issue that ought to gain him some traction in Dixie.

Anti-intellectualism is the big word for it, and the strain goes far back through our political history, especially here in Arkansas. During the Depression, Arkansas had a governor from Northeast Arkansas, a very popular one, who wanted to halt all spending on high schools, which he considered to be a waste and the devil's workshop to boot. Arkansas was not paying its teachers anyway in those days, except what the U.S. government sent down in bailout funds, but Governor Futrell still did not get around to abolishing high schools. Too many liberals in the legislature.

Unlike Futrell, Santorum is not against a high school education — only that provided by public schools — but he told ABC's This Week that fewer people should go to college because college only turned them into liberals and snobs like President Obama. Just stick with high school, most of you, and it will get you a rewarding job was Santorum's message. Santorum himself has three college degrees, one more than Obama, but for some time he hasn't held a job except a little lobbying for corporate interests.

The former Pennsylvania senator — he was defeated in a landslide in 2006 — has tried and more or less succeeded in turning the presidential election into a great culture war, but this is the most treacherous turf yet on which to fight. Right now Santorum is only trying to get a majority of a fairly small part of the electorate, staunch conservatives, and it may stand him in good stead in Southern states like Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi and Virginia, where Republicans will vote in March.

What got Santorum started on colleges was President Obama's speech to the nation's governors, in which he followed a theme that is popular with most governors, including Mike Beebe, who thinks the salvation of the state is to make it possible for nearly everybody to go to college.

"We can't allow higher education to be a luxury in this country," the president said, and it should be a goal to have every youngster get some training or education after high school to equip them for a job.

Snobbery, Santorum called Obama's plan. By making college seem important, he said, Obama is devaluing the work of people who didn't go to college. He said Obama wanted everyone to get a degree from a liberal-arts college or university. "Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college," Santorum said. "He wants to remake you in his image." Conservative students like him are ridiculed in college by liberal professors, Santorum said.

Actually, Obama never said everyone should get a university education. He has said repeatedly, since his address to Congress in 2009, in which he outlined his plans to bring the country out of the recession, that youngsters should get a year or more of vocational training or college after high school.

The evidence supports Obama and Beebe, not Santorum. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released its current population survey for 2010 the other day. Fifteen percent of people over the age of 25 who did not finish high school were unemployed, and those who had jobs had a median wage of $444 a week. (Obviously, the figures for Arkansas are much worse.) Those who had only a high school diploma had a jobless rate of 10.3 percent and a weekly wage of $626. The figures get better with more education. The jobless rate for those with a two-year certificate was 7 percent and the median earnings of the employed were $767 a week. For those with professional or doctoral degrees, the unemployment rate was around 2 percent and median earnings were $1,600 a week.

The bureau also reported that 2.7 million jobs were unfilled even during the recession because businesses couldn't hire people with the skills to do them. Job training has been in decline the last decade and especially since the financial collapse in 2008.

But Santorum's rants about elites and intellectual snobbery, which just about all of his GOP competitors have picked up in some degree, will resonate in some quarters, particularly in the South and surely in Arkansas.

Santorum is a polished George Wallace, who scared Democrats and Republicans with his snarls about "pointy-headed intellectuals who can't park their bicycles straight" in his 1968 campaign for the presidency, in which he carried Arkansas.

Santorum needs to develop better imagery to reach the Snopeses. No one could conjure Wallace's imagery (how, exactly, did intellectuals have pointed heads?) until the comedian George Carlin figured out that the little governor was referring to fellow Southerners, the Ku Klux Klan.

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