3 Forces Threaten to Change Higher Education


College-educated Rick Santorum accused President Barack Obama of being a "snob" for supporting higher education, while maligning universities as "indoctrination mills" for godless liberalism. (Photo: IowaPolitics.com)
Higher education in the United States is radically being changed to the detriment of humanity. 

As we teeter toward the abyss of a new dark age, politicians like former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum take great pride in leading the way toward a phony theology of unscientific superstition.

Stroking the flames of anti-intellectualism, college-educated Santorum accused President Barack Obama of being a "snob" for supporting higher education, while maligning universities as "indoctrination mills" for godless liberalism.

Much ink can be spilled demonstrating how demagogues treasure an uneducated polis that can be easily manipulated for political gain. 

Obama as "a Muslim atheist socialist in the pocket of Wall Street" best illustrates how the basic lack of the ability to reason negatively influences our political system.

For any democracy to function properly for the common good, an educated electorate is needed. 

And while I agree that a college education does not necessarily confer intelligence or wisdom, the support of anti-intellectualism certainly does not advance the cause of either democracy or humanity.

Additionally, much can be said on how education has, for countless generations, been the primary means by which the dispossessed have lifted themselves out of poverty. 

I do not share the same economic reality of my illiterate mother or my sixth-grade-educated father because I went to college.

This is not to disparage them, but to celebrate their realization that I can only accomplish in life what they couldn't through education. 

It is no accident that the economic golden age of this nation – the 1950s – was made possible when returning World War II veterans were able to attend college through the GI bill.

I want to focus on the dismantling of higher education through its commoditization. 

Universities are becoming profit centers rather than centers of knowledge. The astronomical cost of higher education is rapidly making a four-year education the privilege of the few who can afford the tuition.

A grade of "A" ceases to be the signifier of exceptional academic rigor because the new consumer, previously known as the student, demands an "A" as a fair return on their investment.

A "C," which signifies average performance, has become synonymous with failure – a grade few professors are willing to give lest the consumer transfer to a more accommodating institution or punish the professor with a poor evaluation, which in turn negatively impacts promotion or pay raises.

As higher education develops into profit-generating institutions, those areas that are not profitable become expendable.

Not surprisingly, the humanities are the hardest hit, as their budgets are shrunk and departments close. 

No doubt, learning a trade or choosing vocational schools are important, and many find fulfillment pursuing these tracks. 

But just as important, especially for the overall society, is the pursuit of philosophy, religious studies, arts and humanities. 

Further hampering the educational system is the continuous elimination of tenure. 

Tenure protects the professor from the wrath of politicians like Santorum. 

For professors to maintain employment, they dare not push the envelope and upset their consumers or – better yet – their consumers' parents, who pay the bills. 

Tenure protects outspoken professors like myself from retribution for raising consciousness. 

If Santorum's children were to sit in my class (yes, he too is snobbish enough to make sure his children, not yours, go to college), they would be challenged by my course on religious ethics. Why?

Because it is my job as a professor to push students (not consumers) outside their comfort zone so they can think for themselves rather than parrot parental views.

Contrary to Santorum's caricature, as a professor I do not have any answers – only questions.

When done right, some conservatives become more liberal, and yes, some liberals become more conservative. Some change their entire belief system; some lose their God and others come to God. 

Most, however, simply become stronger in their beliefs, being able to better articulate whatever they believe to be true.

Yes, higher education provides a means out of poverty, but more important, it contributes to the development of human-ness. 

The true snob is the one that encourages you and your children not to pursue higher education while reserving that right for themselves and their children. 

Miguel A. De La Torre is professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology.

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