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Sunday, December 11, 2016

By disparaging public education and increased access to college, Rick Santorum is overlooking one of America’s greatest historical achievements.

Rick Santorum has found a new populist voice in criticizing Obama’s “theology.” He claims he does not mean Obama is not a Christian, but apparently his belief in a number of progressive policies, including formal schooling for Americans, violates Santorum’s deeply held theological views. Pandering to ignorance is not new with Santorum. But surely the candidate determined to be the candidate of the working class has reached a new low. And he has given those who are sincerely religious a bad name. His misunderstanding of American history and how the economy grew is more than stunning.

In recent remarks, Santorum praises home schooling, claiming that with the rise of factories, Americans had to go to formal schools that were like factories. Public school is an anachronism, he says. But formal schooling is about as American a virtue as there is. Has Santorum read any American history?

In selling federal land to farmers, Thomas Jefferson and others insisted that some be set aside for a school house. In the Northeast, free and mandatory public schooling in the primary years was a singular and early achievement, and it occurred before the age of big factories. Perhaps nothing is as singular in American history is its development of a free primary school system that exceeded even Prussia’s in terms of the proportion of school age attendance by roughly the mid-1800s. The U.S. rate of enrollment was well ahead of France and England by then.

In a world in which computation and literacy were requirements for a modern economy — I am talking about the 19th century economy here — America was a leader. Santorum prefers some romantic view of farmers educating their children. But if homeschooling had dominated into the 20th century, America would not have become the world’s leading nation.

By the late 1800s, high schools were needed to hone skills still further as an industrial revolution of giant industrial, retailing, and services companies made America’s economy the largest in the world. Even factory work became more demanding. Educated Americans manned the factories and the bureaucracies of giant business institutions. In the early 1900s, women made rapid strides in getting their high school diplomas.

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