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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.

America was the world’s education leader, and that went hand in hand with spreading economic opportunity. As far back as the late 1800s, the U.S. subsidized the important land-grant colleges. And after World War II, the U.S. also subsidized college attendance with the G.I. Bill and students loans.

Educational attainment kept increasing in America. More young people went to college. The proportion of those aged 25-34 with a four-year degree was the highest in the world. But in the last few decades, many European nations have caught up to or have exceeded educational attainment in the U.S. A higher proportion of their youth now go to college.

Does Rick Santorum think that is good? He calls Obama a “snob” for wanting to ease access to college for more Americans. He says people are different and not everyone should go to college. That is probably true and the nation should have a robust debate about it. Yes, some classrooms are too rigid. Education, like everything, always needs shaking up.

But Santorum should also point out that the average wage for a person with four years of college is about twice that of someone with no college at all. Average wages for those with only a high school diploma have fallen sharply adjusted for inflation since the late 1960s. He should point out that work is getting more sophisticated and those who get less schooling will likely feel themselves increasingly left out. Maybe he should realize that if America continues to fall behind, others won’t, and the competition for future markets will be intense.

Every rich nation in the world has a thriving formal education apparatus. None depended on home schooling to develop a productive work force.

Santorum’s pandering is a tragic joke. If his knowledge of American history is reflected in his beliefs about the importance of education in the U.S., he is a sadly uneducated man. Education has been one of America’s three or four greatest achievements. Has the Republican Party really come to this?

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick is the author of Age of Greed.

Cross-Posted From The Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 Blog

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

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