On Democrats and the Liberal Arts

My friend and colleague Rick Perlstein interviewed me for his latest Rolling Stone column, in which he argues Rick Santorum got one thing right in his otherwise counterfactual anti-college rant last month: Democratic presidents have a history of putting too much faith in the power of the liberal arts to lift people out of poverty:

Stick to your guns, Rick [Santorum]! The thing is, you exposed a poetic truth: While Obama might not push college education exclusively, like most Democrats he does oversell it, and does shortchange the alternatives. And millions of young Americans pay the price.

Here’s how. One of Lyndon Johnson's aides once joked that his boss so worshipped the power of education that "he seemed to think it would cure everything from chilblains to ingrown toenails." Barack Obama errs on the side of the chilblains theory of education, too. Most of us do, especially educated Democrats. Liberals tend to stress how marvelous education is, in and of itself, and also adore it as a vessel for genuine equality. (That's me, by the way: Hell, I think we should be spending $50 billion a year to make college education free.) Few of us take seriously enough the moral wisdom  of the great populist leader William Jennings Bryan, who said in the early twentieth century, a time when only six percent of Americans graduated high school, "I fear the plutocracy of wealth, I respect the aristocracy of learning, but I thank God for the democracy of the heart that makes it possible for every human being to do something to make life worth living while he lives and the world better for his existence in it."

Do you? Does Barack Obama? Not exactly. "The administration has done a good job of talking about, and even funding, career training for high-school graduates," says education expert Dana Goldstein of the New America Foundation. "What they will not do very much is talk about or fund career training for teens, even though there is good evidence that if you don't offer career and technical training via the public schools, you may lose people forever." A democracy of the heart that acknowledges there are simply some people who will never step into an academic classroom post-high school, and that this is alright, seems a bridge-to-the-twentieth-century too far for our schooling-mad politicians these days.

I agree with Perlstein, but I'd add that after the 1983 publication of "A Nation at Risk," many prominent Republicans embraced the notion that test-driven education reform can substitute for a broader anti-poverty agenda, and have thus adopted a similar faith in the miraculous power of education. This is the thinking behind No Child Left Behind. The entire Bush family, John McCain, Mitt Romney, John Boehner and many other  Republicans have subscribed to this ideology over the years, which I trace with greater precision in my recent Nation essay.

Read the rest of Rick's column here.

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