Higher Dread

Not content to grouse about gays, Santorum expands the culture wars to include highfalutin college educations

Whether you breathed a sigh of relief Tuesday night when Rick Santorum lost in Michigan or a sigh of disappointment that he didn’t take out Mitt Romney, it’s pretty clear we’re going to have Tricky Rick to kick around for a while longer. So it’s fair enough to still be wondering how on earth college aspirations become a front in 2012′s rapidly metastasizing culture wars.

College attendance was a rare occurrence among my elders where I was raised in rural Kentucky. My great aunt went to college and became a teacher. My dad had a little bit before leaving to work in auto repair, then getting drafted. My mom went to college while I was in elementary and middle school, giving me access to psychology and sociology textbooks that taught me some pretty interesting tidbits about human sexuality.

But while college was a rarity among my family’s older generations, for my generation it quickly became an expectation. I would sit as a sixth grader looking through my mom’s college course catalog, excitedly picking all the classes I wanted to take — at the time I couldn’t decide if I wanted to major in astronomy, archeology, biology or journalism. I wanted to take them all.

My two older cousins up the road, my sister and I all went to college. Many of my cousins in the rural Indiana branches of my family went as well. And it didn’t turn all of us into raging liberals. Even in my case, it wasn’t an effete liberal faculty that turned me far more liberal than I had been — it was the Paleolithic, homophobic, radical right-wing antics of the majority Republican student body that took care of that.

But the greater point being, we all turned out different. One of my neighboring cousins and my sister have both turned out more conservative than me; my other cousin I suspect may be even more liberal than me. If being gay hadn’t put me through a radically different experience, hell, I might have ended up as one of those College Republicans. A college education isn’t a deterministic ideological experience, as a cursory glance at all the MBAs and law degrees attached to Republican presidential candidates proves.

My rural generation went to college because our parents wanted us to have better opportunities, the great upward mobility dream, not because they wanted us to be snobs. It floors me that Santorum would make an argument against that dream by saying, essentially, ”You don’t all need a fancy degree. Somebody has to clean the toilets.”

I’m at a loss how to translate that into soaring campaign rhetoric. Perhaps someone else on K Street has the skills.

But it seems especially odd to me that Santorum, a former senator from an intensely blue-collar and massively rural state, would be unaware that some people who work with their hands go to college to do it better. My cousin’s a farmer; his oldest son is a farmer. Both went to college. Neither is a Foucault-trained Marxist out to subvert the system with collectivist farming strategies.

I’m not better than anyone else because I went to college. But I am a better person because I went to college and learned how to best use my own skills and talents. Santorum’s reverse-elitism is an insult to everyone who wants to pursue their own American dream, whether that dream includes college or not.

And given the drawn-out slog of the Santorum campaign, its just one of many insults still to come.

Sean Bugg is Editor Emeritus for Metro Weekly.

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