Rick Santorum ignited a national debate on Feb. 25 when he remarked, "President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob!" Later he added, "Not all folks are gifted in the same way. Some have incredible gifts with their hands, making things."
Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute has written extensively about the current educational system's failure in preparing millions of young people for jobs. He told me, "The B.A. has become a fake credential. ... Anything that can undermine the B.A. degree is a good thing." He wants education to "take the talents of young people and allow those talents to flourish."
Robert Sloan, president of Houston Baptist University, values a liberal arts education but complains that at most colleges the liberal arts have become a proxy for liberal indoctrination. He notes that the words originally meant "the arts of liberty, freedom," and in that sense the liberal arts are not just those learned at a university: "Construction, studio art, or any trade that leads to human fulfillment, creative expression, and innovation are not only reflective of freedom, they promote freedom."
Santorum acknowledges that for many people a high-school education is no longer enough. "By 2018 only 37 percent of jobs will be open to workers with a high-school diploma," Santorum said in a written response to my questions. Those who graduate from college tend to do well economically: The Department of Labor says college graduates over the age of 25 have an unemployment rate of 4.4 percent, a rate economists consider close to full employment. But only about half of high-school students in the 50 largest U.S. cities graduate on time, and only about half of college freshmen graduate in six years, according to America's Promise Alliance and the Department of Education. Should we try to get all those left behind to graduate, somehow, from college, or should they have alternatives?
Mitt Romney has made economic issues the centerpiece of his campaign: He calls Santorum an "economic lightweight" and counters Santorum's sound-bites with a 160-page economic development plan, "Believe in America," that can be downloaded as an e-book. But the "human capital" section of his economic plan focuses mostly on graduate training in engineering and technology. The high-school and undergraduate education plan on his website emphasizes a "culture of high expectations, accountability for results, and increased parental choice" at the secondary level. He also supports school choice, including an expansion of charter schools, and wants to make college more "available and affordable."
Whoever wins the political argument, the philosophical questions related to vocation and liberty will likely remain. Christian Overman, who has written extensively about vocation, said a Christian worldview brings a vital perspective to this conversation. His own study has led him to advocate apprenticeships and trade schools for many young people. "Apprenticeship programs, for example, have been part of Christian communities for centuries," he said. "Vocation depends on giftedness, and gifts are usually first discovered in families and local communities."
Overman added: "Martin Luther reminded us that milking a cow or changing a diaper are callings as holy as those of a priest or pastor. All legitimate work is God's work. If that's what Santorum was trying to get at, then he's absolutely right."