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By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
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Santorum’s Gifts

On the surface, Rick Santorum’s diatribe against college education is weird: why would the effort to make a college education available to any and all — presuming that’s what Obama is actually doing — be considered the desire of a “snob”? Shouldn’t it be the reverse? Shouldn’t the “snob” be a person who wants to distinguish between people who are and aren’t gifted, as in this little excursis into the Booker T. Washington playbook from Santorum:

“Not all folks are gifted the same way. Some people have incredible gifts with their hands.”

Now, that reads to me like a plain and simple expression of class-fitness: some people are suited for intellectual labor and some are suited for using their hands. Some people are suited to be hewers of wood, drawers of water; others are suited to be their managers and masters. Or do I say that because I’m a snob? Because I’m a member of the coastal elite and look down on people who work with their hands? And so forth?

When he was questioned on the point by George Stephanopoulos on Saturday, Santorum tried to limit himself to emphasizing the honor and dignity of labor that does not require a degree:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Now getting to college has been part of the American dream for generations, Senator. Why does articulating an aspiration make the president a snob?

SANTORUM: I think because there are lot of people in this country that have no desire or no aspiration to go to college, because they have a different set of skills and desires and dreams that don’t include college. And to sort of lay out there that somehow this is — this is — should be everybody’s goal, I think, devalues the tremendous work that people who, frankly, don’t go to college and don’t want to go to college because they have a lot of other talents and skills that, frankly, college, you know, four-year colleges may not be able to assist them.

And there are other — there’s technical schools, there’s additional training, vocational training. There’s skills and apprenticeships. There’s all sorts of things that people can do to upgrade their skills to be very productive and and build their community.

And this is a pitch with a much more general appeal; in talking about “skills and desires and dreams” he’s emphasizing the broad diversity of human life that standardizing the four year degree might constrain and diminish. He’s working on valorizing a kind of blue-collar pride in labor, full stop, and he has the virtue of actually having a point: to make “4 year degree” a normative standard devalues, quite literally, the work done by people who don’t have a degree.

But the change in rhetoric from the original speech is worth noting. In conversation with Stephanopoulos (on TV), he wants to be seen as fighting back against liberal indoctrination, speaking for a religious blue collar moral majority against a secular liberal elite that disdains its accomplishment and desires, as complaining that they do not represent us (but they hold us to their standards). As such, it’s actually kind of a liberal complaint, if only in the classical sense: a rigid hierarchy is stifling the individual will and a political system is operating in an unrepresentative manner. But to get to this point, he’s backtracked so far that what he’s saying is almost indistinguishable from Obama’s own stated position: while Stephanopoulos points out that Obama simply said that he wanted ”every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training,” Santorum calls for “technical schools…additional training, vocational training…skills and apprenticeships” (and as TPM notes, Santorum is attributing to Obama a position that Santorum has also advocated).

But Santorum’s hypocrisy is boring. What’s interesting to me is the fundamental shift in philosophy he has to make between the two rhetorical moments, between a speech in front of Tea Party types in Michigan and a conversation with a Democratic talk show guy in Washington. For example, in phrases like “Not all folks are gifted the same way” and “Some people have incredible gifts with their hands” he’s calling on a specific kind of Christian discourse, one that indexes a quite non-liberal vision of the human. It’s not explicit, but it’s there: in contrast with the secular language of individual accomplishment and self-determination that he uses with Stephanopoulos (e.g. “skills and desires and dreams”), talking about “gifts” takes us to something like the parable of the talents, and to the moral responsibility that gifts bring to use them to the ends which the Giver intends.

To put it simply: your “gifts” are not yours to use (or neglect) in whatever way you want. You did not earn them, do not deserve them, and you have them only because of the grace of the giver. As a result, your “gifts” are to be used in accordance with something other than your “desires and dreams.” This is why the Bible is filled with examples of people whose “desires and dreams” (or what they take them to be) distract them from God’s true purpose: Jonah getting swallowed by a whale because he won’t heed God’s instructions to preach to the Ninevites, for the example, or the guy who buries his talents in a hole and is rebuked for it. Insofar as Christianity is a project of harmonizing your will with God’s desire for you — and that’s very far — a deep archive of scriptural doctrine frames the implicit and explicit conflict between the two and instructs you on you job as a Christian to overcome the former in favor of the latter. When you need to use what God has given you, to the ends which God intends, your dreams and desires register, primarily, as the thing you have to be wary of.

Now, we shouldn’t oversimplify “Christianity” here; what I’m really talking about is the particular consequence of this particular metaphor (and the ways in which it gets used). But the difference is worth tracking, because while the quote from his chat with Stephanopoulos is a complaint against constraints on self-determination, his speech in Michigan gives us the raw and uncut Santorum, the language of obligation that makes his heart swell proudly: against a secular world that wants to liberate and free us to do as we desire, he wants to re-focus our efforts, as workers, back onto the obligations of God’s plan. The problem is no longer that we are being indoctrinated (and remember, the problem with “indoctrination,” traditionally, is that it runs against the liberal notion of education, that instead of teaching us to be free, it enslaves us). In Michigan, the problem Santorum is complaining about is precisely this, that we are being un-indoctrinated, taught or permitted to do as we please. The secular world is the false god of a permissive society; literally, a society that permits us to be misled by our desires, rather than one which enforces legal strictures on morality.

This is not hyperbole, by the way; via IHE, let’s enjoy this bit of rhetoric from a speech about why Satan is destroying America by starting with academia:

The place where [Satan] was, in my mind, the most successful and first — first successful was in academia. He understood pride of smart people. He attacked them at their weakest. They were in fact smarter than everybody else and could come up with something new and different — pursue new truths, deny the existence of truth, play with it because they’re smart. And so academia a long time ago fell.

You say, well, what could be the impact of academia falling? Well, I would make the argument that the other structures that I’m going to talk about here had the root of their destruction because of academia. Because what academia does is educate the elites in our society, educates the leaders of our society, particularly at the college level. And they were the first to fall. And so what we saw, this domino effect, once the colleges fell and those who were being educated in our institutions.

Obama is a “snob,” therefore, in the same way Faust was a snob: he thought he could make his own truth, believed he could “pursue new truths, deny the existence of truth, play with it because they’re smart.” It’s a little bit about class, maybe, but it’s much more about religious piety, about the kind of pride that goeth before a fall because modernity makes us too free. His jab at Obama, then, is that Obama is this kind of Faust: the phrase “he wants to remake you into his image” has to be heard through Genesis 1:26 (“Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness). But this shot at Obama is not only that Obama is a false god and false father — though it is this — but also that he represents, as such, a permissive society’s too-modern sense of the parent and authority, in which the purpose of higher education is not to make you a better worker, but precisely to free the individual from social obligations, and in which parents enable their children to be led astray by the kind of self-gratification (and self-determination) that will lead them to hell. Too much freedom.

When liberation is the problem — and when a “permissive society” becomes a bad thing — indoctrination ceases to be the problem, and becomes the solution. The problem with Obama is that his is the wrong indoctrination: since state-run education takes the power to shape and educate away from parents, Santorum’s solution is for parents to take their power back, and this leads him to argue — quite distinctly — that it should be parents who (metaphorically) play God with their children: “I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image not his.” The idea of people making themselves in the image of their own dreams and desires is not — and cannot be — on the agenda. New truths will get in the way of The Truth.


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5 Responses to “Santorum’s Gifts”

  1. Dianne says:

    Interesting essay!

  2. This isn’t new with Santorum though; it’s underpinned the entire rhetoric behind “school choice” (aka vouchers aka religious schools) for two decades.

    I don’t think that it matters to much to him or his constituency whether Obama is permissive or draconian, whether he’s preaching “freedom” or “secular humanism” or “Communism.” Either way is wrong, and he’s evil and the enemy.

  3. Jon Malesic says:

    A few thoughts on this insightful post:
    1. Andrew Delbanco’s essay in the Chronic this week lightly insinuates that a liberal arts education, especially for first-gen college students, is a kind of religious conversion. I think he’s sort of right, which means (and this makes me want to throw up) that Santorum is sort of right.
    2. I am a priest in the liberal arts cult, and so (despite my discipline being theology) I am trying to convince a lot of students from Pennsylvania blue-collar backgrounds to adopt values and habits of mind somewhat different from their parents’. I don’t feel completely at ease with this role. My students’ parents are good people, and to some degree, if their kids take my class seriously, there might be some unpleasant conversations at Thanksgiving. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s Thanksgiving.
    3. I’m not sure that a Christian’s dreams and desires need be thought of as being in competition with God’s will. The Christian ideal is not, “Aw, shucks, I have to do God’s will,” but, “Make me a channel of your peace,” the joyful coincidence of the person’s will and God’s. But there are indeed a lot of different theological models of this relationship out there.
    4. I think this explains a lot:

  4. Bernie says:

    The article was interesting more for what it said about the author, Aaron Bady, than what it said about President Obama or Senator Santorum.

    I re-read it several times. I did my best to try to follow Bady’s arguments.

    Unfortunately their lack of logical progression leave me to describe the article as, at best, circuitous.

    See if you can connect these dots…

    1. Rick Santorum disagrees with Obama’s goal that every child should go to college, calling Obama a snob. Bady calls this disagreement a “diatribe”

    2. Bady argues that the real snob is Santorum because he is engaging in “class-fitness”, whatever that is.

    3. But really underneath, Rick Santorum is really trying to win the blue collar vote through his pronouncement on Obama. (This is actually his only plausible hypothesis…. but so what, Santorum is trying to win votes wherever he can, that’s what politicians do)

    4. But really underneath that, Santorum is trying to annunciate a criticism against liberal indoctrination in colleges. If this is evident from his talk with Stephanopolos, Bady provides no evidence. Apparently he can read Santorum’s mind.

    5. But really underneath that, Santorum is talking “Christianese” because underneath that is the real layer, which is that if you have a gift, a talent, it’s not really yours to use as you choose. God must tell you how to use it. After all, you know that Santorum is a Christian, so that can’t be good… This time he combines mind-reading with faulty exegesis.

    6. And since Santorum made a speech four years ago, when he was not running for President, in front of a Catholic audience adressing the influence of Satan (Catholics– horrors– affirm Satan’s existence) in American culture and particularly problems in academia, the real reason underneath it all, that Santorum called Obama a snob is because he wants the state out of the education business so that through home schooling that evil institution– the family— and especially parents rather than our always benign government will have the tyrannical power to “play God” with their children, and so stifle any desires they have to use their talents as they choose.

    7. He finishes with a un-contexted quote that he seems to vaguely attribute to Santorum that allows him to conclude that Santorum is creating a new (false) truth to obscure the real truth. (Which is what again?)

    Make any sense to you? Me neither.

    Five postitions might be tweezer-pulled from Bady’s perplexing discourse: 1. He doesn’t like Santorum 2. He is fearful that Santorum might actually make inroads (as Reagan did in 1980) into the working class union vote. 3. He doesn’t like Christians. 4. He would like to maintain/extend a government monopoly on education, and 5. He has a unique ability to read peoples minds and combine what he reads with a poor grasp of Biblical principle. For this last ailment, he might want to read: Blind Spot: when Journalists Don’t get Religion, by Paul Marshall.

    What he leaves un-discussed is the actual stuff journalists are supposed to discuss… The actual issue presented: Is Obama right in saying every child should go to college, or is Santorum right in saying that this is a counter-productive goal? He could have presented polls, research results, expert testimony, historical evidence— any number of things, for or against the proposition. But he didn’t. I wonder why?

    Santorum would have been better off not calling Obama a Snob, giving evidence to support his position instead, but hey, he’s a politician. As a journalist, Bady is supposed to focus on reporting the issue.

  5. gcallah says:

    “against a secular world that wants to liberate and free us to do as we desire, he wants to re-focus our efforts, as workers, back onto the obligations of God’s plan.”

    The secular world actually uses the rhetoric of freedom to enslave us.

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