Suzanne Fields

This is what happens when a candidate stoops to caricature and distortion of conservative philosophy and belief. It's a dangerous ploy. His sermonettes about sex and separation of church and state are not likely to change anybody's mind, but his derision of a college education hurts the most vulnerable among us. Employment rates are significantly higher for those who have a college degree than for those who don't. Almost two-thirds of the unemployed in the last months of 2011 had no education past high school.

But a college education is also about more than jobs. It's about wanting to know more about more things, and expanding understanding of the great ideas handed down to us. Many of our best colleges and universities have indeed become elitist and politically correct, presided over by academic snobs of narrow minds, and that's what Santorum could rightly address. But advanced learning at its best goes beyond learning "marketable skills." More than ever, we need to develop rigor for thinking analytically, critically and creatively. That's something that colleges have the ability to teach.

What sets apart higher education in America has been its increasing inclusiveness, expanding opportunity to women, minorities and veterans from all economic classes. "Need-based" and "merit-based" loans to get more young men and women through college, for example, are crucial for democracy to remain healthy. The American system of higher education, including hundreds of colleges founded by churches, offers opportunities for both learning and contemplation. Polls show that large majorities of Americans regard a college education as crucial to the pursuit of the American Dream.

Globalization, the rapid revolution in information technology and the breakdown of a consensus of what's important to know have ushered in an age of radical change. But there's nothing snobbish about wanting a college education. Rick Santorum saw it that way himself on his way to Penn State, and then to the University of Pittsburgh and finally to Dickinson College of Law. Most voters, as we saw on Tuesday night, want the same opportunities for themselves and their children.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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