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Snob Nation: Meaningful Thoughts Underneath

Snob Nation
by Fawn Johnson
National Journal
March 5, 2012

Is President Barack Obama a snob? A brief look at his personal education might make you think so. He attended the prestigious Punahou prep school in Hawaii. He is a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School, where he was president of the Harvard Law Review. If I had seen that resume at age 18, I would have rated him high on the snob meter knowing nothing more about him. (I was starting college with lots of prep-school classmates, which made me acutely self conscious about my public school education.) Personally, I don’t know if Obama is a snob, and I don’t care. I figure that as president, he’s entitled either way.

I am intrigued, though, with Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum’s use of the sassy slur to lambast Obama for his efforts to increase college attendance and graduation. “What a snob,” Santorum said, railing about “liberal” college professors “trying to indoctrinate” impressionable teens. The huffy reactions to Santorum’s rants are to be expected. He’s good at eliciting them. An essay from the Harvard Crimson entitled “In Defense of Snobbery,” which is quite well written, is just one sample of the many people who disagree with Santorum.

But I wonder if Santorum is on to something. It has become increasingly clear over the last 20 to 30 years that college is a necessary component of a middle class lifestyle in America. Should it be that way? Do we want to be the kind of country where a mortar board is a de facto requirement for being a part of the community? Perhaps Santorum is simply expressing the frustration many people feel that the achievement goal posts keep moving.

It’s certainly easier to get a job with a college degree. The unemployment rate for high school graduates with no college is almost double that of people with at least a bachelors degree. Even if some jobs don’t technically require B.A., many businesses use college degree as one of their first hiring screens to make sure they get competent candidates. Obama has made a point of advocating shorter-term community colleges and technical degrees in his higher education campaign, but there is still a paucity of alternatives to college for kids who want to work sooner or are not interested in four years of dorm life and campus politics.

What are the current, viable alternatives to college? In a perfect world, what alternatives should there be? Could employers be more open to looking at different kinds of job candidates? If so, how? Can the K-12 education system improve enough to make college less of a necessity? Are we becoming a snob nation?


Response: Meaningful Thoughts Underneath
by Jeanne Allen
National Journal

Great question, and well outlined. I have not spoken to Rick Santorum about this, but I suspect his gaffe actually did have a meaningful thought underneath, which no one yet has articulated. And that is, that the individuals and families that currently make up working-class America, who do not have the density of college degrees as the professional business class, have an unbridled work ethic and put their all into their work resulting in tangible products and services. Conversely, and sadly, I would argue that the college-bound kids and graduates believe that their intellect and effort make them superior. We see this in government; we see this in Academia. They do indeed act like snobs.

Friends and I bemoan how privileged our own college kids act. We taught them hard work, or so we thought. They look down on people without college degrees. And frankly, what many of them go to higher education to learn is entirely subjective, often pablum and rarely the stuff we thought college was for. Courses such as “Discover NY”, ” The Five Lies George Bush Told You About Iraq;” “Sociology and the Beatles;” “Making Sense of the 1040” cost the parent, the taxpayer, millions every year.

As the trains run, the cars get fixed, the bars open and close and our every needs are met, I too wonder if we haven’t made Higher Education just a tad bit elite. I want every child to have the opportunity to be well educated – in substance – from the early years through college age. They should all have the chance. I can only imagine that Senator Santorum was looking out at a sea of “real” people who are a mix of high school, GED, Associates and Bachelors who have no time to decipher the BS parading as discourse today when he made that statement. It was not wise, nor did it make sense. But it is perhaps those little non-sequiturs that should make us all think a little more about how those with fewer years of education and perhaps no pedigree for higher Ed might think about these challenging times.

We might also consider that no matter what the president suggests, a good higher education is out of the reach of most Americans and a struggle for those of us who even make good money.

Feed your family, or “Discover NY?”

Depending on what you do everyday, the answer is clear. Maybe if K-12 were worth a little more in terms of proficiency “dollars,” higher ed would not need to be so expensive. There could be fewer courses but more focus. Perhaps the entitlement of government support has, as many economists argue, created the inflation of higher Ed that puts it out of reach of most Americans, making higher ed a luxury for the those with disposable income, the so-called snobs.

It wasn’t always this way. The proliferation of sophisticated eating spaces, gyms, dorms, frivolous courses and more has built a public perception that only the elite go to college, and those who are subsidized make up the bulk of defaults.

It is not right. It should not be this way. But it is. Maybe the candidate was onto something.