Santorum flunks the history of home-schooling

The poorly educated candidate says U.S. presidents taught their kids at home for 150 years. He's wrong

Topics: Education, 2012 Elections, ,

Santorum flunks the history of home-schoolingRick Santorum (Credit: Jason Reed / Reuters)

At the Republican debate Wednesday night, Rick Santorum repeated a claim he’s been making, that the federal government, and the state governments, should “get out of the education business.” Last weekend, Santorum declared public education “anachronistic.” If elected, he would home-school his children in the White House, just like – he claimed – most presidents did in the first 150 years of our national life.

“Where did they come up that public education and bigger education bureaucracies was the rule in America?” he asked. “Parents educated their children, because it’s their responsibility to educate their children.” The presidential candidate suggested that America should look to its 19th-century educational system to prepare this generation to meet 21st-century problems.

“Yes, the government can help,” he said, “but the idea that the federal government should be running schools, frankly much less that the state government should be running schools … goes back to the time of industrialization of America when people came off the farms where they did home-school or have the little neighborhood school, and into these big factories, so we built equal factories called public schools. And while those factories as we all know in Ohio and Pennsylvania have fundamentally changed, the factory school has not.”

The fraudulence of almost every single one of these claims makes Santorum himself a cautionary example of the failures of the American education system. (One wishes that as a former U.S senator, Santorum would at least know that state and local boards of education, not the federal government, run public schools.) Santorum makes up facts, misunderstands education in early America, and manages to invoke the legacies of both racists and secularists, neither of which, I assume, he wants to claim as his forebearers. The solution to our education crisis must not be to withdraw public interest and investment from education, leaving people like Santorum to pass on these misunderstandings to another generation.



First of all, Santorum’s assertion that for the first 150 years, most presidents home-schooled their children at the White House is unfounded. I checked, and it turns out there were very few presidents during that period who had school-age children while they held office.

But even if you give Santorum some leeway, things still don’t pan out. Santorum may find it pleasant to imagine George and Martha Washington sitting by the hearth with her son Jacky Custis, helping him read from a primer, but in fact, Washington imported a Scottish tutor named Walter Magowan to live in Mount Vernon and provide the classical education his stepson needed to enroll at King’s College (today’s Columbia University).

John Quincy Adams sent his son Charles Francis to public school at Boston Latin.

Andrew Jackson’s adopted son Andrew Jr. went to the Davidson Academy in Nashville.

Martin Van Buren’s son Abraham attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and Zachary Taylor’s son Richard attended private schools in Kentucky and Massachusetts. (Both later became Confederate generals.)

Ulysses S. Grant sent his sons to the Emerson preparatory school in Washington, D.C.

So Santorum’s just plain wrong on the home-schooling in the White House thing. He seems to have invented his home-schooling history in order to make the broader assertion that America did a better job teaching children in the 18th and 19th centuries. He’s correct that the role of government was smaller, but does he really want to return to a time when very few children got a decent education?

In 1840, only around 55 percent of white children attended primary school, and in most Southern states, educating African-Americans was a crime punishable by fine, prison or whipping. It wasn’t until 1918 that Progressive-era reforms ensured that children in all the states completed elementary school (in part to keep them out of the factory).

If Rick Santorum had been a better history student, he would know that presidents spent the first two centuries of American history working to support the education system he now wishes they disliked. Take Thomas Jefferson, founder of the University of Virginia and patron saint of today’s small government conservatives: He consistently expounded the virtues of public education. In his 1779 Virginia “Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge,” Jefferson argued that without public schools, only the rich would be educated, leaving poor but potentially productive citizens unable to participate effectively in the democracy. “It is better that such should be sought for,” Jefferson wrote, “and educated at the common expence of all.”

In light of his comments Friday that President Obama wants to send students to college in order to “indoctrinate” them with a secular worldview, Rick Santorum might be especially chagrined to learn that in the Elementary School Act Jefferson proposed in 1817, he insisted that “no religious reading, instruction or exercise, shall be prescribed or practised.” Similarly, in “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson advocated for teaching “the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European, and American history” instead of the Bible. The point is, the American president who most eloquently promoted public education did so specifically, in part, to try to prevent the religious fundamentalists of his day from being able to use schools to indoctrinate children with religious beliefs.

In the end, it’s not the early presidents like Jefferson that Santorum evokes, but rather the four-time presidential candidate George Wallace. Not long ago, hearing a politician rail against federal involvement in public education would have put every listener in mind of the Alabama governor who pledged in 1963 to “stand in the school house door” to prevent the “unwelcomed, unwanted, unwarranted and force-induced intrusion upon the campus … of the might of the Central Government.” Wallace refused to “submit to the illegal usurpation” of the “right of state authority in the operation of the public schools.” Wallace was referring to the Supreme Court’s 1954 order that black and white children be educated together. There’s no evidence Santorum favors racially segregated schools but he certainly echoes the “states’ rights” arguments of people who did.

The Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education is just one of the federal interventions that has made American education better, fairer and more equitable. Think also of the Morrill Act, passed by the Republican Congress in 1862, which created the land grant colleges (and helped support Santorum’s alma mater, Penn State). Think of the Freedmen’s Bureau schools, which taught former slaves how to read after the Civil War, and the 1917 Smith-Hughes Act, which created vocational programs in high schools. Federal initiative created the GI Bill in 1944, which sent veterans to college and paved the way for decades of American economic primacy. These weren’t preemptions of state sovereignty or individual liberty; they were bold statements about the essential importance of education to our democracy’s economic and civic life.

There are, no doubt, terrible problems with American education today, and we need big ideas. But those ideas shouldn’t be drawn from an ignorant, if not dishonest, view of the past that imagines presidential home-schooling or a pre-industrial golden age. From Jefferson to Horace Mann to “Freedom’s Teacher” Septima Clark, from the Freedmen’s Bureau to the GI Bill, there is plenty in our real past to inspire us to action today. But getting himself tangled up with the legacy of George Wallace, Rick Santorum has gotten himself on the wrong side of history.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>