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 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • 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>