In Defense of Snobbery

Why we need our universities more than ever

High/Low

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “snob” is of obscure origin, which accurately describes the thought process behind Rick Santorum’s latest tirade against President Obama. In Troy, Michigan (I hear Helen was quite the snob) Rick Santorum called Obama the “S word” for suggesting that Obama “wants everybody in America to go to college.” According to Santorum, matriculation in university is akin to “indoctrination,” whereby young people lose their faith and become brainwashed Obama-bots. One of the most virulent attacks on higher education heard on a campaign trail this election cycle, Santorum’s college-bashing is echoed in Mitt Romney’s continued derisive references to the “Harvard faculty lounge,” which was supposedly a place he was unfamiliar with while pursuing a joint JD and MBA degree in Cambridge. But campaign cant aside, Santorum’s broadside should make us all consider what exactly we do in college and why it is so important.

Ideally, college should perform the inverse of the process Santorum describes. He sees it as a place where people lose faith and exchange one set of positive allegiances (religion, traditional values) for another (political liberalism, secularism). Santorum’s critique of the university is not that it teaches dogmatism, but rather that it substitutes the wrong kind of faith for the one right one. But at its best, our colleges and universities do both much more and substantially less.  It is often hard to specify or remember what exactly we learn in a lecture or tutorial, but we are changed by academic work. In focusing so exclusively on the content of university education, Santorum neglects the impact of its form. To say that we should aspire to be a country where “everyone goes to college” is to insist that we try to be citizens who question rather than accept and challenge rather than parrot. As Andrew H. Delbanco ’73 notes, “in America there has been an impulse to slow things down, to extend the time for second chances and defer the day when determinative choices must be made.” It might be argued that our network of institutions of higher education constitute one of this county’s crowning achievements.

To be sure, the history of exclusion and, yes, snobbery, runs deep in many of our universities; I am typing this editorial in Lowell House, whose namesake is synonymous with quotas of many pernicious kinds. But that is precisely why Santorum’s dismissal is so problematic. As Lionel M. Trilling notes with regard to Rudyard Kipling, “he tempted liberals to be content with easy victories of right feeling and with moral self-congratulation.”  Santorum cedes too much ground when he gives up the university to those of a different political persuasion. In fact, some of the traditions that most resonantly contribute to his worldview have valued the importance of the specific kind of scholarship that intellectually, if not fiscally, funds universities. Catholic monks stewarded the glories of the Classical world into modernity. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and, of course, Harvard, were all formed by men of faith.

If today the texts studied are secular rather than sacred, that distinction is less important than the abiding practices of inquiry and intellectual habit.  Universities are still our best bets for perpetuating the commitment to common cultural and artistic touchstones that are so important to the ongoing conversations we have with each other and ourselves. In Santorum’s dichotomous worldview, there is no room for the complexity that the most “conventional” texts can exhibit or the sense of exhilarating strangeness that comes with encountering a new philosophy or vantage point. Santorum fears a young, impressionable student falling for Chomsky and Foner and Trotsky, but might not another young student see the wisdom in Burke’s restraint, in Oakeshott’s prose, in William F. Buckley’s charm, or in Allan D. Bloom’s formidable learning?

Don’t give up on colleges, Rick; we would all be poorer for that capitulation. And for those of us privileged to study, let us remember that we participate in an enterprise that needs defending and are responsible to a set of values and way of being in the world that needs a voice. Stand up for college and alongside all those who aspire to get there.  If that makes you a snob, then I can think of no higher encomium (look it up!).

Ari R. Hoffman ’10, a graduate of the College, is a Ph.D. candidate in English. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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