February 28th, 2012
10:04 AM ET

Letters to the President #1135: 'Respecting higher...and lower education'

Reporter's Note: Every single day I write to President Obama. He never writes back. I’m pretty sure that fifty percent of us are getting tired of this.

Dear Mr. President,

You have to hand it to Rick Santorum, even when some of his poll numbers aren’t as ascendant as they were just a few days back, like a boxer who is behind on points, he keeps swinging for a knockout. Yesterday I wrote about his attack on pols who talk too vigorously about separation of church and state, and today I find myself thinking about the way he’s been going after you on the issue of college education. In case you missed it, he called you a “snob” who, in effect, believes that everyone must have a college degree to matter in this world.

As you know, I always try to be encouraging, and in that spirit I want to offer a quick warning: Be careful, because he may be on to something.

I don’t mean that you are a snob. That is something for you and others to determine. No, what I mean is, yelling too loudly about the greatness of those citizens with higher educations can easily be perceived as a lack of respect for those without; the blue collar voters you need for re-election, and who deserve a lot more respect than we give them as a nation.

Think about it. While higher education is, for the majority of people who get it, a ticket to higher wages and more job opportunities, what about those who don’t fit that mold or who have other aspirations? What message are you sending to them? The truth is, as much as we may need new physicists and accountants, we also need people who want to be plumbers, carpenters, lumbermen, security guards, janitors, road repair workers, electricians, and so much more. And while many of these jobs will absolutely require special skills, the training will not necessarily come from a university or even a junior college.

While the idea of making college available to all is laudable, my point is, that is very different than saying everyone ought to go to college. You might be well advised to point out in a few speeches the enormous importance of working people who, despite not having higher degrees, actually make our nation run every day. I daresay if all of them walked off of the job, we’d probably feel the effects faster than we would if all the college educated folks went on strike. Maybe that’s because, in case you don’t know, there are still a good many more of them than there are folks with higher degrees. In the long run, the absence of people with higher educations might hurt us more, but in the short run, I suspect we would be stunned by the impact of a walkout by the people who do all those difficult jobs on which we depend every day; folks who keep the trains running, our cars full of gas, our houses warm, and food on our tables.

My father used to complain that college ruined many good workers, by making them look with disdain upon any job that required using their hands, or getting dirty, or laboring beneath the sun. He understood the importance of college for the right souls who could make good use of what they learned; but he also remained convinced until his dying day that college truly is not for everyone.

Be careful about giving even the impression that you might look down upon honest, good, working people who do not go to college; that you do not respect their choices and accomplishments. They are a great part of America’s greatness, and they have learned enough to know that.


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