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Schooling Santorum

Thursday, 25 April 2013 10:53 By Damian Manire, SpeakOut | Op-Ed
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Over the past few weeks a debate has been unfolding at my alma mater, Grosse Pointe South High School in Grosse Pointe, Mich. Rick Santorum has been hired to speak by Young Americans for Freedom, a student group at the school.

After the event was initially cancelled due to teacher opposition, the Grosse Pointe Public School Board reversed its decision following pushback from parts of the Grosse Pointe community and from Rick Santorum himself, The Detroit News reported. The compromise reached allows students to attend Santorum's talk on the condition that they present a permission slip signed by parents.

Mr. Santorum will take to the stage today at noon and speak to students for two hours.

In response to concerns over Santorum's appearance, Grosse Pointe district spokeswoman Rebecca Fannon released a statement assuring all concerned that "As part of an educational environment, we [the district] provide multiple opportunities for our students and staff to hear and examine various viewpoints."

But not all viewpoints are created equal. And, if establishing an "educational environment" is the aim, perhaps administrators should be asking: Will Mr. Santorum contribute to it?

The former senator can certainly offer students extensive political experience. He acted as a senator for the state of Pennsylvania for two terms and last year spent several months campaigning for the office of the presidency. He has three academic degrees and is a regular public speaker.

Yet Rick Santorum is also a polarizing figure, specifically on issues of public education. While he has touted education as a path to success, he has been highly critical of educators and their curricula.

On the campaign trail for the Republican primary last year, Santorum regularly attacked educators in a bid to win favor among conservatives. Seizing on feelings of marginalization among working-class voters, Santorum engaged in the kind of anti-intellectual populism that pit GED against PhD in a bid to bolster his political candidacy.

Respected environmental scientists were labeled "radical," tenured professors dismissed as "bias", and universities declared "indoctrination centers". Even President Barack Obama was a "snob" when he advocated for more accessible public education.

In predictable form, two weeks ago Mr. Santorum accused educators here in Grosse Pointe of being "liberal educators ... extending free speech rights only to those who share their liberal views."

But, if Mr. Santorum feels unwelcomed by high school teachers and college professors, it has less to do with a rampant political liberalism among educators than with Santorum's own propensity for peddling misinformation and casting doubt on serious scholarship.

In addition to sowing public distrust for teachers and academics, Mr. Santorum has called into question much of the modern science that informs public school curricula - including the instruction of sexual health, evolution and climate change. On issues largely regarded with consensus among academic experts, Mr. Santorum has instead advocated education initiatives based on (his) values.

It was in this vein that Santorum claimed opposition to his Grosse Pointe appearance "has nothing to do with the content of a speech, but rather the context of my convictions."

But education has a great deal to do with content.

Unfortunately for students at South attending today's speech, little of what Santorum claims bears out in the data being produced by the nation's leading universities and research centers – a fact which should concern Grosse Pointe South educators and administrators. These are the very institutions into which many students will soon matriculate.

On the contentious issues of evolution and sexual education, for instance, Santorum has been particularly vocal. He maintains that abstinence is the best method of sexual health for teens, in spite of significant research suggesting the contrary. And while according to the above-mentioned Pew Research Center study, a staggering 97 percent of scientists agree that humans have evolved over time, Santorum has continued to promote unscientific theories like intelligent design, claiming schools should "Teach the Controversy" in the name of expanding "intellectual freedom."

As a graduate of Grosse Pointe South, I find Mr. Santorum's position on climate change perhaps most disconcerting.

He has frequently muddied the waters of public discourse with inaccurate data and has even gone so far as to portray global warming as a religious issue. While according to a comprehensive 2010 report by the National Academy of Sciences, 97 to 98 percent of publishing climatologists agree that the earth is warming because of human activity – a phenomenon that will become more apparent during the lives of Grosse Pointe South students – Mr. Santorum has dismissed climate change research as "junk science" insisting that global warming is "a beautifully concocted scheme."

If this is "intellectual freedom," it is only the freedom to be myopic.

These are formative years for students. As they prepare to matriculate into university, enter the work force, study abroad, or participate in civil service they will need the critical thinking skills won through exposure to serious scholarship.

While educators are trying to instill in students the rigors of academic research, values-based conservatives like Santorum are undermining that effort. And with real consequences. According to a 2010 OECD study, the United States maintains a rating of approximately 500 on a 1,000-point scale for overall education.

I commend the Grosse Pointe School Board for including parents in the conversation. But, in putting Santorum onstage, the board will have done these students an educational disservice: They will have validated Santorum's brand of intellectual mediocrity and set a dangerous precedent that suggests to students that it is acceptable to make claims unsupported by evidence.

So long as you have your convictions.

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