Friday, March 2, 2012

What a Snob!

"President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college - what a snob!" ~ Rick Santorum

I had to chuckle to myself when Rick Santorum called President Obama a snob for allegedly saying he wanted every American to go to college. He was obviously misrepresenting Obama's statement. Obama had indicated that he wanted everybody to have access to higher education (i.e. education beyond high school) if they so chose. That education could entail attending technical school, community college, or university at the undergraduate or graduate level. Obama's emphasis was not on getting a 4-year liberal arts degree, but rather on having access to the kind of post-high school training that would boost one's earning potential.

The misrepresentation was predictable, and chuckle-worthy. But it was the irony of the situation that struck me the most. Here stood Rick Santorum, a highly-educated and undeniably successful man, who had received multiple degrees from American universities. He had a law degree and an MBA and goodness knows what else, and thanks to his educational and career achievements, he had a reasonable income and a well-looked after family. With a straight face, the same man stood before Americans and laughed at the idea that working class Americans should aspire for more, as he and his antecedents had.

Santorum's statement brought to mind the private education fiasco in Algeria a number of years ago, when, under President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, private Francophone schools were ordered shut down. Their crime: teaching in French rather than in the national language, Arabic. As extreme as the decision was, it was not completely unexpected. In fact, it was simply an extension of the previously-adopted Algerian policy to eliminate the use of  French as the language of instruction in Algerian government schools, and to replace it with Arabic.

An optimist who was aware of this policy might have said that the Algerians were correcting the historical wrongs done by French colonialism and reclaiming their indigenous identity by making this bold statement about the primacy of Arabic over French. However, there would be a couple of problems with this perspective. One of them would be the fact that French was an important language of business for Algeria, which maintained strong economic ties to France. As the elite Algerian classes spoke French with fluency, anybody who dreamt of upward mobility would be severely limited by an inability to speak in French. In theory, emphasizing Arabic as the sole national language should have been the basis for national pride. In reality, the policy failed to acknowledge the fact that the existing infrastructure (economic, educational etc.) was constructed to support a French-speaking population.

The results of this experiment in populism are outlined well by Issandr Al Amrani on the blog, The Arabist:
There is widespread concern that the forced Arabic-language instruction is creating children who are "illiterate in two languages." This is because, partly, of the quality of Arabic-language instruction (Algeria does not have enough qualified Arabic teachers and must import teachers from Egypt and elsewhere), and because French remains the language of the business elite.
Clearly, the experiment was not a great success. An admittedly problematic but functional educational system was replaced with a somewhat mediocre one. The country was not equipped with the necessary infrastructure and resources to make the transition a smooth one.

Earlier in the blog article, Al Amrani highlights the biggest irony in the whole debacle. Apparently, the very politicians who cheered on the Arabization of the educational system and the elimination of French as a language of instruction did not subsequently send their children to the government schools that had adopted the Arabic-focused curriculum. Instead, they prefered to send them to French schools. Even as they prescribed the patriotic path for the nation's children, they still wanted to be sure their children would get the advantages that came with fluency in French. So much for populism and Arabist ideals.

Perhaps now you can see why Santorum's statement amused me. It is true that his statement on snobbery and education was limited to words (and that he possibly did not believe what he was saying), while the Algerian politicians actually turned their Arabist ideals into policy. However, in both cases, it was implied that the 'masses' were supposed to remain where they were. Aspiration and upward mobility were for "snobs."

The cynic in me has summarized this ethos in a 3-sentence message:
Oh, wise people who have chosen me as your leader- your current status is perfect, and anyone who suggests that you can aspire to more if you so choose is disrespecting you. I will fight for your right to be denied opportunities for social mobility. But I will also make sure that the salary you so generously pay me gives me and my kids those very opportunities.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm no "snob." I don't believe that one must have a college degree to live a meaningful life, or even to succeed. Nor do I believe that every Algerian must speak French in order to thrive. There are different career paths and life journeys to be taken, and depending on people's abilities and their capacity to take advantage of the opportunities before them, they could do pretty well for themselves without ever setting foot in a college classroom or learning to conjugate French verbs. However, I do believe that a fair society should allow its people to access opportunities for social mobility. If the people decide as individuals to reject these opportunities, that is fine. Their choices should be respected. But it is important that they, rather than their political elites, should be the the ones to make those choices.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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