Tilting at the Enlightenment

Some people go through life like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills.

Then there’s Rick Santorum. He wants to repeal the Enlightenment.

I’ve been mulling over Santorum’s recent attack on higher education, part and parcel of his rejection of so many aspects of modernity: evolution, reproductive autonomy for women, separation of church and state, equality for gays and lesbians…There really isn’t much about  the 21st Century (or the 19th or 20th, for that matter) that he seems willing to accept.

I think Santorum’s hostility toward education is very real, despite his own MBA and Law Degrees, and it is at the very heart of his worldview (I hesitate to call it a “philosophy,” a word he would obviously consider “snobby.”) Many people have suggested that his own degrees are evidence that he doesn’t really believe his charges that colleges and universities “indoctrinate” young people, make them lose their religion and become more like the hated Barack Obama–i.e., intellectual. I don’t agree; Santorum’s degrees are professional ones–high order job training. (I”m not throwing rocks; I have a law degree too.)

What Santorum loathes and fears is education. Real education doesn’t “indoctrinate,” of course–it does something more pernicious. It questions.

Education is the arch-enemy of certitude.

If I do my job properly, my students will leave my classes a bit more confused, a bit less sure they have “the answers” and a lot more aware of the magnitude of the questions. They will encounter the diversity with which we mortals approach the uncertainties and complexities of the world we inhabit. They will have a greater appreciation of what they don’t know. If I do my job well, they will also have some “critical” tools with which to assess the credibility of the information with which they are increasingly bombarded.

That is the education Santorum detests, because he is cut wholly from Puritan cloth.

The Puritans came to America for religious liberty–defined as the right to practice the True Religion, and the even more important right to impose that Truth on their neighbors. They approached education much like TV’s Jeopardy–you started with the correct answer, which the Bible provided, and then you went looking for the explanations that would justify that answer. Usually, in the early colonies, those explanations came from the preachers and biblical scholars who’d preceded you.

The philosophical and scientific movement that came to be called the Enlightenment changed the nature of knowledge. You no longer began with the answer; instead, you examined the world around you, based some initial conclusions on careful empirical observations, and then tested those conclusions, which were always considered conditional and subject to change if new information emerged. The Enlightenment gave us the scientific method–as well as a more scientific approach to questions like “how should governments be constructed.”

The U.S. Constitution was a creation of the Enlightenment. So was ambiguity. If all truth is provisional, if all conclusions are subject to revision based upon new information, how can anyone really, really be sure of anything?

Education–real education, as opposed to job training–prepares students to live with that ambiguity.

Puritans find it intolerable.


  1. An excellent take on a idiotic man. Thank you for this… He has no chance of his bigoted rhetoric taking root.

  2. for some, the U.S. Constitution now takes on the role of the Holy Scripture in providing inerrant answers…

  3. The fact is for many people higher education, especially advanced degrees, leaves students in debt and overqualified for jobs. Look no further than the legal profession and the situation faced by new lawyers who have six figure debt and are lucky to make $35K a year witout benefits. (Many new associates aren’t even paid a salary – they just get a percent of the attorneys fees brought in.) The fact you point that out, doesn’t mean you’re against an educated populace.

  4. The Enlightenment has produced the most philosophical inconsistent people in the history of human existence. Mankind did not move forward; they moved backward. This article is proof of that. Setting aside the particulars like abortion, evolution, the pluralistic failure of the U.S. constitution, Ms. Kennedy says “Education is the arch-enemy of certitude”. This statement is the single best representation of the enlightenment period and its result. Yet, “education is the arch-enemy of certitude” is spoken with certitude.

    Ms. Kennedy, will you please be philosophically consistent and qualify your statement “education is the arch enemy of certitude” to fully represent that the statement itself is not totally certain? And if not certain, then it is not intellectually honest to posit the statement as a certain truth.

    Education in fact does indoctrinate. In this case, it indoctrinates the idea that it doesn’t indoctrinate. It indoctrinates the idea that nothing can really be known for certain, while asserting with certainty (until Ms. Kennedy qualifies the statement) that it is known that nothing can be known for certain.

    The real issue is whose ideas people will be indoctrinated with; not, who indoctrinates and who does not indoctrinate.

    Now, for you enlightenment “indoctrinated” readers have you determined if you even exist in the real world with certainty? Have determine through “education that is the arch enemy of certitude” if you can even know that a world actually exists with certainty. Have you justified it with certainty? Are the underpinnings of your justification, justified, and known with certitude?

  5. Stick a fork in Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul…they’re done! Too wacky for even the wackiest constituency!

  6. Just one more article ridiculing the education of the general population. You are another eliteist who think that only the educated can say what is best for the world. The greatest good for the world was initially done by a carpenter who lead fishermen and tradesmen. They received no material compensation and even gave their lives. Step Aside!

  7. “Fear of knowledge is not education” – from a recent lecture by Dr. James Linville, Religious Studies prof, University of Lethbridge regarding fundamentalist attitudes towards education. If someone’s faith is so fragile that it can’t survive a dose of critical thinking and exposure to broader perspectives, what does that say about it’s validity?

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