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Back to the Future, Starring Rick Santorum

Obama's America: The GOP candidate misses the mark with his antiquated ideas about college.

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In Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox's character, Marty McFly, takes a sleek DeLorean to spin back three decades to 1955. Now we're watching a new version of the movie, and one of the stars is Rick Santorum. Instead of regressing just 30 years, the former Pennsylvania senator -- whose austere ideas on government programs for the poor the Economist recently called "unintelligible" -- wants to take America back about six decades. Or, apparently, to the days of George Washington.

During a campaign speech in a Detroit suburb last Saturday, Santorum, holder of three degrees, dismissed President Obama's goal of boosting the number of U.S. college graduates by millions. "What a snob," Santorum scoffed. "I understand why he wants you to go to college: He wants to remake you in his image." On Meet the Press the next morning, Santorum clarified his thinking, saying he "absolutely" encourages his own seven children "to get a higher education" -- in carpentry, plumbing or art. "We should not look down our nose ... and say they're somehow less because you didn't get a four-year degree."

Santorum's pitch resonated so deeply with voters in Arizona and Michigan on Tuesday, they chose Mitt Romney. Still, Santorum mined the theme again that night, telling a crowd:

When [our forefathers signed the Declaration of Independence] they had very little hope, real hope, of actually succeeding in a revolution against the British. The British were the most powerful army in the world and the navy in the world. They were ruled by highly educated, noble people. The uniforms were crisp and stiff. They looked good.

But their rulers ruled them from on high, didn't listen to them as they fought the Revolutionary War. Our leaders were different. George Washington, the signature leader of America, was different. He understood that the greatness of this new country was to have leaders who understood that, in spite of their breeding and education, they didn't have all the answers, that they could trust the people, that ragtag group of people who stepped forward to volunteer to create freedom in this land.

Clearly, Santorum is speaking to his super-narrow Republican base, not the general-election audience of centrists and political independents who will surely be allergic to his antiquated views. During the Michigan speech, Santorum invoked a mantra -- "I work with my hands" -- that I frequently heard government, business and education leaders wishing away in the 14 months I reported in the state.

There's a simple truth to Santorum's argument: Not everyone can be a doctor, teacher or architect. Nevertheless, Santorum's comments are striking, especially in Michigan, where nearly one-third of working-age adults (pdf) lack the fundamental skills to get a middle-income job. By one estimate, 44 percent of the state's adults are functionally illiterate. Astonishingly, barely two dozen states require students to complete high school, or stay until their 18th birthday.

We're producing a smaller share of college graduates than many other developed countries. In just a few years, nearly one-quarter of all jobs (pdf) in this country will require at least a bachelor's degree. That may not get you an interview in certain sectors in highly competitive markets like New York, Washington and San Francisco.

Scanning that sobering data, it's hard not to ask: How does this happen in America? That's partly why President Obama bluntly told a gathering of governors at the White House on Monday to invest in education. The country's competitiveness depends on it. So there's no polite way to say this: Santorum's comments on education are negligent.

Several years ago, I knew a charismatic kid who loved football and played trumpet, wasn't especially bookish and got by with decent grades. He showed tremendous promise. So I added his name to the mailing lists of several colleges, hoping to counter the ambivalence he'd gotten from a handful of teachers, as well as the peer pressure to get a job -- maybe the illegal kind.