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Op-Ed Columnist

Backlash to the Backlash

Washington, DC

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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Imagine if Tea Party politicians sat down with ordinary people like you and me and ironed out some real solutions to our higher education crisis.

With the election season over, maybe you’ve forgotten about higher education, but I certainly haven’t. It would be easy to forget that the problem even exists, when our headlines are constantly splashed with the violence in Egypt, the authoritarian crackdown in Namibia and the still-unstable democratic transition in Venezuela. But the higher education problem is growing, and politicians are more divided than ever. Republicans seem to think that higher education can just be ignored. Democratic politicians like Harry Reid, on the other hand, seem to think that unscientific rhetoric will substitute for a compromise.

But the Democratic party of Harry Reid is not the Democratic party of Franklin Roosevelt. FDR wouldn’t just filibuster, he'd compromise because he'd understand that the fate of the country, and his own political career, depended on a lasting solution to the problem of higher education.

It's good to see the talks between the president and congress getting off to a solid start, but we know there will be plenty of partisan fireworks before any deal is cut. If I had fifteen minutes to pitch my idea to politicians, I'd tell them two things about higher education. First, there's no way around the issue unless we're prepared to spend less: and not just spend less, but spend smarter by investing in the kind of green energy that makes countries succeed. That's going to require some tax cuts as well, but as they say, "Ain't nothing to it but to do it."

Second, I'd tell them to look at Finland, which all but solved its higher education crisis over the past decade. When I visited Finland in 1998, Mwambe, the cabbie who drove me from the airport, couldn't stop telling me about how he had to take a third job because of the high cost of higher education. I caught up with Mwambe in Helsinki last year. Thanks to Finland's reformed approach toward higher education, Mwambe has enough money in his pocket to finally be able to afford an apartment for his kids.

That's all it takes. Don't expect to see any solutions as long as politicians insist on playing a high-stakes game of ping pong with one another. America has to rise above it all.