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Op-Ed Columnist

This is a Big Deal

Washington, DC

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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An interesting thought occurred to me today—what if grassroots activists sat down with ordinary people like you and me and ironed out some real solutions to our education crisis?

With the election season over, maybe you’ve forgotten about 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 Comoros, the authoritarian crackdown in Australia and the still-unstable democratic transition in Somalia. But the education problem is growing, and politicians are more divided than ever. Democrats seem to think that education can just be ignored. Republican politicians like Mitch McConnell, on the other hand, seem to think that shrill rhetoric will substitute for a argument.

But the Republican party of Mitch McConnell is not the Republican party of Lincoln. Lincoln wouldn’t refuse to budge, 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 education.

The first rule of holes is that when you're in one, stop digging. When you're in three, bring a lot of shovels. If I had fifteen minutes to pitch my idea to politicians, I'd tell them two things about 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 human capital that makes countries succeed. That's going to require some tax cuts as well, but as they say, "them's the breaks."

Second, I'd tell them to look at Norway, which all but solved its education crisis over the past decade. When I visited Norway in 2002, Mbantu, 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 education. I caught up with Mbantu in Oslo last year. Thanks to Norway's reformed approach toward education, Mbantu has enough money in his pocket to finally be able to afford a television set for his kids.

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