House Majority Leader Eric Cantor delivered a speech yesterday at the American Enterprise Institute. There’s much to like in it, but I’m going to focus on what he has to say about higher education , which displays some characteristic Republican tics. However understandable these tics are, they’re, to my mind, regrettable.

Here’s the first:
One of our priorities this year will be to move heaven and earth to fix our education system for the most vulnerable. And when those children graduate from high school, we must expand their choices and college should be a viable option. In 1980, the average cost of college was roughly $8,000 a year. Today, it is over $20,000, and less than 60 percent of the students who enroll in a four-year  program graduate within six years. Clearly, something is broken.

According to President Obama’s former jobs council, by 2020 there will be 1.5 million jobs without the college graduates to fill them. While there is a persistent unmet demand of 400,000 to 500,000 job openings in the health care sector alone. Recent reports indicate there are not enough applicants with the skills necessary to fill the jobs in the booming natural gas industry in America.

Suppose colleges provided prospective students with reliable information on the unemployment rate and potential earnings by major. What if parents had access to clear and understandable breakdowns between academic studies and amenities? Armed with this knowledge, families and students could make better decisions about where to go to school, and how to budget their tuition dollars. Students would actually have a better chance of graduating within four years and getting a job.

I get it. Rep. Cantor wants students and their parents to be able to connect the dots between the education for which they are paying big bucks and the opportunites on the other side. Colleges and universities implicitly promise as much. How else could they charge such exorbitant tuition? But providing this information runs the risk of teaching that all that matters about one’s education is the salary one earns on the other end. Many people already think that way. One of the counter-cultural tasks of those of us in the liberal arts is to insist upon the value of cultivating the life of the mind. To be sure, we don’t need resort-like college campuses and legions of administrators to live and share the life of the mind. And, needless to say, we have to live it ourselves before we can complain about the apparent philistinism of Republican lawmakers who seem to care only about graduates’ salaries.

Here’s the second, which has already elicited this snarky response :

There is an appropriate and necessary role for the federal government to ensure funding for basic medical research. Doing all we can to facilitate medical breakthroughs for people like Katie should be a priority. We can and must do better.

This includes cutting unnecessary red tape in order to speed up the availability of life saving drugs and treatments and reprioritizing existing federal research spending. Funds currently spent by the government on social science—including on politics of all things—would be better spent helping find cures to diseases.

I’m of two minds here. There’s an awful lot of research in political science which is of interest to only a few people—the other political scientists who happen also to be tilling that particular garden. I’m the last person to deny that value of knowledge for its own sake, but I wonder whether the federal government should be funding the pursuit of it. Athens rejected Socrates’ request that he receive free meals for the remainder of his life. I won’t quarrel with that decision, despite the fact that Socrates was likely more a benefactor of Athens than at least some of my colleagues are of America.

At the same time, I presume that our sophisticated policy proposals owe something to researchers located in the academy. I don’t expect politicians to figure out how precisely to resolve our entitlement dilemmas in their spare time. So we might actually need some political science research.

There are deeper questions here. If you wish to explore them, I can do no better than to call your attention to James W. Ceaser’s fine book,   Liberal Democracy and Political Science .

There’s no love lost between Republicans and the academy, for which plenty of responsibility exists on both sides. My liberal colleagues don’t pay attention to me when I suggest that they might have something to learn from their adversaries. Should I hope for any more from the politicians?

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