Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Equality, A False Assumption That We Need

[This is the first in a loose series of posts attempting to articulate the implications of inequality, of various sorts, in our society and economy. ]

It seems counter-intuitive to claim that we should hold something to be true when it isn't, but it seems to me that there are at least a few cases in which we should act as if something is true even if it is not. The example that I have in mind has to do with equality.

As Catholics we believe that all human beings are of equal dignity in the eyes of God. In the US, all people are equal in the eyes of the law. However, this does not necessarily mean that all people are of equal ability in regard to any specific quality. And indeed, it's readily apparent that people are indeed not equal in regards to ability. Some people have greater physical abilities than others. There is huge variation in mental ability, and among different kinds of mental ability. And there is a fair amount of evidence that much of this variation is either genetic, or determined by experiences so early in life as to be much more the result of your relatives choices than your own.

And yet, as I've written a couple times in discussing Charles Murray's ideas about education, most of us in American culture naturally rebel against making changes in how we educate children in our society based on "simple facts" such as Murray's:"Ability varies" and "Half of the children are below average". (If you want to test your sensibilities against this, read this 2007 WSJ piece on educating the bottom of the intelligence curve and see if you find yourself, like me, sputtering, "But, but... You can't say that.")

Some of this is just outraged sensibilities. We believe in equality, and so we rebel against hearing about a situation in which hard work and good mentoring can't make anything possible for anyone. And yet clearly, at a factual level, no matter how much we don't like it, it is not actually the case that anyone could go on to do anything. A lot of people simply don't have the abilities to "do anything". (Actually, no one has the ability to truly "do anything" -- but some people at least have the ability to truly excel in enough things that they don't worry about the rest.)

And yet, I think there may actually be a lot of good to our illusions in this case. Because while it's true that there are large differences in ability, I'm fairly skeptical of our ability to systematically identify those differences and provide people with education "suitable to their abilities" in some sort of organized fashion. There may be a certain amount of waste and heartbreak inherent in acting as if anyone could grow up to be president, or a CEO, or a concert pianist, but the risks of treating everyone as if they had great potential and then seeing who sifts out seem lower than trying to identify which people have potential, providing them with good educations, and then shunting everyone else off into some ability-appropriate program to turn them into good worker ants. There is a limit to how much money and time should be spent trying to achieve the unachievable, but going in the direction of a know-your-place, multi-track educational program such as is seen in Japan and parts of Europe seems to be an approach which would abandon something which is important and positive in the American psyche. And, perhaps because I participate in that American ideal, I find it easier to accept the idea of all people being offered opportunities, and many of them failing to reach the heights, than classifying people based on measurable ability and sending them onto an ability-appropriate track. The illusion of equality may be important here.


August said...

Since I work in a library, I get to think alot about equality. The leftist version of equality has us stuffing our shelves with the least common denominator stuff- right down to extremely graphic horror movies and badly written erotica.
The only sort of equality that makes any real sense, especially in a library, is equality of access. Libraries are about self improvement through self-directed knowledge. Most people will just ignore us and go to a bar or take in a movie, but if we give up our identity as a library, we are no longer really a help to anyone. We become a mere entertainment center.
The situation is similar in schools. If we try to provide for this illusory equality in schools, the coursework is inevitably dumbed-down to the lowest acheiver's level. Public schools are now little more than holding pens, with occasional attempts at propagandizing thrown in.
If we wanted to provide equal access to a top-notch education, however, we'd have to keep the curriculum hard and accept that some will excel, others will fail, and still others will not try at all.

bearing said...

Equality of access, however "wasteful," allows the individual the freedom and responsibility of discerning the kind of work and the vocation best suited to him. Freedom always carries risks, but we value it anyway.

Kate said...

Do we uphold equality of access when we uphold professional life as an ideal and thus devalue trades and labor? When technical high schools have become all but obselete and the guidance counselors have sheafs of scholarship and grant information on college scholarships, but next to nothing to help fund the already underfunded community and technical colleges?

I worry sometimes that we've already, by the time college application time comes around, told a large proportion of youth that they are failures because they aren't academically inclined or proficient. And then we wonder why there is such a strong strain of anti-intellectualism among blue collar americans.

A 'streamed' system isn't necessarily the answer of course, so long as highschool students are taught exclusively by teaching professionals who themselves are inclined to focus only on the college-bound.

Darwin said...


You know, I just don't know what the right answer to that is.

Given my own interests and aptitudes, I want to say that everyone could use a good high school level grounding in basics like math, science, history, literature and writing -- whether they're going to enter a trade or go on to college. But modern high school curriculums are far from what I'd like to see them to be, and of course I'm talking as someone whose job reliest heavily on writing, math and economics, and whose interests lean towards history, languages and literature.

I don't know if the answer is or should be different for someone whose main instersts include welding, internal combusion engines, hiking and cycling -- with virtually no interest in any academic disciplines. Is that a lack that person should be helped to get past, or do many people get by just fine without knowing about Thermopylae or Napoleon?

CMinor said...

I'd say knowing about Thermopylae and Napoleon are life enrichers, and everybody needs some; not everybody's a history geek, though. Dr. Suzuki used to say that the purpose of teaching instrumental music to young children was to "beautify their souls." Soul beautification ought not to be the province of college grads alone.

That said, I think if Kate had spent some time in central Georgia in recent years, she might have a different view of things. While the current move appears to be toward eliminating the track system, in the recent past high schools tended to put an awful lot of pressure on nonachieving students to go tech track. The purpose may have been to keep a lid on the dropout rate, but the practice betokened low expectations for both the student and tech track in general. Tech track is great for the fifteen-year-old who thinks that auto mechanics or electronics is life, but kids with no particular inclination are ill-served by being thrust prematurely into a tech program.

Incidentally, another educational perversity here is the prevalent belief that beginning foreign language classes are too "involved" for high school freshmen. As a result my daughter is the only freshie in her French I class. Everything we know about language study points to the advantages of an earlier start, but here our adherence to an old prejudice holds kids back one more year from foreign language study!