Educational Egalitarianism

Darwin Catholic’s post about the educational system and the possible benefits of promoting a myth of equality got me thinking about the essential differences between liberals and at least the kind of conservative I think I am becoming.

That is, a kind of conservative that is opposed to excessively concentrated wealth in private hands, for the following reasons: 1) it can easily lead to concentrated political power that is less accountable, 2) in the midst of poverty – even if one wishes to argue that it is not a cause of poverty – it inspires class envy and hatred, 3) it has the potential to be terribly and sinfully wasted on frivolities instead of charity and/or social investment.

Being opposed to concentrated private wealth, however, does not make me an egalitarian. I do not believe that human beings are, or should be made equals in all or even most respects. On the contrary, I believe a well-ordered society that will lead to the most happiness is one in which each individual has a well-defined place in a social hierarchy and a division of labor, and where each place is granted the respect that it is due by people in higher positions of authority.

Of course I realize that these are ideals. But egalitarianism is also an ideal. A hierarchy will always have some snobs at the top who belittle those who do the dirty work at the bottom. This is unfortunate. But an egalitarian system will always end up crippling more people than it saves. The American educational system, I think, is an example of this.

As I suggested to Darwin, I believe educational egalitarianism – especially the notion that everyone needs to go to college – is part of the ideology of guilt we often find among the white middle and upper classes, mostly among liberals but also among conservatives. Some of this guilt was necessary and long overdue. Educational opportunities were opened up to women and minorities, and this is a good thing.

But then the guilt goes too far and it really becomes more of a closed-off snobbery. It transforms into a belief that manual work is somehow undignified, a sort of punishment unfairly inflicted on people who were (supposedly) unjustly denied a college education. It is rooted in the totally false view that we all possess the same basic capabilities, that we are all “blank slates”. This is not only empirically false, but socially dangerous. The fact is that we are not all “the same” – intelligence is not “socially constructed” anymore than physical strength is. Acknowledging that is not snobbery, but acting as if a person’s life is potentially worthless if they lack intelligence and going on a mission to impart it to them as if one was a god bestowing a gift on mortal man, is.

It is true that in our society, manual work is looked down upon. In fact, this has probably been true of most societies. As the Church has often pointed out, no Christian has grounds to deny the dignity of manual work, since Christ himself was a carpenter during his time on Earth. The dignity of work at all levels of society is something Christians are bound to acknowledge and respect. What we are not bound to do is transform every student into a scholar. I might also add that more important than knowledge of various academic subjects is knowledge of right and wrong, and that our real purpose on this Earth is to love one another and God, regardless of what we do for our daily bread.

All educational systems get it wrong to some extent. In my view, a proper liberal education has no place alongside vocational training. Vocational training, which simply involves learning the skills needed for a specific job or class of jobs, should begin after eighth grade, by which time a students aptitudes, preferences, and ambitions should be roughly formed.

A person who simply wants to work in a shop or a factory does not need to read literature and it is wrong, and pointless, to force them to do it. For many students it is boring and disorienting, it causes resentment towards the school and it robs them of time that would be much better spent learning a skill or a trade that could actually be put to good use.

The public library is free, and the Internet has all of the greatest books ever written. Study guides abound for the interested reader. But a proper liberal arts education should be reserved for those students who show not only the aptitude, but a sincere interest in learning. It is not a tragedy when a young man who is clearly comfortable using his hands in shop class doesn’t also have an interest in American literature or world history. It is a tragedy when he is forced to feign an interest in those topics instead of spending that time on what he truly enjoys and what might earn him a decent living one day.

This can only be derided as “snobbery” if one believes, almost axiomatically, that “blue collar” work is not dignified. I don’t believe that. Every job is necessary; otherwise it wouldn’t exist. Every worker has dignity and therefore has a right to the basic necessities of life, all that enable him or her to live virtuously, raise a family, and provide for retirement. Establishing a minimum level – and I believe it follows, an upper limit – of wealth is not the same as saying everyone needs to be at the same level. Between the lower and upper limits there can be a vast gradation of wealth and status. But no one must ever become a victim of “market forces”, of “supply and demand”, even if these forces need to be acknowledged and respected. The human being always comes first.

So, I advocate an end to torturous curriculum that is propagated in the name of egalitarianism. I advocate the cultivation of a healthy respect for all trades and professions, so that no one needs to feel like a “loser” because they don’t like to read classic novels, spend time in a chemistry lab, or work on advanced calculus. I advocate accepting people as they are – as God made them – and finding a place for them in society, as opposed to “remaking” them, implying that they aren’t good enough as they are, and that if the transformation fails, so will they as people.

And I do not believe this is an entirely quantitative process. If it were, heaven knows, I would not have made it through high school let alone college. I almost flunked out of grammar school, I never once made the honor roll in high school, and I practically slept through community college. It wasn’t until I transferred to the university that I decided to exert what efforts were necessary to maintain an A average. I would never recommend placing a student on a track based on grades alone; every school must be equipped with a psychological adviser who is equipped to make qualitative judgments about a student’s performance and potential.

  1. I’ll also add that this post doesn’t necessarily mark the end of my hiatus… I probably won’t post again until about a week after Labor Day (upon which I will hopefully be settled in a new home). I will keep up with comments on this thread, however, for the next week.

  2. Just a question: is it fair to blame the rich for inspiring sinful behavior in others (class envy and spite)? Is not that rather like blaming a beautiful woman for inspiring lust? If I feel envy and spite when contemplating the wealth of others, it seems to me that that is my sin and my responsibility, not theirs, even if they sin themselves by deliberately trying to inspire that reaction, just as a beautiful woman might sin by deliberately provoking lust.

  3. Praise God there is a new subject besides the coming “tyranny” of ObamaCare and the coming apocalypse.

    Heh. Although I suppose Eric (and I) share responsibility for not writing on other topics. Unfortunately, Congress is in recess and the national conversation is stalled on the part I hate.

  4. Be fair Eric, I didn’t mention Obama or health care at all last week! (Of course, I was on vacation and all of my posts were thus scheduled posts I wrote beforehand!) Besides, I believe ObamaCare is already on its way to the morgue and thus I have no fear of it: http://the-american-catholic.com/2009/07/29/obamacare-a-pre-mortem/

    As to equality, I believe that Mr. Jefferson was thinking about all men being equal in the sight of God. This of course endows them with inalienable rights, a few of which he enumerated, and really has nothing to do with the fact that humans are manifestly unequal in almost all other less important ways.

    In regard to education, I have long thought that the public schools give scant attention to the great number of students who have no desire to attend college and who wish to learn a trade.

  5. Donna V.,

    According to God and Catholic Social Teaching, when the wealthy lavishly and frivolously spend their money instead of using it charitably, it is as if that beautiful woman were wearing nothing but a cardboard sign that said “take me”.

    Scripture has hundreds of passages that demonstrate God’s love of the poor, but none where He says that poverty is a condition of those who don’t “achieve” enough. It also has plenty of passages where wealth and power are not only held to different, more rigid standards than the poor, but where wealth is in fact an impediment to salvation.

    The stability and integrity of society is more important than an individual’s right to a personal fortune. No one needs it to live, no one needs it to live virtuously, to be educated, to be comfortable or to be happy. Not only is it not needed, but it ends up causing problems. To insist otherwise would be to mock God. I’m not saying that is what you do, of course.

    If Scripture doesn’t do it for you, try Book IV of Aristotle’s Politics (I’d go so far to say that I am a political Aristotelian in many respects).

  6. Joe,
    One of the features of the Catholic Reformation was the desire to expand education in the liberal arts to a broader part of society. There was the notion among Christian humanists (largely within the Church) that such an education prepares people to enter more fully into life, regardless of where they end up working. Education also ought to prepare one to be an informed citizen in our democracy – one of the leading motivations behind the establishment of public education in the United States. Certainly a college education is not necessary for either of these, but doesn’t a rigid multi-track system like we see in some European countries (which might better prepare people for the workplace) neglect these other roles of education?

  7. Hi Joe,

    Glad to see you taking a hiatus from your self-imposed hiatus! While I agree wholeheartedly with your first and third points, I think that your second point is overstated and perhaps ill-considered in its implications. As Donna V. mentioned, of course it’s not the fault of the one being envied that he is envied, but rather the envier (is that a word?) Same goes for lust, pride, and all of the other sins we could imagine similarly.

    Your point in your response is well-taken, namely that ostentatious displays of wealth (esp. if they are meant to nurture class envy and the sin of jealousy in others) can be sinful. However, it doesn’t necessarily follow then that some sort of authoritarian checks on wealth accumulation would be desirable or even palatable. I think it boils down to the Christian concept of the exercise of free will and its relationship to doing good vs. sinning. Just because one has accumulated great wealth does not make him a bad person or indeed even someone to be envied (not that that’s what you were implying, of course.) Ultimately wealth is a tool, not an end in itself, and it’s thus subject to the free will of the person possessing the wealth, within limits prescribed by positive law. If one chooses to be gaudy, ostentatious, uncouth, or even wasteful with one’s wealth, I can’t envision where any entity or individual has the right to force that person to change his or her ways. On the other hand, one’s friends and advisers, as well as more large-scale social instruments like peer pressure and even tax breaks for doing “the right thing” with one’s money, could be expected to influence that person’s choices with regard to his money. In the end, though, I think we end up where we started, which is with the question of “how do we reach the goal (Joe H’s, not mine, necessarily) of more equitable wealth distribution?” which it seems can only be answered in one of two ways: by individual choice (e.g., education in ethical and moral uses of one’s possessions; social and policy incentives to use one’s wealth in “the right way”) or by forcible redistribution of accumulated wealth (e.g., taxation punishable by the state if it is not followed; anarchical “revolution by the proletariat.”)

    Great post, Joe H, and glad to hear you’re morphing slowly into a conservative, of sorts! ;-)

    P.S. All of the above scare quotes do not imply that I disagree with or mean to belittle the quoted ideas, but rather that they are subjective concepts that could be defined for good or ill depending on one’s outlook.

  8. Zak,

    It depends on what we mean by “rigid”. I think if the approach is entirely quantitative – that is, if it is based solely on grades and testing – then it can become unfair. We need quantitative assessments, yes, but there are many factors that can distort those results.

    That is why, in the last paragraph, I said that tracking must also take into account qualitative aspects of a student’s capabilities. We need to look at home life, at psychological problems, social problems – as I said, if it were about grades alone, I’d be lucky to have a high school diploma, not because I’m stupid (I did graduate from college with honors) but because I just didn’t care then.

    And the student, I believe, should also be able to have some say in the matter. Frankly some students are just not interested in a liberal education, and I don’t see why they ought to be forced to have one. Tracking is only a problem when people in the higher tracks look down their noses at people in the lower tracks. As I said, that is unfortunate. But to build up a whole educational system on the notion that self-esteem is more important than anything else is a recipe, I think, for disaster.

  9. KiT,

    As I said, I believe the integrity and stability of society comes first – society is not simply a collection of individuals in the Hobbesian or Lockean sense, but an organism that is greater than the sum of its parts. We are created to live in society, it is not merely a “contract” that self-interested individuals enter into for their own benefit, but could just as well leave aside if they choose.

    Given that, every member of society has certain duties and obligations, along with whatever rights they possess.

    And the teaching of the Church is clear on where the responsibility lies for social tension between the classes. It isn’t that poor people are blameless, but that rich people, because they have more power, are held to greater account. This is found in both Scripture and Tradition.

    We need both the carrot and the stick when approaching this problem. I am in favor of more carrot and less stick, but not for throwing the stick out altogether.

    As I have pointed out in previous posts, taxation and wealth redistribution are perfectly moral according to the teaching of the Church. There are no Christian grounds for categorically ruling them out.

    Taxation can also go too far, and the Church is clear on that as well.

    But the topic here is education. And as I made clear, I am not an egalitarian. Between lower and upper limits on wealth there is plenty of room for differences.

  10. I’m glad my piece was able to get some conversation going — hopefully I’ll be able to do so again one of these days with follow-ups.

    A couple thoughts:

    - I suppose some of this has to do with what one considers to be a “liberal arts eduction”. Clearly, not everyone is going to want to sit around reading Plato and Aristotle, and even I don’t necessarily want to read Joyce and Melville, so I don’t want to come off as advocating that people be “forced” to learn something they have no interest in. After all, if there’s something education can’t do it’s force people into things. However, it strikes me that people seldom end up with a void where a liberal education could be. Thinking of some of my cousins who didn’t finish high school and work in clearly blue collar industries like construction: They don’t lack awareness of music and literature and history of a sort, but they’ve only been interested in accumulating interest in “low culture” rather than “high culture”. So you’ve got someone who can tell you a lot about the beefs which different rappers have had with each other over the years, and how east coast rap is different from west coast rap, and what movies Quinten Tarentinto was influence by, and about graphic novels like 300 and Sandman — but whose never had real history and real literature and classical music presented to him in a way that seems worth knowing about. Now, our modern education system often doesn’t even teach much about real Western Culture, and when it does it’s often not very good at making it interesting, but it seems to me that there’s a lot of Western history, culture, literature and music which can be made accessible and interesting to the average person, and that the average person is better off having that along side the popular culture which he picks up for fun. So I think there is value to overhauling our approach to education in order to try to help people “get” that kind of stuff, and I’d hate to see a pragmatic “these people only need vocational training” approach lock a lot of people away from that kind of thing.

    - I certainly don’t want to imply that manual labor isn’t worth doing. To be honest, there are kinds of manual labor that I enjoy more than the work that I do most of the time — though maybe that’s partly because when I lay floor or paint a room or do carpentry projects, I’m doing it “for fun” rather than full time. And while doing my own car repairs is likely to find me covered in grease and swearing under my breath, I can see how someone with more expertise would enjoy it. There’s a deep satisfaction to making something or fixing something. However, the problem as I see it is that it takes a lot of hours to do a lot of this manual work, and unless you’re working for very, very rich people (doing very high quality, very specialized work) it’s hard to make a lot of money doing manual work. And if you do more unskilled work, the fact that you’re in competition with anyone who shows up willing to work keeps your wages fairly low. Looking at my cousins who work in construction and have GED/high school educations — when we were all 22 they were making as much or more than I was, since I was right out of college with no connections and had to get a job through a placement agency, but now as we enter our thirties I’ve been able to increase my earnings 3x since then, and they’re trying to figure out more skilled lines of work to get into since general, unskilled construction still pays them the same as it did in their early 20s, and they get injured more easily now. So a lot of my emphasis on wanting to see people follow the sort of course that I did is based on wanting the best for other people. It’s simply possible to create more value being a “knowledge worker” than it is as an unskilled or low skilled laborer.

    However, my concern based off that second point is that I realize that, however hard it is for me to reconcile with the idea, abilities vary a lot, and even if it seems easy for me to learn how to do “knowledge work” it’s not possible for a lot of people. Which leaves me with: If a lot of people aren’t capable of doing the kind of work which seems to be seeing the most income growth in our modern economy, what exactly do you do about that?

  11. Donna V states quite nicely as well as profoundly:

    “Just a question: is it fair to blame the rich for inspiring sinful behavior in others (class envy and spite)? Is not that rather like blaming a beautiful woman for inspiring lust?”

    Too bad that Joe Hargrave continues to capitalize on the rather egregious notion of avoidance of responsibility where such people are concerned and continues to find fit to place the blame solely on the supposedly “rich”.

    Why, the fact that the mere masses mortgaged their homes so that they could afford luxuries that they couldn’t well afford (which prevalent and varied instances gave birth to the very economic crisis that continues play havoc on us); surely, it’s not their fault — it’s simply those damn rich people!

    Whereas I don’t begrudge the latter with whatever fortunes they may have well earned through hard work and self-sacrifice, I hardly find it convincing that Hargrave et al at The American Catholic continues to make these their scapegoat in spite of the fact that blame should be placed where they rightly should lay: those folks who wanted to indulge themselves with opulent lifestyles that they couldn’t afford in the first place!

  12. E,

    You said that I:

    “Continue to find fit to place the blame solely on the supposedly “rich”.

    I actually said:

    “It isn’t that poor people are blameless, but that rich people, because they have more power, are held to greater account. This is found in both Scripture and Tradition.”

    So, just so we’re clear. I said that poor people were not blameless. You said I am exclusively blaming the rich.

    Do you understand why I might be just a little annoyed by that? Instead of saying something insulting and hot-headed, I ask you in all sincerity – why did you do it? Why didn’t you look at the words I wrote and address them instead?

    Is it that you think I’m a liar, and you thought you’d state what you thought I really meant? Did you just not read when I said that?

    I also want to add, E, that I am basing myself firmly in Scripture and Tradition. I would truly and sincerely be interested in the Scriptural arguments, or those of the Church, that support the idea that the rich play no role in the corruption of morals through displays of wealth. I am always happy to be enlightened.

  13. Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno:

    “134. Thus it came to pass that many, much more than ever before, were solely concerned with increasing their wealth by any means whatsoever, and that in seeking their own selfish interests before everything else they had no conscience about committing even the gravest of crimes against others. Those first entering upon this broad way that leads to destruction[66] easily found numerous imitators of their iniquity by the example of their manifest success, by their insolent display of wealth, by their ridiculing the conscience of others, who, as they said, were troubled by silly scruples, or lastly by crushing more conscientious competitors.”

    Oh the class hatred and envy!

    “Great then is the good fortune of a state in which the citizens have a moderate and sufficient property; for where some possess much, and the others nothing, there may arise an extreme democracy, or a pure oligarchy; or a tyranny may grow out of either extreme — either out of the most rampant democracy, or out of an oligarchy; but it is not so likely to arise out of the middle constitutions and those akin to them”

    Aristotle, Politics, book IV.

    No one ever accused the Pope or Aristotle of being envious, of being left-wing revolutionaries.

    They simply had a sensible view of society that recognizes that extremes of wealth concentration are dangerous to the body politic.

    If you don’t want to acknowledge it, fine. But you can at least classify it correctly and stop mislabeling it as “envy”.

  14. Joe:

    What you continue to neglect in your considersations is the more significant lesson, preached prevalantly in Scripture (as well as quite extensively for ages in the history of our Tradition) concerning love of mammon, not specific to any class of men but, more generally, man itself.

    Roughly put, “Where your treasure is, there also will your heart be”, and all that.

    But if you must employ Aristotle in your arguments, then perhaps you should commit yourself first to a study as concerning the weighty matter of eudaimonia.

    Perhaps then, you shall see the attainment of such riches, including even the equal distribution thereof, should not actually be the very things that should be sought (especially since these are actually things only the worldly seek); indeed, if the Gospels have anything to say about it, there are actually even higher things.

  15. E,

    I am truly and honestly confused by your post, because it seems to me as if you are saying that I believe that the goal in life ought to be the attainment of riches.

    Did I not say in my post:

    “I might also add that more important than knowledge of various academic subjects is knowledge of right and wrong, and that our real purpose on this Earth is to love one another and God, regardless of what we do for our daily bread.”

    ?

    Did I not also argue that no one needs riches to be happy in my response to Donna?

    Trust me, I know all about Aristotle and eudaimonia :) His conception of eudaimonia is not contradicted by, but actually supports, what he writes in the Politics, i.e. what I quoted above.

    It removes the justification any man has for wanting to amass excessive riches. If a person doesn’t need riches to be happy, to be comfortable, to practice virtue, or we might add, to live a Christian life, then in what sense could setting a limit on their acquisition be considered an injustice? Nothing for which man is truly created would be denied if riches are denied.

    Moreover, potential threats to society can be minimized or avoided if upper and lower limits on wealth are established. If society is allowed to fall apart because of an individualist ideal, is that not a supreme injustice to all men and women, who cannot by their nature survive without society?

    So, in sum, if setting limits on wealth a) deprives no man of an opportunity to live a full, virtuous, and comfortable life, and b) lessens or removes dangers to society, then I cannot see in what sense it is an injustice from an Aristotelian/Catholic point of view.

    It is only an injustice from an individualist point of view, and both Aristotle and the Church reject individualism. There is no question or doubt about that, but, if you think that there is support for unlimited wealth acquisition in Scripture, Tradition, or any non-individualist philosopher, I would be grateful for any wisdom you might impart.

  16. Also,

    I did not argue for an equal distribution of goods.

    E, my friend, I desire only that we communicate clearly. I don’t know what prevents that. I try very hard to say clearly what I mean, to impart my thoughts as accurately as I know how.

    It pains me when you or someone else, for some reason I cannot possibly know, sees them in a way differently than I intended.

    For instance, I said, I thought clearly:

    “Establishing a minimum level – and I believe it follows, an upper limit – of wealth is not the same as saying everyone needs to be at the same level.”

    Now, if you think these really are the same, I would be most appreciative to know why. If you think I am being insincere, again, it would be great if I could know why. If you simply didn’t read the words, I now present them to you in hopes that you will see that I do not argue for equal distribution, only lower and upper limits, which in my understanding are not identical, not A=A, but A and B, two different things.

    I hope that is clear.

  17. Joe,

    A question about Pius XI:

    ““134. Thus it came to pass that many, much more than ever before, were solely concerned with increasing their wealth by any means whatsoever, and that in seeking their own selfish interests before everything else they had no conscience about committing even the gravest of crimes against others. Those first entering upon this broad way that leads to destruction[66] easily found numerous imitators of their iniquity by the example of their manifest success, by their insolent display of wealth, by their ridiculing the conscience of others, who, as they said, were troubled by silly scruples, or lastly by crushing more conscientious competitors.”

    Is this true?

  18. Personally, I believe it is true. But when it comes to economic crises, it is very difficult – if not impossible – to separate ideology from factual history. Everyone has their own version of events.

    The real point here is that it is at least a possibility, acknowledged by the Papacy.

    Frankly I think it is ideology alone that is clouding people’s judgment in this matter: ordinarily it is nothing controversial among Christians to acknowledge that, by bad example, by taunting and tempting, one person(s)(person A) can lead another person(s)(person B) into sin.

    THIS DOES NOT REMOVE THE MORAL CULPABILITY of the person who sins as a result, person B. NO ONE HAS EVER ARGUED THIS. I say it in all caps so it is 1000% clear, and I will be truly saddened and disappointed if future comments don’t take this into account.

    What it does mean is that MORE THAN ONE PERSON is to blame for the sin, more than one is to be held to account. And, as I believe Scripture and Tradition make clear, it is the person who leads others into sin, person A, that is going to suffer greater consequences.

    Clear moral thinking requires putting ideology aside, and it certainly requires rejecting Protestant and radical Enlightenment views of individualism, which are based in Gnosticism and materialism respectively. If we get back to the Church and Thomas Aquinas, we get back to the Gospels and Aristotle.

  19. Very late to the game….

    My dad is a rancher. He has worked on ranches his entire life, excepting when he was drafted and his time at college on the GI bill.

    He has an AA, and while it hasn’t made his vocation any better, it has enriched his life greatly– he didn’t meet my mom until he was 30, and yet I know his favorite class in college was classical music appreciation.

    I believe that we should make more room for vocationally aimed electives in our schools, yes, but (after the reading, writing, ‘rithmatic angle) we should also make sure they have a good basic grounding in history, science, the arts and philosophy. (Logic, at the very least, please!)

    Of course, my pet hobby horse is cutting sex ed down to about one year and putting a lot of the extra stuff into biology and probability/statistics (“if it has a 90% chance of failure, and we have sex ten times, I’m probably going to be a daddy” might get guys to focus on math a bit more ;^p), adding in some “life skills” classes like how to do laundry, read a time-table (bus, job schedule), (very) basic cooking, how not to electrocute yourself and how not to shoot yourself if you find a gun. Maybe some understanding of where stuff comes from, like “milk is from cows” and “bread is from wheat”….

    Short version:
    I think the general education should give you the basic tools for a decent life, from how not to get yourself hurt in common situations (electricity, cooking, guns) to understanding the world around you (history, art, logic, food origins) and being a decent citizen of your country. (history, logic, philosophy)
    The challenge is setting this up without pushing a world-view.