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.