Difference and Equality

Thursday, December 3, AD 2009

Individualism is one of those terms which a great many people use in a great many different ways, so it has been with interest that I’ve been reading Individualism and Economic Order by F. A. Hayek. The book is a collection of essays dealing the individualism, its definition and its place in the economic order.

From the first essay, “Individualism: True and False” comes an interesting thought:

Here I may perhaps mention that only because men are in fact unequal can we treat them equally. If all men were completely equal in their gifts and inclinations, we should have to treat them differently in order to achieve any sort of social organization. Fortunately, they are not equal; and it is only owing to this that the differentiation of functions needs not be determined by the arbitrary decision of some organizing will but that, after creating formal equality of the rules applying in the same manner to all, we can leave each individual to find his own level.

There is all the difference in the world between treating people equally and attempting to make them equal. While the first is the condition of a free society, the second means, as De Tocqueville described it, “a new form of servitude.”
(Individualism and the Economic Order p. 14-15)

This strikes me as touching on the sense in which classical liberals in the tradition of Burke and Smith can still be considered “conservative” in the old sense of the term. Although Burke is commonly accepted by those who argue that classical liberalism is not “truly conservative” as being conservative in his outlook because of his reaction to the French Revolution, he was (like Smith) Whig, though they were Old Whigs, not True Whigs or Country Whigs. Prior to the French Revolution, Burke had been generally supportive of the cause of the colonists in the American Revolution.

Taking Hayek’s point, classical liberals in the tradition of Burke and Smith do not reject the necessary hierarchy of society. Nor do they embrace sudden, transformative social change. As such, they can certainly be seen as conservative. However, they do seek sufficient freedom within society to allow people to “find their own level”, believing that there is a natural hierarchy of ability which will thus result in an ordered society, and a more desirable one than one in which hierarchy comes strictly from birth and rank.

In this sense, the freedom of a classical liberal society creates social order, and a more stable one than the sort that an ancien regime conservatism maintains. Indeed, arguably, at this point in history, it is only this Whig-ish conservatism which is commonly found within society. Ancien regime conservatism has virtually died out.

Entirely different are notions of politics or the human person in which it is held which all people are truly and fully equal — in ability and inclination as well as in human dignity. Such systems would indeed seem to lead quickly to a most undesirable oppression.

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18 Responses to Difference and Equality

  • The trouble with “individualism” in rightist (traditionalist or right-liberal) argumentation today is the lack of realization of what Robert Nisbet pointed out in the 50s and Patrick Deenan has been hammering home in recent years: it is an invitation to statism, and an opening for a grave lonliness.
    ( http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/?p=4115 )

    Individualism and personal freedom, which should always be second to virtue as a value, tends to deny a very basic truth that all conservatives must embrace: the absolute and inherent incompatibility between liberty and equality. Left-liberals value the latter, and right-liberals the former. Each is a false human anthropology when out of context. We are products of a particular time and social environment, and that cannot be escaped – which makes family the most foundational unit of the good society.

    The purpose of freedom and liberty is to protect family, material and immaterial.

  • Jonathan,

    Actually the Hayek essay (“Individualism: True and False”) this quotes would be worth your time (it’s fairly short) in that one of the things it seeks to do is arrive at a proper understanding of what individualism means in relation to the classical liberal tradition.

    What, then, are the essential characteristics of true individualism? The first thing that should be said is that it is primarily a theory of society, an attempt to understand the forces which determine the social life of man, and only in the second instance a set of political maxims derived fromt his view of society. This fact should by itself be sufficient to refute the silliest of the common misunderstandings: the belief that individualism postulates (or bases its arguments on the assumption of) the existence of isolated or self-contained individuals, instead of starting from men whose nature and character is determined by their existence in society. If that were true, it would indeed have nothing to contribute to our understanding of society. But it’s basic contention is quite a different one; it is that there is no other way toward and understanding of social phenomena but through our understanding of individual actions directed toward other people and guided by their expected behavior. This argument is directed primarily against the properly collectivist theories of society which pretend to be able directly to comprehend social wholes like society, etc., as entities sui generis which exist independently of the individuals which compose them. The next step in the individualistic analysis of society, however, is directed against the reationalistic pseudo-individualism which also leads to practical collectivism.

    I’d be curious at your reaction to it.

  • Is it perhaps too much of an oversimplification to describe the different views of individualism as a means/end dichotomy. Randian and leftists see individualism as an end in and of itself, whereas conservatives/classical liberals merely see it as a means by which to achieve a more just social order.

  • Darwin,

    As I recently pointed out on a different thread, the classical liberalism of the American founders was also balanced by their classical republicanism, which includes an emphasis on virtue and does not shy away from regulating wealth to preserve society.

    I would argue that classical liberalism never created a stable society – other political forces such as aforesaid classical republicanism, or later on labor movements and the Church tempered and balanced it.

    Finally, I would argue that all most all of the classical liberals are gone – that even the vast majority of libertarians are not truly classical liberals. Why? Because I believe anyone defending the right of total, untaxed inheritance today cannot possibly believe in a “natural aristocracy”, a “meritocracy”, or anything other than the perpetuation of oligarchy and plutocracy.

    Except the one libertarian I met as a socialist who said we could strike a bargain – we could tax the hell out of inheritance as long as he could become rich in his lifetime without paying a dime on it. I always thought it was a good idea.

  • Darwin,

    Hayek and Röpke, in their analysis of the “humane economy,” both identify the elevation of individualism as something like “reationalistic pseudo-individualism which also leads to practical collectivism.”

    One problem though, especially for the traditionalist conservative critic (my own politics), is that Hayek’s case for the “free market” (i.e. The Constitution of Liberty) draws very heavily from Hume, A. Ferguson, and Adam Smith. That is not necessarily a red flag (Mill and Bentham would be for sure) but it remains the British, skeptic, empirical tradition. That tradition has both much to admire and quite a lot to deride from the traditionalist perspective.

    Their case rests on the necessary ignorance of human judgement, which is correct (in a civilized society, there is no centrality capable of managing a complex social outgrowth, so a minimal state is best) but also incomplete.

    Hayek, IMO, is relevant at the theoretical level yet less so at the practical level, and this is due to some uncomfortable topics like demographics and population composition. Here my critique would turn Buchananite: specific government policies matter less than the quantities and qualities of populations. Racism and sexism become cheap and lazy charges at that point, yet this is the obvious problem with all shades of individualism at the intersection of public policy – Finland, for instance, is “Finlandly” because of the Finns themselves, not because of philosophy and governmental mechanics.

  • there is no other way toward and understanding of social phenomena but through our understanding of individual actions directed toward other people and guided by their expected behavior

    This is a very good refutation of Randian libertarianism and its incorrect anthropology. Individualism should not mean that subjective action is sacrosanct; it is, instead, a better way to analyze the social outcomes that are obviously the product of so many individual decisions. The temptation is to play identity politics and assume that these social constructs have some nature or form that can be counted on to behave in certain ways… Just to name one example, it would be foolish to assume that all Catholics will act similarly, ceteris paribus.

  • The trouble with “individualism” in rightist (traditionalist or right-liberal) argumentation today is the lack of realization of what Robert Nisbet pointed out in the 50s and Patrick Deenan has been hammering home in recent years: it is an invitation to statism

    Okay, let’s test this. Which part of the globe is more individualistic: the United States, or Europe? Which part is more statist?

  • Blackadder: on a blog discussing the anti-gay marriage vote in NY, a European leftist jumped in and said basically, see, this is why in Europe a supra-national body decides these issues, because we don’t want a situation where people vote to deny other people their rights. He obviously thought that was highly superior to the way we rednecks do things.

    Ironically enough, it is the Left which now embodies the mentality of the ancien regime. In Europe, the dukes and earls have been replaced by the EU elites, because the judgment of the peasants is not to be trusted. And many liberals in this country also put their faith in the elites and the courts and would like us to become more like the Europeans in that respect. The funny thing to me is that it’s basically feudalism presented as cutting edge progressivism.

  • “The funny thing to me is that it’s basically feudalism presented as cutting edge progressivism.”

    On target analysis Donna. Leftist comments about the tea bag party protests reminded me of a British aristocrat looking down his nose and cursing at the American rabble of 1776. The Left has a childlike faith in government by experts with the “proper opinions” amd judges with the “proper opinions”. Voters simply cannot be trusted to elect representatives with the “proper opinions”. That is also why Leftists love treaties to bind what elected representatives can do.

  • European leftist jumped in and said basically, see, this is why in Europe a supra-national body decides these issues, because we don’t want a situation where people vote to deny other people their rights. He obviously thought that was highly superior to the way we rednecks do things.

    Maybe it’s all Providence. Clearly someone like this isn’t a clear enough thinker to understand the virtues inherent in a properly constructed constitutionally limited republic. Its a pity when someone forfeits his ability to shape society for the better and contribute to his own governance, but maybe it’s best that those who would, should.

  • on a blog discussing the anti-gay marriage vote in NY, a European leftist jumped in and said basically, see, this is why in Europe a supra-national body decides these issues

    That’s an interesting argument, or at least it would be if it was remotely true. There’s no supra-national body in Europe telling nations that they have to recognize gay marriage. The issue is decided country by country, and in fact most European countries do not recognize gay marriage.

  • Because I believe anyone defending the right of total, untaxed inheritance today cannot possibly believe in a “natural aristocracy”, a “meritocracy”, or anything other than the perpetuation of oligarchy and plutocracy.

    Clayton Cramer has visited this issue on occasion and (I believe) has some citations to literature. His point: that with some exceptions (the duPonts, for example), families tend to lose their mojo after a few generations and their wealth is dissipated (by alcoholism, failure to earn well, and bad investments, among other things). A sad contemporary example would be Robert Kennedy’s in laws.

    You also would not want to work it so that an able businessman could not provide for his wife or his disabled children.

  • Okay, let’s test this. Which part of the globe is more individualistic: the United States, or Europe? Which part is more statist?

    Europe is more statist. This doesn’t negate though, the point of the first post, and I think ties into the second. A welfare state/statist/collectivist/ect. governmnetal organization “works” much better in a homogeneous society, for reasons explained by Putnam among many others.

    And so one big reason “individualism” as a public ethos is an open pathway to statism is that the “autonomous rights-based individuals” many open border/libertarian types tend to be happy to receive will over time make the country significantly more statist: one glaring example is California in the last three decades.

  • A welfare state/statist/collectivist/ect. governmnetal organization “works” much better in a homogeneous society, for reasons explained by Putnam among many others.

    The evidence isn’t that it works any better, only that it is more popular. I don’t see that as being necessarily a positive.

  • I think we find the first link between individualism and statism in Hobbes. First he shatters organic society and breaks us up into individual atoms, then he reconstitutes us in the body of the Leviathan, the absolute monarchy.

    This is why I object when people compare modern statism to feudalism, calling it “neo-feudalism.” At least in places such as England, the average peasant probably had more freedom certainly than a “worker” under communism. It was the medieval village (and the Church as the provider of social services) that had to be broken up and destroyed so that absolutism and statism could consolidate themselves.

  • The evidence isn’t that it works any better, only that it is more popular. I don’t see that as being necessarily a positive.

    I disagree with you on the evidence, but that’s another argument. Let’s accept this premise: in a homogeneous society (race, ethnicity/culture, religion, language being the most important) a statist system of governance is more popular and nothing else. This is not nothing if that state retains republican or democratic processes….in fact, popularity of large-scale policy is essential to societal harmony and decent, honest governance. Diversity and proximity equals conflict – all across the world, all across time and environment. Does this mean any one person is “lesser” than another? No. It means human populations are different, and (for powerful evolutionary reasons) prefer their “own.”

    Now let us consider a societal opposite. With different (and, by the way, strongly self-segregating populations), and with our incredibly advancing understanding of genetics, the future of social policy could very well be very contentious and ugly, with resentments galore.

    Geoffrey Miller in the current Economist:

    Human geneticists have reached a private crisis of conscience, and it will become public knowledge in 2010. The crisis has depressing health implications and alarming political ones. In a nutshell: the new genetics will reveal much less than hoped about how to cure disease, and much more than feared about human evolution and inequality, including genetic differences between classes, ethnicities and races.

    Uh oh. I just don’t see how it is not obvious that such revelations, in a republican society with democratic processes, an egalitarian ethos, and different populations, is not a toxic mix.

    (And again, let me be clear: I am not saying, nor do I believe, that any one person has less moral worth or inherent human dignity than another.)

  • Joe,

    I guess I see two issues with your characterization of the approach that classical liberals would/should take to inheritance:

    1) I’m not aware the Burke, Smith, etc. in any way endorsed a confiscatory approach to inheritance.

    2) The desire to be able to pass on an inheritance does not necessarily stem from an opposition to meritocracy (some idea that because your parents were rich you deserve to be rich regardless of your own abilities) but rather from self interest in the sense the classical liberals talked about it. When Smith talks about “self-interest” he means no so much “selfishness” or “what I want for me, myself” but rather “what I, myself, want to do with my goods”. One of the very natural things that people desire (and work to achieve) is the ability to take good care of their loved ones and of other causes or institutions they care about. In this sense, wanting have the fruits of one’s labor result in financial support for one’s children, one’s church, etc. would all be examples of “selt interest” in the classical liberal sense.

Equality, A False Assumption That We Need

Wednesday, August 19, AD 2009

[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.

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17 Responses to Equality, A False Assumption That We Need

  • This post reminds me of two books, DC… Bork’s discussion of radical egalitarianism in “Slouching Towards Gommorah” and it negative impact its had on American society in the last forty years, and more recently, Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”, in which he argues that a big portion of success is due to things beyond the control of the person who is successful (i.e. the relevant of various environmental factors).

    I take your point regarding education, but your final sentence gives me pause… can it be that we are really better served by an illusion than by reality?

  • Truth is always better.

    The important truth here, however, is one which is not well understood.

    “All men are created equal” is a falsehood, at least as regards abilities. God gives different talents to each, different graces to each, different circumstances to each. Whither then equality?

    The truism lies elsewhere: Moral Rights are always the other side of a Moral Duty, and these all point to the end of life, which is to freely exercise our God-given creativity in a single pursuit, that of knowing, loving, and serving God.

    “Equality” in the phrase “all men are created equal” therefore comes from two places:

    (1.) The equal love of God, in that He loves His created persons each infinitely and infinities are as equal as makes no odds; and,

    (2.) The right to moral treatment of each person, which is the reflection of the moral duty of all other persons to treat them morally. A subcomponent of this duty is that component which deals with force, and that force is twofold: (a.) The force we use to protect innocents against force or fraud by others, and (b.) The force we exercise against non-innocents when they initiate force or fraud against innocents.

    Now under the broader heading of moral treatment of persons, the hallmark of moral use of force is this: (a.) We are morally obligated to offer equal protection to all innocents in proportion to the value God assigns them with His infinite love, not in proportion to some lesser attribute such as income or ability; and, (b.) We are morally obligated to exercise force against them in proportion to their crimes or attacks only, without regard to other attributes such as income or political connections.

    Item (a.) is generally phrased “equal protection under law” and Item (b.) is generally phrased “let the punishment fit the crime” or in cases of warfare “proportional response.”

    In the end, then, WE DO NOT NEED TO LIE TO OURSELVES.

    (We should never. No one who wishes to be on good terms with the person who calls Himself the Way, the TRUTH, and the Life, should be thus dismissive of the truth merely because it is convenient.)

    Instead we must understand that “equality among men” is a more particular kind of equality, expressed in two spheres; namely, judgments of transcendent value, and our duties in the use of force (normatively, through the tool called government).

    TRANSCENDENT VALUE: God loves us all infinitely, and we should be imitators of Christ, who is one in being with the Father. Being finite beings we lack the power to exercise infinite love for all equally, but we come close by exercising great love for all equally. Ergo: We value all human lives equally, and live lives of sacrificial love directed at our neighbor equally with ourselves.

    USE OF FORCE (normatively): Equal protection under law, proportional armed response, and punishments that fit the crime.

    USE OF FORCE (in the gravest extreme): Just War Doctrine (for gravest-extreme force writ large), Proportional Response for self-defense with intent to stop, not slay or exercise revenge on, an attacker (for gravest-extreme force, writ small).

    There is no lie in these formulations of equality.

    One final note: The above would work well if human beings were all Vulcans a la “Star Trek”: Able to suit their actions to known logical truisms at all times.

    However, we are passionate creatures and our emotions need taming and training.

    Hence one other addendum: In applying the terms of equality described above, we must undergird our intent with feelings of love as best we can. We must, with the help of the Holy Spirit, feel divine charity towards others. This often doesn’t work, so we must often act as we would act if we felt that way, in the hopes that our feelings will “catch up” over time.

    Some might regard THIS as a self-deceit, an illusion: “Isn’t it lying to myself or others, to act in a way I don’t really feel?”

    But it is not, because when our emotions are disordered, they tell us nothing about what is true, but rather react in a way that is closer to falsehood. In that sense, emotions are not like thoughts which can be true or false; they are more like the weather, which merely happens (sometimes conveniently and helpfully, sometimes inconveniently and unhelpfully).

    To the extent we resist, subdue, and retrain those emotions over time, we are in no way being dishonest; we are rather re-calibrating our emotions to be reflective of the truth. This is an intrinsically honest act, since it acknowledges the truth and acts upon it.

    In the end, our first loyalty is to the truth. How could it be otherwise, when our first loyalty always belongs rightfully to The Truth?

  • To talk about “equality” in these terms is to use the word in such a general way as to make it incomprehensible. Its too abstract. Equality of what? Health, happiness, sanctity, income, appearance of worldly success, ego? Not an exhaustive list, but I think you get the idea. Equality in my mind or that of others? How many others?
    Equality of dignity? Equality of ability? Equality of opportunity? Equality of outcome? I think you need more specificity.

  • Patrick makes a good point. ‘Equality’ in the general sense is not a principle of the founding father’s of the United States, conversely it is a principle of the French revolution.

    The founding father’s explain their use of “created equal” by saying what rights they are endowed with – “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.

  • Thank you for the thoughtful comments. Looking at these, I think I want to hone and limit by point a bit:

    It strikes me that it’s a basic (or at least, very commonly held) American idea that anyone could go anywhere and do anything. Often people tell this to kids, “If you work hard enough, you can grow up to be absolutely anything you want.”

    However, many studies suggest that is pretty definitely not the case. People who are below average in a set of abilities at age 8 are usually not going to turn around and excel in those abilities ten or twenty years later. If you have a low IQ at eight, you will probably never have a high IQ. If you have low musical abilities at eight, you will probably not become a concert pianist. If you are lowsy at sports at eight, you will probably not become a pro baseball player. Etc.

    Some people take from this that we should test people at an early age, determine their abilities, and not bother wasting resources on trying to teach people things they won’t be able to do. Thus, if someone tested as having an IQ of 90 and low mathematical abilities, you wouldn’t bother ever trying to teach that person math beyond a six or eighth grade level. If someone had low verbal abilities, you wouldn’t try putting them through high school literature, much less college. Etc.

    I think there’s a certain appeal to this approach for some libertarians and conservatives, partly because we’re used to arguing against quota systems which are used to try to guarantee equality of outcome.

    However, even though we know that people do not have equal abilities, it seems to me that we are better off trying to educate people as if they do have equal abilities — partly out of a sense of idealistic fairness, but mostly because it seems to me that the evils of telling someone “You’ll never amount to anything much, so you go over there and learn to be a manual worker. Don’t bother with any math, science or literature.” are much greater than the evils of “wasting” resources on trying to teach people things that they don’t end up mastering very well.

    That’s not to say that I think we should pour infinite resources into _making_ them come out equal. After all, they probably won’t anyway, since people don’t actually have equal abilities. But it seems to me that “anyone could amount to something” is an important ideal to maintain, because although it is true that in a worldly sense not everyone will amount to anything, I’m not sure that we’re likely to be as good as we think we can be about telling who is capable of amounting to something, and the injustice of closing people off from opportunity strikes me as much greater than the “waste” associated with offering them opportunity they don’t fulfill.

    Hopefully that’s a little more clear…

  • And much is expected from those to whom much is given. At the end of the day, those lacking in abilities who keep on keeping on may be astonished to find themselves first, for some of the last will be first and some of the first will be last.

  • “Some people take from this that we should test people at an early age, determine their abilities, and not bother wasting resources on trying to teach people things they won’t be able to do.”

    I believe that is exactly what we ought to do… though the tests must be able to account for psychological problems that can inhibit academic performance.

    “but mostly because it seems to me that the evils of telling someone “You’ll never amount to anything much, so you go over there and learn to be a manual worker. Don’t bother with any math, science or literature.” are much greater than the evils of “wasting” resources on trying to teach people things that they don’t end up mastering very well.”

    It surprises me that the person who is usually a libertarian pragmatist in economic matters is making this argument now 🙂

    If the contention here is that specialized programs necessarily result in the message to less intelligent students that they will “never amount to anything”, I say that is illogical.

    Social attitudes, which are malleable, have more to do with how this kind of education would be received than anything else. Having a blue collar job that pays well is not “amounting to nothing” – especially if a person has a family, has friends, has a faith and a community.

    It is only “amounting to nothing” by the snobbish bourgeois standards of the upper classes. “Everyone must go to college” is how the white upper class, at the same time, a) validates its mode of existence, b) declares it superior to others, c) relieves its misplaced guilt that not everyone shares in the boundless privilege of their world.

    I firmly believe we should have a tracked educational system, because it would be much better for the many who actually do fall through the cracks. How many “gangbangers” and “trailer trash” would have benefited from a solid “blue collar” trade school track, instead of having the smoke of college blown up their bums?

    Society works best, and people function their best, when they have a rough idea of their place and when each social place is respected – not belittled through a complicated, contradictory, and often self-indulgent psychological issue held by people in positions of importance (who have forgotten their own role).

    I do disagree, however, with Murray’s comment at the end about “social problems” – he clearly has a materialist bent on his approach. The wealthy have sins as much as the poor, the educated as much as the uneducated.

    In fact, I believe the sins of wealth and power and intellect are far greater – and so does the Bible, in the Book of Wisdom. The lowly are always granted special pardon by God, while the mighty will suffer a mighty torment for neglecting their duties or abusing their power. The kind of vocational education that Murray is talking about – what 99% of education has become – does not and cannot improve or heal the soul. People with high IQs can be sociopathic monsters.

    But there IS a kind of education that can do it… the more I read Mortimer Adler, Alan Bloom, et. al., I am convinced of that. I think it is a very Catholic notion as well, though none of the Catholic schools teach it.

  • I mean none of the grade schools. But Thomas Aquinas College has the sort of program I am talking about. Only there is no reason it can’t be begun in high school for those who are interested (regardless of IQ).

  • It is only “amounting to nothing” by the snobbish bourgeois standards of the upper classes. “Everyone must go to college” is how the white upper class, at the same time, a) validates its mode of existence, b) declares it superior to others, c) relieves its misplaced guilt that not everyone shares in the boundless privilege of their world.

    And yet it seems that this notion is primarily espoused by the left-wing academic elite, who claim to have the interests of the less forunate as their goal.

    In any event, the premise is very good. People who can’t get into college academically for whatever reason SHOULD NOT BE IN COLLEGE. Therefore, eliminate all forms of affirmative action in college admissions (that is not to say there shouldn’t be FINANCIAL assistance for those who are able to succeed academically but lack the financial wherewithal). Instead, there should be generous offerings for trade schools which would allow those unable to meet academic standards to be materially successful and perhaps build a better life than their parents enjoyed, and especially provide a better future for their own children.

  • Well Matt, we agree 99%.

    I’m not sure it is an exclusively left-wing belief. It was, as Murray points out in other articles, a tenant of the Bush administration via “No Child Left Behind”.

  • “People who are below average…are usually not going to turn around and excel in those abilities ten and twenty years later.” The key word in your sentence, though, is “usually.” You did not say “never.” I think there is a substantive public policy and moral judgement difference between the two.

    The second most important word you used was “excel.” Let me give you an example to make my point: Our local public school system felt that high school PE should not be graded on measures of physical ability (e.g. running, jumping, reach, etc.) because some people had it and others don’t. So, instead, they give “grades” based on just showing up, and so forth, playing non-competitive games and so forth, while claiming that their goal is to turn the students into adults that have a life long dedication to fitness, Yahda, yahda, yahda. (Obviously, if that’s the goal, you can’t measure whether they have excelled at their work, but that’s another topic.)

    The Catholic high school doesn’t measure fitness in absolute terms, either. However, they measure improvement over the semester. Base line test the first day, final test at the end. Various sports and fitness training inbetween. I can’t measure their graduates’ life long fitness either, but over 1/3 of the students turn out for the track team every year and Sports Illustrated rates them the #2 sports high school in the country.

    My point is that, as someone who is, at this point in my life, the policy maker, rather than the student, my goal is to make things better than they would be without me. Our local public school district about breaks their own arm patting themselves on the back about the academic success of their top students. However, longitudinal comparisons show that they take students that come to them well above average academically and the schools turn them into above average students. Is that a good school district? On the other hand, what would you say about a district that takes kids from the 10th percentile on average and moves them over 12 years to the 30th percentile?

    So, coming back full circle, I have some involvement with a local Jesuit Nativity School, a middle school for inner city kids. The typical student comes to them, entering 7th grade, with academic skills at about the 3rd grade level. Six years later, their record is that roughly 19 of their kids out of 20 go to college.

    Can you be anything you want to be? I’m not sure that’s a relevant question. The greater social issue is whether young people are being led to have the motivation to try to be anything. I see a lot of kids who are just drifting. For them, it isn’t a matter of what opportunities are available to them. The issue is whether they are willing to make the sacrifices required to take advantage of them.

  • The kind of vocational education that Murray is talking about – what 99% of education has become – does not and cannot improve or heal the soul. People with high IQs can be sociopathic monsters.

    But there IS a kind of education that can do it… the more I read Mortimer Adler, Alan Bloom, et. al., I am convinced of that. I think it is a very Catholic notion as well, though none of the Catholic schools teach it.

    I do strongly agree with you there. I believe strongly that everyone can benefit from a strong liberal arts/humanistic education up through what I think ought to be about a high school level — and I strongly object to the idea that some people should be sectioned off at the age of eight or ten and told: “You’ll never be able to follow math beyond basic arithmetic, and you’ll have decent reading or writing skill so why bother.”

    I very much like what Adler and Bloom have to say about education, and I looked at going to TAC, though in some ways I think it’s better as a high school approach than a college approach.

    I guess that’s where the “It surprises me that the person who is usually a libertarian pragmatist in economic matters is making this argument now” part of it comes in. Part of my libertarian-ish leaning has to do with wanting to see equality of opportunity. And another part has to do with distrusting people’s ability to predict the future — and thus not wanting to see people cut off from opportunity.

    I want to get back to your point about pursuing a blue collar career not being “not amounting to anything” in a later post, because it leads into some other thinking I want to get into in regards to the modern economy and the problem of inequality. For now, I’ll just stick to saying that I think if you have a liberal arts level education at a high school level, it’s a overall gain as a human being. And I am concerned that when someone doesn’t go to college they often end up putting themselves on a road which makes it a lot hard to hit higher income brackets. How much of a problem one sees that narrowing of opportunity as depents on a lot of other things.

  • Joe,

    I’m not sure it is an exclusively left-wing belief. It was, as Murray points out in other articles, a tenant of the Bush administration via “No Child Left Behind”.

    I said primarily, and I would never deny that Bush was sometimes influenced by the elite on the left (it was Teddy’s bill after all).

  • D,

    “For now, I’ll just stick to saying that I think if you have a liberal arts level education at a high school level, it’s a overall gain as a human being.”

    I agree, but I don’t think it should be subject to testing and grading. A simple pass/fail perhaps, and those who excel can be singled out for honors courses that are more challenging.

    America has become obsessed with grades, with quantitative indicators of intelligence. There is no evidence that it has ever made America a better country.

    Vocational education should be graded, though. No argument there.

    “And I am concerned that when someone doesn’t go to college they often end up putting themselves on a road which makes it a lot hard to hit higher income brackets.”

    Statistically, yes – though returns on educational investment are decreasing.

    It wasn’t this way when industry and manufacturing took place in this country. College-mania is in many ways a consequence of the destruction of real opportunities for blue collar work that was skilled and in demand.

  • I agree, but I don’t think it should be subject to testing and grading. A simple pass/fail perhaps, and those who excel can be singled out for honors courses that are more challenging.

    America has become obsessed with grades, with quantitative indicators of intelligence. There is no evidence that it has ever made America a better country.

    I’d have to think about that. Having been homeschooled in high school, I effectively went without grades, and I don’t think it hurt me in any big ways. But at the same time _some kind_ of measurement of performance is often useful to people, especially highly competitive ones. Still, I’d agree that there’s an over/wrong emphasis on grading and testing often in education.

    It wasn’t this way when industry and manufacturing took place in this country. College-mania is in many ways a consequence of the destruction of real opportunities for blue collar work that was skilled and in demand.

    Agreed, to an extent. I think a bigger influence has been that technological advancements and globalization have allowed modern “knowledge workers” to be far more productive, measured in terms of the dollar impacts of their actions, than much of anyone could be 50 years ago — thus allowing that type of worker to far outstrip blue collar workers. Though I’m not sure to what extent we can do anything about that, or that it would be a good idea to if we tried.

  • As someone in a “blue collar” manufacturing industry, I can tell you that your concept, Joe, of herding high school students who aren’t making it academically into shop class is a quarter century out of date. Vocational education is no longer done at the high school level, although you may find some lingering traces of it. You need high school level math, science and computer skills to succeed in a blue collar occupation these days, because the specific training you need for your career is done at the community college/junior college level.

  • “Shop class” was just an example. And there is no reason it can’t be brought back, that the sort of training one gets at a junior college cannot in fact begin in high school.

    Delayed adulthood is a social problem, not a blessing, as I see it. High school age teenagers are capable of a lot more than modern society gives them credit for. For those not pursuing a “white collar” professional career, there is no reason that trade school can’t be over by the age of 18, with more specialized training occurring on the job.