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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Equality vs. Equal Opportunity–Let’s Not Confuse The Two

In an article in the New York Times (2.10.13) Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani writes about inequality in Nigeria, and how some are brought up in privilege and destined for power, position, and wealth; and others are consigned to lives of service and labor.  She laments this divide between rich and poor and turns to the United State for a more evolved and mature political philosophy.  “All men are created equal”, she rightly quotes as one of our founding principles, but goes on to misinterpret these words as many Americans have.  Our Founding Fathers never meant to say that all men were created equal – that is all people were born with the same intellectual, physical, mental, or social abilities – but that all men had the right to equal opportunity.

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Our country now is obsessed by equality, but in the rush to eliminate all kinds of discrimination, we have diminished and demeaned individual excellence, talent, and genius.  Public schools are organized around the presumption that all children are equal, and that it has been only because of the luck of the draw – i.e. being born to poor, uneducated, dysfunctional parents – that they lag in all measures of achievement.  The clarion call is to eliminate these pernicious factors so that America will become what Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues had originally envisioned – a land where everyone was truly and identically equal.

Of course this is nonsense.  While there are indeed many such pernicious environmental factors affecting child development and adult assimilation into the mainstream, there are just as many genetic and hereditary ones.  While no scientist is willing to put an absolute figure on the nature-nurture equation, all agree that a significant percent of human traits are genetically determined.  A number of researchers, using twin studies, have concluded that 50-60 percent of IQ is gene-related.

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Some children are simply better endowed from birth with many attributes critical to success. They are quicker at understanding, more logical and disciplined in their thinking, more perceptive, more aware of subtle distinctions, able to assimilate, process, and organize complex information, and more determined to learn, to find out, and to solve.

Well-off, educated families will quickly recognize these abilities, realize that they are the fundamental qualities for success in a competitive world and will cultivate, encourage, and promote them from birth.  Equally intelligent children born into dysfunctional families will more often than not languish, their abilities unnoticed.  Of course there are many exceptions, and the autobiographical shelves are well-stocked with stories of famous people who were beaten and abused, put down, humiliated, and exiled to the corn crib; but these are relative few within the mass of today’s millions.

The point is only that there is an important genetic component to intelligence, and that when it is compounded with positive parental influence, the results are impressive.  Money is not the key factor, and recent studies have shown that the children of Asians in the diaspora, regardless of their education, profession, or income, perform at significantly higher levels than native born or other parallel immigrant groups.

America is a socially advanced country because we constantly and persistently try to level the playing field as much as possible – that is, to give intelligent children and adults all the opportunity possible to let them fulfill their promise.  However, most programs have been focused on ‘progressive’ solutions to engineer social equality.  Mission-driven, politically-motivated, government programs to redistribute wealth have never been successful.  Attempts to accelerate the social trajectory of students who will always perform below par have failed miserably.  Affirmative action programs have recently done more to set back the cause of equality than any other program.  While these programs had merit fifty years ago and were responsible for breaking down previously impenetrable racial barriers, they now serve to deceive the very students they purport to help.

Other, more realistic approaches have been to create avenues of opportunity, such as voucher schools, which enable those motivated parents with intelligent children to get a better education than the one they receive from failing public ones.  Rather than increase social service programs designed to provide government support to the underclass – programs which have tended to encourage a confining social immobility and a culture of entitlement – these realists have argued for eliminating them, obliging individuals to return to the competitive principles envisioned by the Founding Fathers.
In any case, we Americans want to assure equality of opportunity, but have differing visions of how to accomplish it.  What is hard for us to accept is the fact that there will always be major differences in ability, intelligence, and performance.  There has been social stratification since the first primitive societies were formed. There will always be  Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Warren Buffett; and there will always be those who mow their lawns, take care of their kids, and clean their toilets. While we may invest time, money, and personal commitment in helping the children of landscapers, maids, and nannies to rise to higher levels of social status and income, there will always be an underclass, those whose native and acquired attributes are simply not sufficient to permit even a slight rise. Nwaubani writes:
In America, all men are believed to be created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. But Nigerians are brought up to believe that our society consists of higher and lesser beings. Some are born to own and enjoy, while others are born to toil and endure.
There is a good side and a bad side to this phenomenon.  On the one hand, such a perception can consign whole classes of people to perpetual serfdom (nothing much new there if one gives only a cursory look at European, Asian, or African history); but on the other its realism can be the foundation on which to build a more just society. The recognition that people are, in fact unequal, can lead to affording them more respect and eventually more opportunity.  As mentioned above, it is the American assumption that all students are equal and therefore should be granted admission to Harvard which is off base.  Instead of affirmative action, an investment in the improvement of the lower-tier educational institutions (community colleges, vocational schools, etc.) would enable students to thrive at the level for which they are best suited.

History has shown that there will always be social classes; and the failure of Communism – the only political philosophy which ignored this historical reality – confirms it.  The acknowledgment of fundamental differences in ability and promise can lead to legitimate and logical social reforms, not passionate but ill-informed attempts to level a playing field which will always have dips and rises.
The farther Nwaubani gets in her article, the more idealistic she becomes:
The average Nigerian’s best hope for dignified treatment is to acquire the right props. Flashy cars. Praise singers. Elite group membership. British or American accent. Armed escort. These ensure that you will get efficient service at banks and hospitals. If the props prove insufficient, a properly bellowed “Do you know who I am?” could very well do the trick.
This somebody-nobody mind-set is at the root of corruption and underdevelopment: ingenuity that could be invested in moving society forward is instead expended on individuals’ rising just one rung higher, and immediately claiming their license to disparage and abuse those below. Even when one househelp is made supervisor over the rest, he ends up being more callous than the owners of the house.
The “somebody-nobody mind-set” may be a contributing factor behind what many see as the endemic corruption in Nigeria, but it is certainly not the only or even most important one.  The drive to be ‘somebody” has been the most common, visible, and unchanging phenomena of human society and the human nature from which it is derived.  We are all competitive, self-interested, self-protecting beings; and our rise to a higher status has always been accompanied by ostentatious displays of wealth.  More perniciously, we like to trample on those beneath us as we scramble to the top, but that too is a by-product of an open, competitive society.

Corruption in Nigeria and in many African countries has more to do with political immaturity, the persistent legacy of colonialism, Cold War politics which created a culture of dependency; modern-day politics where Western leaders, desperate for African success stories, support the likes of Musevani, Meles, and Kagame.  The reasons are endless; but they are not because of the ‘somebody-nobody’ dilemma. 
Economic growth will continue to bypass the majority, the gap between rich and poor will continue to widen, so long as we see ourselves as divided between somebodys and nobodys. Only when that changes will the househelps sing more cheerful tunes.
More to the point, it is idealists like Nwaubani who will make cheerful music – they will continue to whistle Dixie.

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