The incredible diversity of the human being is explored here by George Resch in chapter two of The twelve-year sentence: Radical views of compulsory schooling (ed. William F. Rickenbacker, San Francisco: Open Court Publishing, Inc./Fox & Wilkes, 1998 reproduced by permission).
Chapter two: Human variation and individuality
by H. George Resch
Compulsory schooling is championed in the United States on a number of grounds. Of the reasons usually offered in defense of this policy, the most common seems to be that only by such means will we be able to achieve equality--or equality of opportunity. Our purpose in this paper will be to explore briefly such questions as: "Are individual human beings equal or do they differ in significant ways? Can they be made equal, or at least guaranteed equality of opportunity? Can these goals be reached with the aid of compulsory schooling? What effect does compulsory schooling have?"
"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal. . . . " It is hard to imagine that Thomas Jefferson when writing the American Declaration of Independence had any idea of the far-ranging effect these words would have. Is Jefferson's statement true or is it what Plato called a "noble lie"--a statement, false in fact, but which will, one hopes, lead to beneficial results if generally accepted? Or, how accurate is the statement found in the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences that "at birth human infants, regardless of their heredity, are as equal as Fords"?1
The first difficulty in approaching the idea of equality is to learn what is meant by the term. This difficulty has been recognized even by many of equality's most ardent champions. Two American authors of a study advocating a closer approach to equality, while calling it a key value on which everyone ought to agree, admit that "unfortunately general equality is almost impossible to define."2 Similarly, in commenting on this difficulty, Professor Daniel J. Boorstin wrote:
Despite its lack of a precise and accepted meaning, this word "equality" continues to be used as an incantation, the mere utterance of which is expected to command assent. As one commentator declared:
The difficulty of pinning down a precise meaning that doesn't fly in the face of reality is hardly surprising. For when we survey the entire animate world, we find nothing remotely resembling equality. On the contrary, one of the most important facts of natural science is the all-pervasive variation to be found in nature. We find this to be the case among plants and animals, but probably such variation reaches its apex in man. Each individual, despite certain apparent similarities, differs from his fellow men in myriad ways. It is well known, for example, that each person bears a unique fingerprint design by which he may be distinguished from millions of his fellow men, and in recent years the work of the renowned biochemist Dr. Roger J. Williams has increasingly shown that similar variations between individuals are to be found throughout the body. Considering the incredible range in size or capacity of bodily organs that is nevertheless considered normal, Dr. Williams stresses that:
This variation is found in perhaps the most marked degree in the human brain. The late Dr. K. S. Lashley, for years the premier researcher in the area of the brain and nerve functions, summarized the status of our knowledge of inheritance and variation of structure in the central nervous system as follows:
This information leads Professor Williams to conclude that:
A considerable amount of work has been done in this area in recent years by Professor J. P. Guilford. He and his colleagues at the Aptitudes Research Project at the University of Southern California have extended the demonstrations of intellectual factorial abilities to a total of approximately a hundred. We have reason to believe that each of the intellectual abilities is distributed in accordance with a Gaussian curve of normal distribution throughout the population. It is also known that individuals vary greatly in terms of the unique patterns of abilities they possess. Unfortunately, the fact that what we call intelligence is composed of a kind of mosaic of these nearly one hundred separate factors is easily obscured by the assignment of a single numerical value to the "I.Q." Thus, while a given individual might have an extraordinary aptitude in one field he might also be significantly deficient in another.
When men vary so greatly in their physical makeup and in the structure of their intelligence it should hardly be surprising that their behavior patterns vary as well. Biologist Garrett Hardin asks:
If Jefferson should have known better in 1776 than to have written that "all men are created equal" there is even less reason for contemporary scholars to fall into the same error.9 Jefferson might have been expected to observe around him the widespread inequality, but at that time he was without the scientific explanation for that inequality which was provided by the work of Gregor Mendel and his successors. On the basis of Mendelian law we now know that:
No matter in what area we look, then, we find no evidence of equality among men. We find instead the most all-encompassing diversity and inequality. However much men may in some ways seem alike, we find on further examination that this similarity is illusory. The assertion, then, that "all men are created equal" is simply not so. Each has his own unique physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral makeup. We can readily agree, then, with Dr. von Mises when he says that "some surpass their fellow men in health and vigor, in brains and aptitude, in energy and resolution and are therefore better suited to the pursuit of earthly affairs than the rest of mankind."11
This diversity or inequality, far from being a problem to be overcome, is the basis of much of our civilized social order. If all individuals were the same, there would be no division of labor, no trade would take place, and there would seem to be little purpose to any social intercourse. It is the differences between individuals, not their similarities, which provide us with opportunity for personal growth and for an ever-richer social order. As Dr. Rothbard points out:
In view of the all-pervasive variation found in nature, and especially among men's aptitudes, abilities, and characters, what can we conclude about the goal of equality? Our only reasonable conclusion is that it is not only an unrealizable goal but that any serious effort to achieve it could only result in the destruction of civilized society. For "if each individual is unique, how else can he be made 'equal' to others than by destroying most of what is human in him and reducing human society to the mindless uniformity of the ant heap?"13
By virtue of both man's variation and his locational diversity, equality not only cannot be achieved but is a conceptually impossible goal for man. And if equality is an impossible goal, any attempt to reach it will be futile, for "if equality is an absurd (and therefore irrational) goal, then any effort to approach equality is correspondingly absurd. If a goal is pointless, then any attempt to attain it is similarly pointless."14
Even when the difficulties and, indeed, the impossibility of social equality become apparent, however, they are seldom sufficient to cause the votaries of equality to abandon their goal. The demand becomes, not equality per se, but "equality of opportunity." Unfortunately, as with its parent idea, its champions seldom specify with any precision what they mean by such a concept. When it is defined at all it is usually done in the most metaphorical terms, "another elastic phrase which means little or much, according to the explanation."15
Most often equality of opportunity is defined in a very loose fashion as a sense of fair play necessary in playing the "game of life." Thus, R. H. Tawney in his Equality says that:
And, similarly, Blum and Kalven say that "In terms of the justice of rewards, the point is that no race can be fair unless the contestants start from the same mark."17
And Frank Knight, one of the intellectual founders of the "Chicago School" of economics, also "has repeatedly likened social life to a 'game' or a 'contest,' has talked about the 'distribution of prizes,' has mused on what arrangements tend to make the contest 'interesting to participants and spectators,' and has considered the imposition of 'handicaps.'"18 But here, as with so many analogies, we can be seriously misled when we mistake our theoretical and metaphorical constructs for reality. After all, as Dr. Rothbard has pointed out, "Human life is not some sort of race or game in which each person should start from an identical mark. It is an attempt by each man to be as happy as possible. And each person could not begin from the same point, for the world has not just come into being; it is diverse and infinitely varied in its parts."19
So long as individuals, largely as a result of their biological inheritances, vary so greatly, equality of opportunity is simply not possible. What equality of opportunity can there be, for example, between two young people, one brilliantly intelligent and in vigorous good health and the other a mental dullard with a sickly constitution? Is it not obvious that they are marked for different roles in life and that what they need is unequal opportunities in accord with their unequal endowments?
Even if we were to believe that differences in intelligence and character were the result of differing environments rather than heredity, the difficulties in trying to achieve equal opportunity via equal environments for all would be insurmountable. It seems doubtful that if the full dimensions of such an egalitarian policy were known, many would favor it. Such a policy would "require the abolition of the family since different parents have unequal abilities; it would require the communal rearing of children; the state would have to nationalize all babies and raise them in state nurseries under 'equal' conditions."20 But even such draconian measures as these are necessarily doomed to failure, because the various doctors, nurses and other state functionaries involved in the rearing of these children in nurseries, themselves have unique personalities and abilities. Just as no equality of hereditary endowment is possible, neither is a truly equal environment.
It is the supposed ability of universal compulsory schooling to bring about a society of ever greater equality that has come to be its raison d'être. Only if we take our children at an early age, it is argued, and provide them with an equal opportunity through the common schools can we overcome the legacy of social and economic inequality. Yet there is hardly an area in which egalitarian measures are more certainly doomed to failure than in compulsory schooling.
As we have seen, each child is marked with his own unique personality, with mental and emotional interests and abilities differing from everyone else's. One child may display an extraordinary interest and aptitude in music and yet show no particular promise in a number of other directions. Another child may be highly talented in mathematics and the sciences.
This means, of course, that it is precisely those unique qualities of the child that are being developed rather than those qualities he may have in common with others. It means that to the extent that we gear education to the child's own requirements we have education leading not to equality but to inequality, to a greater and greater human differentiation. Human differences and distinctions are thus not eliminated, but heightened and enhanced. In this, education differs markedly from the spirit of democratic equality which, as Everett Dean Martin points out:
"Ah, yes," the egalitarian may well respond, "what you have said is no doubt true. If we deliberately set out to give everyone a different and unequal education, why, of course we shall end up with highly unequal individuals as a result. We could hardly expect anything else. That is precisely why we want to equalize educational opportunity by schooling all children with a common curriculum in public schools. It is by such a process that we can hope to achieve or at least approach equality."
Even by subjecting all children to the same curriculum, however, we would still be unable to achieve the desired equality. The inborn differences among individuals are too fundamental a part of their natures to be obliterated even by a decade or more of scholastic engineering. Compulsory schooling not only fails to achieve its egalitarian goal, but by subjecting all to the same studies in lockstep fashion effectively denies them any real opportunity at all. The Reverend George Harris points out:
It is unlikely, then, that compulsory schooling provides any real opportunity for its conscripted subjects at all. Even if we were, however, to assume that some--or even all--were benefited by it, there would still be no reason to believe that this schooling would "necessarily do anything to diminish the inequalities of either economic class or social status distinctions between groups. Whatever the benefits for the odd individuals, schooling heightens the inequalities as it becomes more efficient in monopolizing the selection of winners and losers."24 The effort "comes to grief, in short, because individuals do not all have the same ability to make use of their opportunities with equal or comparable success."25
Probably the most extensive--and certainly the most expensive--demonstration of the elusiveness and ambiguity of the concept "equality of educational opportunity," and the inefficacy of compulsory schooling to bring about such equality, was provided by the recent Coleman Report. Because of its significance it will be worthwhile to examine the genesis and conclusion of the report in some detail.
The report was undertaken in response to section 402 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964:
The study was conducted by Professor James S. Coleman of Johns Hopkins University, aided by a fellow academician and five employees of the U.S. Office of Education. The result was the second longest social science research project ever undertaken. The project involved the testing of 570,000 school pupils and some 60,000 teachers. In addition, information about the facilities available in 4,000 schools was gathered in elaborate detail. The published findings filled a massive volume of 737 pages, accompanied by a supplemental appendix of another 548 pages.26 Its findings, which have been widely reported in both the popular press and in the scholarly journals, have been extremely upsetting to those who have viewed the public schools as the main agency insuring equality of opportunity in the United States. So shattering were the results, in fact, that the study was itself made the subject of a reexamination by a Harvard faculty seminar during the academic year 1966-1967. The results of this seminar were themselves published in a volume of 572 pages--On Equality of Educational Opportunity.27
Even more interesting than the conclusions which emerged from this study, however, was the way the authors and the U.S. Office of Education viewed the idea of equality of opportunity. On the basis the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which authorized the study, it seems patently evident that the legislative viewpoint was that the denial of equal opportunity was occasioned by the inferior facilities and personnel available to Negro and other "minority" students. This interpretation is supported by the use of the term availability, and it is in full harmony with the then prevailing environmentalist concept of equality of opportunity. This interpretation is also shared by Professors Daniel P. Moynihan and Frederick Mosteller who write:
The authors place this goal of the Office of Education in perspective by noting that
In the course of the study Coleman and his associates considered five varieties of concepts of equality of educational opportunity.30 Of the five they considered, however, only two were used in the design of the study. The first was the concept that prevailed before the study was undertaken:
If the study had confirmed what the academic establishment and the Office of Education had believed--that the Negro and other designated minorities were denied equality of educational opportunity because of the poorer quality of "inputs" in their schools--is it likely that the prevailing concept would have been abandoned? Is it not more likely that the concept would have been retained in the above form precisely because it had been proven "operationally useful" in proving that these minorities had, in fact, been denied equal opportunities, and that this denial was the obvious reason for their consistently poor performance as measured by standardized tests?
What the Coleman survey did find was that no such significant variance in school inputs as had been imagined to exist was to be found. The survey further found that such variance as was found had little relation to the academic achievement of the students. At this point it may be worth quoting some of Professor Coleman's own summary at length:
In terms, then, of the prevailing understanding of what equality of educational opportunity meant, the study should have found that the opportunities enjoyed by the several races were substantially equal, that there had been no significant denial of opportunities "by reason of race, color, religion, or national origins." Instead, the authors, intent upon proving the existence of such deprivation, now changed their conception of equality of educational opportunity to mean equality of school outputs as demonstrated by tests of academic achievement. In other words, so long as all students do not evince equal intelligence by doing equally well in achievement tests we have prima facie evidence of the lack of equal educational opportunity. If one person or one group does less well than another, the cause cannot be some genetic or cultural lack but rather a lack of equal opportunity. And there is the implied responsibility of someone else to make up for the lack. Considering that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 "arose largely out of concern for the status of a specific group: the Negro,"33 perhaps this conclusion is understandable in political terms. In terms of the canons of social science, however, it is a disgrace.
We can readily enough agree with Charles E. Silberman when he says that "the Coleman Report suggests forcibly that the public schools do not--and as now constituted cannot--fulfill what has always been considered to be one of their main purposes and justifications: to ensure equality of opportunity."34So long as individuals vary as they do, there can be no such thing as equality of opportunity. An unequal performance is exactly what we would expect from unequal individuals.
1. H. M. Kallen, "Behaviorism," Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, Vol. II, p. 498.
2. As quoted in Helmut Schoeck, "Individuality v. Equality" in Essays on Individuality, ed. by Felix Morley (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1958), p. 114.
3. Daniel J. Boorstin, The Genius of American Politics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1953), p. 176.
4. George Harris, Inequality and Progress (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Co., 1898), pp. 1-2.
5. Roger J. Williams, You Are Extraordinary (New York: Random House, 1967), p. 35.
6. Ibid., pp. 47-48.
7. Ibid., pp. 48, 50.
8. Garrett Hardin, Nature and Man's Fate (New York: Rinehart & Company, Inc., 1959), p. 188.
9. Noting that the American Declaration of Independence was "drafted without conspicuous circumspection because nothing it said could commit any government to any course of action," Nathaniel Weyl points out that "When he wrote the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson may have had George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights before him with its preamble 'of a fundamental nature,' asserting that 'all men are by nature equally free and independent.'
"If Jefferson chose the cruder formulation that 'all men are created equal,' thus asserting a proposition he believed false, the reason probably was that he needed phrases able to move men's souls. His task was to wage psychological warfare, an area in which veracity plays a notoriously subordinate role." Nathaniel Weyl, The Negro in American Civilization (Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1960), p. 36. For a discussion of Jefferson's views on human inequality see Weyl, op. cit., pp. 35-51.
"Jefferson's phrase, presented as a self-evident truth, was false . . . and so for almost two centuries American thought, with increasing agony and distortion, has been nailed to a cross of revolutionary propaganda, a passing political slogan which its sophisticated author would have been the last to take seriously. Fundamentalist we may no longer be in our religious contemplations. Yet contemporary social theory can yield nothing to mumbling, illiterate, forgotten multitudes in their cringing devotions to antique creeds." Robert Ardrey, The Social Contract (New York: Atheneum, 1970), p 37.
10. Ardrey, The Social Contract, pp. 35, 37.
11. Ludwig von Mises, "On Equality and Inequality," Modern Age, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Spring, 1961), p. 140.
12. Murray N. Rothbard, Education, Free and Compulsory (Center for Independent Education, undated), p. 5.
13. Murray N. Rothbard, Power and Market (Menlo Park: The Institute for Humane Studies, Inc., 1970), p. 158.
15. George Harris, op. cit., p. 21.
16. R. H. Tawney, Equality (London: Allen and Unwin, 1931), pp. 129, 143- 144.
17. Blum and Kalven, The Uneasy Case for Progressive Taxation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1953), p. 85.
18. Leland B. Yeager, "Can a Liberal Be an Egalitarian," in Toward Liberty (Menlo Park: The Institute for Humane Studies, Inc., 1971), Vol. 2, p. 425.
19. Rothbard, Power and Market, p. 159.
"This is one of the reasons why, again and again, collectivists sneer at the institution of the family. It simply does not tie in with the ideal of equality." Schoeck, loc. cit., p. 123.
"Recently reemphasized by sociologists, the central role of the family in the handing down of social inequality has been recognized since the time of Plato.
"In the Republic, Plato indicated that in the just society it would be necessary to take children away from their parents and have them raised by the state, in order to eliminate the tendency toward inherited social privilege. In the early 19th century, Robert Owen specifically proposed that all children, regardless of the class status of their parents, be educated from childhood in state-supported boarding schools. This suggestion was actually advanced by leaders of the New York Workingmen's party of the 1820s and 1830s. In party documents they argued that since the social environment in families of varying wealth and culture differed greatly, the only chance to insure that the children of the poor had the same chance for success as those of the well-to-do was to send all to public boarding schools. Writing in 1830, these early American radicals, anticipating recent sociological research, held that integrating the children of the rich and the poor in the "common" (integrated) school was not enough. For they argued that the most important part of education goes on outside the classroom:
"There are few reformers today who would be prepared to make a suggestion as radical as this one. Perhaps even more than the taking away of children from their parents, the kind of all pervasive moral supervision called for by the New York Workingmen probably seems repugnant even to today's most committed egalitarians. But it is necessary to raise the question of whether these radicals of the 1830s did not see the issue more clearly and reason about it more consistently than many radicals of the 1970s. For if one really wishes a society in which there is not merely formal equality of opportunity but where class background has absolutely no relation to success, one must be willing to pay the necessary price. And that price would appear to include the practical abolition of the family, the suppression of varying cultural and ethnic influences, and a vigorously imposed uniformity in the education of the young. As the Communist experience has shown, the abolition of capitalism, at least in itself, is by no means sufficient." Seymour Martin Lipset, "Social Mobility and Equal Opportunity," The Public Interest, No. 29 (Fall, 1972), pp. 106-108.
21. Rothbard, Education, Free and Compulsory, p. 6.
22. Everett Dean Martin, The Meaning of a Liberal Education (Garden City, N.Y.: Garden City Publishing Company, Inc., 1926), pp. 112-113.
23. Harris, op. cit. pp. 43-46.
24. Colin Greer, Cobweb Attitudes (New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1970), p. 29.
25. Helmut Schoeck, Envy (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 1969), p. 243.
"What is at stake today is the redefinition of equality. A principle which was the weapon for changing a vast social system, the principle of equality of opportunity, is now seen as leading to a new hierarchy, and the current demand is that the 'just precedence' of society, in Locke's phrase, requires the reduction of all inequality, or the creation of equality of result--in income, status, and power--for all men in society. This is the central value problem of the post-industrial society." Daniel Bell, "On Meritocracy and Equality," The Public Interest, No. 29 (Fall, 1972), p. 40.
26. James S. Coleman, Ernest A. Campbell, Carol J. Hobson, James McPartland, Alexander N. Mood, Frederic D. Wainfield, Robert L. York, Equality of Educational Opportunity, 2 volumes (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1966) Superintendent of Documents Catalog No. FS 5.238: 38001.
27. Frederick Mosteller and Daniel P. Moynihan, editors, On Equality of Educational Opportunity (New York: Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, 1972).
28. Mosteller and Moynihan, "A Pathbreaking Report," Ibid., p. 5.
"The Office of Education, which sponsored the research, and Coleman himself had expected to find gross inequality of educational resources between black and white schools and to use these findings as an argument for large scale federal spending to redress the balance." Daniel Bell, "On Meritocracy and Equality," The Public Interest, No. 29, (Fall, 1972), p. 44.
29. Ibid., pp. 29-30.
30. James S. Coleman, "The Evaluation of Equality of Educational Opportunity," in Mosteller and Moynihan, op. cit., p. 147. See also Coleman, "The Concept of Equality of Educational Opportunity," Harvard Educational Review, 38, Winter 1968, pp. 7-22; Edmund W. Gordon, "Toward Defining Equality of Educational Opportunity," and Henry S. Dyer, "The Measurement of Educational Opportunity," in Mosteller and Moynihan, op. cit., pp. 423-436, 513-527.
31. Mosteller and Moynihan, "A Pathbreaking Report," op. cit., p. 6.
32. As quoted in Mosteller and Moynihan, "A Pathbreaking Report," op. cit., p. 20.
33. Ibid., p. 30.
34. Charles E. Silberman, "A Devastating Report on U.S. Education," Fortune, August 1967, p. 181, quoted in Mosteller and Moynihan, "A Pathbreaking Report," op. cit., p. 30.