Pew Forum Faith Angle Conference Key West, Florida
were racially segregated and discrimination was rampant, there were four academic high schools in the city-- three white and one black. When standardized tests were given that year, the black academic high school scored higher than two of the three white academic high schools. Today, exactly a century later, even setting such a goal would be considered hopelessly utopian. Nor was this a fluke. That same high school was scoring at or above the national average on IQ tests during the 1930s and 1940s. Yet its physical plant was inadequate and its average class size was higher than that in the city's white high schools.
Today, that same school has a much better physical plant and per-pupil expenditures in the District of Columbia are among the highest in the nation. But the students' test scores are among the lowest. Nor was this school unique in having had higher academic achievements during a period when it seemingly lacked the prerequisites of achievement and yet fell far behind in a later period when these supposed prerequisites were more plentiful.
This is obviously not an argument for segregation and discrimination, nor does it deny that counter-examples might be found of schools that languished in the first period and did better in the second. The point here is much more specific-- that resources have had little or nothing to do with educational quality. Numerous studies of schools in general have shown that, both within the United States and in international comparisons. It should be no surprise that the same applies to black schools.
Politically, however, the disbursement of resources is by no means inconsequential. The ability to dispense largess from the public treasury has for centuries been one of the signs and prerogatives of power in countries around the world. In electoral politics, it is vital as an element in re-election. But the ultimate question is: Does it in fact make people better off? How that question is answered is much less important than that it be asked-- that we not succumb to social dogmas, even when they are intellectually fashionable and politically convenient.
It is also important that economic and other disparities be confronted, not evaded. Best-selling author Shelby Steele says that whites in America today are fearful of being considered racists, while blacks are fearful of being considered inferior. Social dogmas may be accepted because they relieve both groups of their fears, even if these dogmas neither explain the past nor prepare for the future.
It should be axiomatic that there is not unlimited time, unlimited resources, or unlimited good will among peoples-- anywhere in the world. If we are serious about wanting to enlarge opportunities and advance those who are less fortunate, then we cannot fritter away the limited means at our disposal in quixotic quests. We must decide whether our top priority is to smite the wicked or to advance the less fortunate, whether we are looking for visions and rhetoric that make us feel good for the moment or whether we are seeking methods with a proven track record of success in advancing whole peoples from poverty to prosperity.
In an era when esoteric theories can be readily turned into hard cash from the public treasury, our criteria must be higher than what can get government grants for middle-class professionals. It must instead be what will rescue that youngster imprisoned, not only in poverty, but also in a social and cultural isolation that has doomed whole peoples for centuries in countries around the world. When we promote cultural provincialism under glittering labels, we must confront the hard question whether we are throwing him a lifeline or an anchor.
History, geography, and cultures are influences but they are not predestination. Not only individuals but whole peoples have moved from the backwaters of the world to the forefront of civilization. The late Italian author Luigi Barzini asked of Britain: "How, in the first place, did a peripheral island rise from primitive squalor to world domination?" The story of Japan's rise from a backward country in the mid-nineteenth century to one of today's leading economic powers has been at least equally as dramatic. Scotland was for centuries known for its illiteracy, poverty, and lack of elementary cleanliness. Yet, from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, most of the leading intellectual pioneers of Britain were Scots, and Scots also become prominent in business, banking, medicine, and engineering-- not only in Britain but around the world.
These and other dramatic and heartening rises of whole peoples came from doing things that were often directly the opposite of what is being urged upon less fortunate groups in the United States today. Far from painting themselves into their own little cultural corner and celebrating their "identity," these peoples sought the knowledge and insights of other peoples more advanced than themselves in particular skills, technologies, or organizational experience. It took centuries for the English to absorb the cultural advances brought by such conquerors as the Romans and the Normans and by such immigrants as the Huguenots, Germans, Jews, and others who played a major role in developing the British economy. Their early dependence on outsiders was painfully demonstrated when the Romans pulled out of Britain in the fifth century, in order to go defend their threatened empire on the continent, and the British economy and political structure both collapsed. Yet ultimately-- more than a thousand years later-- the British rose to lead the world into the industrial revolution and controlled an empire containing one-fourth of the land area of the earth and one-fourth of the human race.
Japan's economic rise began from a stage of technological backwardness that was demonstrated when Commodore Perry presented them with a gift of a train. Here was their reaction:
A century later, the Japanese "bullet train" would be one of the technological wonders of the world, surpassing anything available in the United States. But, before this happened, a major cultural transformation had to take place among the Japanese people. A painful awareness of their own backwardness spread through Japan. Western nations in general and the United States in particular were held up as models to their children. Japanese textbooks urged imitation of Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin, even more so than Japanese heroes. Many laments about their own shortcomings by the Japanese of that era would today be called "self-hate." But there were no cultural relativists then to tell them that what they had achieved was just as good, in its own way, as what others had. Instead, the Japanese overcame their backwardness, through generations of dedicated work and study, rather than redefining it out of existence.
Both the British and the Japanese became renowned for their ability to absorb the ideas and the technology of others and to carry them forward to higher levels. So did the Scots. At one time, it was common for Scots to blindly imitate the English, even using an English plow that proved to be unsuitable for the soil of Scotland. Yet, once they had absorbed what the English had to offer, the Scots then surpassed the English in some fields, notably medicine and engineering.
History does not offer blueprints for the present but it does offer examples and insights. If nothing else, it can warn us against becoming mesmerized by the heady visions and soaring rhetoric of the moment.
One of the most seductive visions of our time is the vision of "fairness" in a sense that the word never had before. At one time we all understood what was meant by a "fair fight." It meant that both fighters fought by the same Marquis of Queensbury rules. It did not mean that both fighters had equal strength, skill, experience or other factors that would make them equally likely to win.
In today's conception of fairness, only when all have the same prospects of winning is the fight fair. It was not in The Nation or some other left-wing magazine, but in the neoconservative quarterly The Public Interest that we find opportunity equated with "the same chance to succeed" or "an equal shot at a good outcome"-- regardless of the influence of social, cultural, or family background.
This confusion between the fairness of rules and the equality of prospects is spreading across the political spectrum. Regardless of which of these two things might be considered preferable, we must first be very clear in our own minds that they are completely different, and often mutually incompatible, if we are to have any hope of a rational discussion of policy issues ranging from anti-trust to affirmative action.
To add to the confusion, when prospects are not the same for all, this is then blamed on "the system" or "the rules of the game," as Brookings Senior Fellow Isabel V.