“algebra is not an opportunity for the boy who has no turn for mathematics,” George Harris, 1897

I take the following word for word from Inequality and Progress, by George Harris, 1897, pp. 40-49]

ECONOMIC equality through collective production is scouted by a school of social reformers who  make equality of another kind an important part of  their programme. They retain the charmed word, but give it another definition. Not equal possession of wealth, but equality of opportunity is the chief condition of social welfare and progress.  While they regard private property and the· incentives to obtain it as indispensable, they maintain  that prerogatives, monopolies, privileges, inherited  possessions, and the like, exclude many from  opportunities which should be unrestricted. They  believe that the civil and political power of democracy should be employed to open doors that are  now closed. They are of the opinion that the  next task of democracy is the equalizing of opportunity, which men may then use or not use as they  see fit.

Evidently this is another elastic phrase which means little or much, according to the explanation.  When it is defined and qualified into the limits of the practicable, it may perhaps be convenient and  available to express a real need, although the qualifications will be found to take out the equality — the very thing contended for — while, if there is  no qualification, it is contrary to the facts of  human nature and fatal to progress.

Napoleon said that he would open a career to talents. If some persons of talent were by birth  or station debarred from certain pursuits, and  those adventitious disabilities were removed, doors  which had been closed would have been opened.  That would have been a widening but scarcely an equalizing of opportunity. If only members’ of  the nobility could at that time be professors in  the Sorbonne (I am imagining a case) and Napoleon removed that restriction, he would have been  keeping his word by opening a career to talent.  But the Sorbonne faculty would have presented  no opportunity to an ignoramus. Teaching in the  university would not have been an equal opportunity to all Frenchmen. Had he repealed a requirement (I am still imagining a case) that only  Frenchmen could be professors, he would have  opened a door to Englishmen and Italians, but not  to all Englishmen and Italians. The opportunity  would not have been universally equal, but equal  only for those who had the necessary qualifications.  That is, the opportunity would be equal, other things being equal. But other things are not equal  and never can be. Napoleon may have joined in  the national cry of liberty, equality, fraternity, but  he placed a tremendous restriction on the middle  term of that high-sounding phrase when he proclaimed the more modest role of opening a career  to talents.

Two representative examples of equal opportunity are sufficient for illustration: provision for  universal education, and the opening of all pursuits. Education and employments cover the  greater part of the ground. What now is meant  by equality of opportunity in these two most important respects? [In the following I have not included the pages where he discusses “the opening of all pursuits.”]

Education is already so generally provided in  America and other countries, that, without forecasting imaginary conditions, there is no difficulty  in seeing how much equality is given by that opportunity. All classes of persons are supposed to  need education. The public schools, which supply  this need, are open to all persons that are under a  certain age. The same amount of time is given to  all; the same courses are prescribed for all; the  same teachers are appointed to all. The opportunity is not merely open; it is forced upon all.  Even under a socialistic programme it is difficult  to imagine any arrangement for providing the education which all are supposed to need more nearly equal than the existing system of public  schools. Even Mr. Bellamy finds schools in the  year 2000 A. D. [in his utopian novel, Looking Backward, of 1888] modeled after those of the nineteenth century. All things are changed except  the schools. With the advantage, then, of a case  in hand, nothing need be left to conjecture. Now,  the most superficial observation shows that this  actual opportunity, which not only invites but constrains youth to appropriate it, is not and cannot be an equal opportunity for all. Behind fifty  desks exactly alike fifty boys and girls are seated  to recite a lesson prescribed to all. Could opportunity be more nearly equal for half a hundred  youth? But the algebra is not an opportunity for  the boy who has no turn for mathematics. He  may throw his head at the book and stand dazed before the blackboard; but the science is not for  him any more than the Presidency of the United  States is for a tramp — perhaps not so much.  Indeed, the more nearly equal the opportunity outwardly, the more unequal it is really. When the  same instruction for the same number of hours a  day by the same teachers is provided for fifty boys  and girls, the majority have almost no opportunity  at all. The bright scholars are held back by the  rate possible to the average, the dull scholars are  unable to keep up with the average, and only the  middle section have anything like a fair opportunity. Even average scholars are discouraged because the brighter pupils accomplish their tasks so easily and never take their books home.

Educators have not solved the problem of education. Methods are frequently changed, new  studies are introduced, the child mind is analyzed,  and a psychological order of development made  directive. Even the babies in the pre-kindergarten  period must all play with round objects of certain  colors. And so on, from forms to numbers, words, letters, facts, principles. New methods are continually disparaging old methods, but the fact remains  that as yet a common school education, does not  educate. Not one child in ten after three years  in the grammar school speaks grammatically. Not  one boy in five, after six years of arithmetic and  algebra, can work out an actual business transaction correctly. The failure lies, not in method nor  in studies chiefly, but in the attempt at equalization. Methods are capable, to be sure, palpably  capable of improvement. Courses of study may be  too narrow or too broad. Manual training may  well be added to intellectual training. The traditional curriculum assumes that all the boys are  to be bookkeepers and all the girls accountants.  Slight additions of botany and geology assume  that the pupils are to be scientists. The fact that  the great majority of the boys are to be mechanics, farmers, operatives, and day-laborers, and that  the great majority of the girls are to be wives of  workmen, and will have to cook, sweep, make beds,  and sew, or become type-writers, saleswomen, dressmakers, and milliners, has not yet distinctly dawned  on the mental horizon of educators. At a recent  meeting of the National Educational Association,  the committee on rural schools (which more than  three quarters of all the children attend) actually  proposed that instruction should be given in farming and gardening, that school gardens should be  “planned and conducted, not merely to teach the  pure science of botany, but also the simple principles of the applied science of agriculture and gardening.” The proposition is evidently novel and  startling. Nobody seems to have thought of that  before. But, even if education had some sort of  correspondence to future employments, it cannot  educate so long as it is collective rather than selective, that is, so long as it offers the uniformity  of equal opportunity. How much practical knowledge of market gardening will the thirty boys  and girls of the West district gain by digging together in the school garden half an hour a day  with the schoolmistress? In all branches of study  the difficulty is the equalizing. There should be  small groups and instruction adapted to the varying capacities of pupils. The prime necessity is inequality of opportunity in agreement with inequality of individuals. The higher education of  negroes in the South is more wisely conducted  than that of whites in the North. Industrial  training is made as important as book-training.  The announcement of Atlanta University says:  “Combined with the higher education, and compulsory upon all students, is the industrial training – in carpentry, blacksmithing, lathe-work in  wood and in iron, mechanical and architectural  drawing, and printing, for young men; and in cooking, sewing, dressmaking, laundry work, nursing  the sick, and printing, for young women.” Such  education is individual. Each does his own work  by himself in shop and hospital. Reform schools  devote one half day to manual training, and the  boys make as much progress at their books as boys  in other schools who spend both sessions in study.  In some of the cities and larger towns, manual  training has been provided during recent years  with the best results. The training is selective  rather than collective, and therefore succeeds.

Education should be universal, that is, should be  provided for all. But universal is not the same as  equal opportunity. The uniformity of common  schools is a parable which might be applied to all  equalizing of opportunities for large numbers of  people.

On the higher ranges of education, the inequality of equality is yet more marked. Harvard University offers equal opportunities to all. Students  are received from all States of the Union and from  foreign countries, from any race, any class, any  family. The price of tuition is the same for all.  A young man proposes to enter the Freshman  class, but is refused. He expostulates, saying  that he is of the proper age, has been convicted of  no crime, and has the one hundred and fifty dollars in his hand. Here is the fee (fee simple  indeed). But you did not have the right kind of  grandfather. There is a deficiency of gray matter.  You can never be a mathematician, a linguist, or a  philosopher, but you will be a very good mechanic.  If any who choose to do so should attack the courses and be let loose in the laboratories, if the  professors should lecture and experiment before  the mongrel crew, treating all alike, not one in  a hundred would have any opportunity at all. As it is, after examination and selection, the chief  difficulties of collegiate education are created  by the massing of students in large numbers.  Comparison of the ideals of English and American universities is occupied with their power to  make students work and to adapt instruction  to individuals. The lecture method, the tutorial  method, the laboratory and seminar method are estimated from the point of view of adaptation to  numbers.

Small colleges are thought by many to have advantage over thronged universities, because two or  three scores of men can be better taught than two  or three hundred men together. Until recently  the division of large classes at Yale University was  made alphabetically, but is now made by grades  of scholarship, for the good of the lower grades  quite as much as for the good of the higher grades.  Thus both common schools and colleges fail if  they attempt to give equality of opportunity. They  make no external discrimination, and should make  none. Persons are equal so far as class, means,  and family are concerned. But indiscriminate,  uniform instruction is no instruction at all. The  prime necessity is adaptation to the unequal abilities, the various capacities, the different predilections of students. In fact, unequal opportunities  for unequal persons give a nearer approach to  equality than equal opportunities for unequal persons. Offering the same opportunity to an extended number brings out inequalities. When  Oxford University was open only to Churchmen,  many superior men were excluded. When Nonconformists were admitted they took a good share of  the prizes and fellowships, defeating those Church. men who otherwise would have succeeded. The  wider competition and selection emphasized inequality, as equalizing of opportunity always does.

Education is an unfortunate example for the  advocates of equality of opportunity. They would  be more consistent if they demanded unequal opportunity, since that would make the most rather  than the least of those who are inferior. Let everybody go to school, by all means, and in that  respect be equal to every other body. But let the  opportunities in the schools be as unequal as the  persons and as their future vocations. Professor  Paulsen in The Evolution of the Educational ldeal, in The Forum, Berlin, August,  1897, shows that the educational ideal  has been tending towards individuality so that  each may be taught according to his natural endowment, and has been moving away from uniformity  by introducing. natural science, history, and industrial training. He says that the ideal is “vigor  and originality, not equality, nor that uniformity  which disregards the demands of nature; for this  produces weakness and false culture. Let us extend to every individual the liberty of developing  his talents according to the demands of his nature,  in order that he may reach the summit of his capacity.” In this sense culture may and should be  universal. There should be no illiteracy. There  should be a suitable education for all.

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