“All Men are created equal,” said Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. We Americans, who are the first to try to live by this idea, have had nothing but trouble with it. The very idea is fraught with problems. If it means that God has created all men (never mind women or slaves) equally, how can we explain babies born with dreadful defects that prevent them from ever being “equal” to the able-bodied? And if we look around at the distribution of mental, physical, and talent gifts, it is apparent that we are certainly not all equal.
If we regard this equality as not something created, but something attempted under the law: that all people (now women and minorities included) must have equal rights under the law, we have something worth attempting. Of course, even under our law, equality is not guaranteed because in our system, justice is subordinated to proof, and that proof is in the hands of very unequal lawyers and some very unequal judges (some of them, alas, elected).
The notion of equality has dogged us from the beginnings of our country. The founding fathers were found hypocritical by those who noted that we were a country practicing slavery. Even “Founding Mother” Abigail Adams, noted to her husband that “the ladies” were not being included in this equality.
Even the way that we extended democracy did not further real equality of talent. Under President Andrew Jackson, male voting was expanded from land-owning and educated White elites (like the country’s founders) to every White male, educated or not. The electoral process during the mid-19th century reflected this expansion; elections were bought—often with a ready supply of liquor. Our lackluster presidents reflected our lackluster voters until President Lincoln, a fortunate fluke, was elected.
With the addition of extending voting rights to every Black man (under law, but quickly blocked in reality), the country had universal suffrage for adult males. Educated women were still excluded, although they played a major role in promoting the suffrage of black males. They themselves remained in the status of minor children until 1920, a right they won by a majority vote of one senator whose mother threatened him with mayhem if he didn’t vote for women’s suffrage.
Economist Robert L. Samuelson addressed equality’s current difficulties in a column called “Ditch College for All.” He traced the admirable program that permitted World War II veterans to get college degrees—adding thousands to the middle class and unprecedented prosperity for the majority of Americans. This success has promoted the idea that all children should have college degrees. Should they?
Young people are encouraged to go into debt to get “a degree,” with the notion that this would provide a good-paying job. Furthermore, universities that have thrived on this influx of too many students and lavish government grants, have jacked up tuitions. Many colleges have dumbed down the curriculums to accommodate students unprepared for college. Damage has been done to the entire educational system, just like the damage from the notion that all Americans should own homes.
In my generation, university education was reserved for the moneyed class and to those exceptional students who received scholarships and worked their way through school. With scholarships and work, many like me got degrees with no debt. We have lost much by not retaining this system. I have taught university students who had learned little in high school, including critical thinking and ability to read and write intelligently.
Instead of equality meaning “the same,” how about equality meaning equal opportunity to develop to one’s best ability? We need more technicians, more truck drivers, more plumbers, more electricians – none of these requiring a four-year academic program. They may well be more valuable to society than an Ethnic Studies major.
Around the world “elections” are held in countries with no history of equality. Egyptian women, illiterate and clueless, had to ask election monitors “who should we vote for?” What kind of election is that? And how equal will they be now that they have elected an Islamist?