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October 24, 2013 at 11:00 AM

Dialog on equality of opportunity

Weronika Kozinska

Weronika Kozinska

Weronika Kozinska, 17, a high-school student in Liverpool, England, recently emailed me, asking me questions about a book review I’d written in 2006. (In a wired world, what you write never goes away.)  Our back-and-forth became a dialog on equality of opportunity, a concept I’ve long had doubts about. Here are some excerpts, with her selections in italics.

I am a sixth-form student in England currently working on an extended project baccalaureate on the topic of globalisation and poverty. I recently read your review of “Making Globalization work” by Joseph Stiglitz. You mention in your review that Stiglitz is hardly evenhanded and that his book is “flavoured with a deep distaste for inequality.” Do you think his heavy opinions cloud his judgement and lessen his credibility?

Certainly it influences his judgment. Whether it “clouds” it or “clarifies” it will depend on your judgment—whether you agree with him. I am to the right of Stiglitz. Inequality as such isn’t distasteful to me. I think inequality is the normal human condition, a reflection of the inequalities in the human material. To me, the question is rather, how much inequality, and inequality of what? (Income? Wealth? Consumption? All different…)  It seems to me that most of the people who write about inequality assume it’s bad, or that (following philosopher John Rawls) any deviations from perfect equality have to be justified. My view is that people should have freedom, that I expect their incomes, assets and consumption will be different, and that any actions to take from A and give to B have to be justified.

One of my teachers once said it isn’t equality we should strive for but rather equity, in the sense that we don’t want to be equal, but we deserve equal opportunities. Would you agree? 

Not really. We deserve not to be denied an opportunity for an arbitrary reason, or for no reason, particularly if the denial is by a public agency. So the public schools are open to all. Then again, if you are a parent who has accumulated some money, and you want to send your child to a private school, that should not be prohibited. It’s your money and your child. Your motive may be to give your child an advantage that some other children might not have. So…is opportunity really equal?

But should we be able to buy a good education? Isn’t denying a child a certain standard of education because of his parents’ income just as bad as denying it because of race or religion?

I’m inclined to argue the point of view of the lower class, since my parents don’t have enough money to send me to a private school, not because they spend their money frivolously but simply because they can’t afford it. If I, the student, was able to gain a place at a private school through diligence and hard work, I feel it would be a more even playing field. Education is an important part of any government or economy, if only the rich can benefit from a high standard, anyone born into the lower class will most likely stay there.

The same question arises in health care. The U.K. has the National Health Service. Can you buy your way out with private care? I believe in the U.K., you can. In Canada, the rules don’t allow it—it’s called “queue jumping,” and is considered antisocial. But most Canadians live within 150 km of the U.S., so they can come here — if they have money. And they do.

So… to your question. You ask, “Isn’t denying a child a certain standard of education because of his parents’ income just as bad as denying it because of race or religion?” Really good question. I will try my answer of “no,” though it is arguable the other way.

The state of Washington provides taxpayer-supported free education until university, and there subsidized rates (with about 30% on aid).  The standard of education in the grade schools is the same on paper, but in practice it varies. Here if you work at it—that is, you make a point of moving away from places that are bad, and you pay attention to your child’s schoolwork, friends, teachers, friends’ parents, etc., your child can do pretty well. My son just graduated from the state system, all the way through university, and did very well. Of course, the system ought to be equal for everyone. They try, but it just isn’t.

Suppose I had wanted to send my son to Lakeside, the private school in Seattle that Bill Gates went to. It costs $28,500 a year, with financial aid to 30 percent of students. The aid is generous, but it is not anyone’s right; it is charity. So… should Lakeside be shut down for reasons of social equity?

Bottom line, for me: There should be opportunity for everyone. Good opportunity. But equality is impossible. It will be different opportunities for different folks. And that is all right, as long as the people at the bottom who are really smart and driven have a chance to make it to the top.

Okay, however this ‘type’ of inequality is between decent, good and excellent.

The gap between education in the U.S or U.K. may have faults, but they don’t compare to the education of children in poorer countries. In the U.S., 99% of people over the age of 14 are literate, whereas approximately 37% of North Africans are not. Can we really complain about our higher education opportunities against the likes of statistics which estimate that 64% of children in the Sub-Saharan region aren’t able to go to secondary school because there aren’t enough spaces?

[At this point I changed the subject.] Do you feel that you have a good chance at higher education and success in your life?

Ultimately, I think it comes down to me, how much I’m willing to work to achieve success. But if we’re talking about inequality, then it depends on who I am being compared to. A person with the same abilities as I will have a higher chance of success in a school he or she pays for even if the amount of work is the same, but does the fact that I have it harder necessarily mean I’m in a worse situation? I don’t see it that way. I have to work hard in order to be successful, and that’s the way it should be for everyone, although I won’t deny that I would rather have had the opportunity to study at the likes of Lakeside. Do I feel disadvantaged? Yes. Do I mind? Only a little.

About higher education specifically, financially I believe I have it better than most in the U.S. The British system of bursaries, grants and student loans is great, especially for low-income families… However the value of higher education today is another question. Does a degree guarantee success in life? No, it doesn’t. Does a good education guarantee success in life? No, it doesn’t. Does anything?

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