Individual Achievement and the Common Good


In educational policy and practice, as in a democratic society as a whole, balance is needed between these two goals and their corresponding measures of satisfaction: (1) the liberty and success of the individual and (2) the thriving of the whole (the community, state, and nation) including all its people.  I have added the phrase, “including all its people,” because the misuse of numbers can make “the whole” into something that does not truly include all its people.  Here’s a simplistic example.  Suppose I made a million dollars last year (dreamer!) and you made $20,000, and this year I make two million dollars and you, having lost your job, make nothing.  “We” (the group consisting of the two of us) are doing much better this year, even though financially you are doing terribly.  Our average income has soared.  Doesn’t knowing “we” are prospering make you feel better as the mortgage company forecloses on your house?

So, in a democracy, the whole must include all the people, not an average or sum in which the impoverishment and misery of many people is hidden behind the extreme prosperity of some.  Indicators of national economic success become lies if fewer and fewer people are being paid a living wage.  Remember that term, “living wage”?  These days we are reduced to arguing over the “minimum wage” as the ridiculously rich seek ever cheaper labor to exploit.  We are now told that 23% of children in the United States live in poverty, almost one in four.  We cannot rightly regard ourselves as a rich nation when so many of our children are poor, hidden statistically behind the vast wealth of a small minority of financially elite people.

In my previous post, “Public Education Is Not a Race,” I referred to Stefanie Fuhr’s article in Sojourners magazine, “Public Education for the Common Good,” and recommended it.  Fuhr drew from a contrast between (1) a democracy of desire and (2) a democracy of worth.  She cited as her source for this contrast Philip Phenix’s, Education and the Common Good: A Moral Philosophy of the Curriculum.

What is all this talk about “the common good”?  Don’t we send our children to school so that they, our children – “my child!” – can gain what they need for security and prosperity in life?  I want my child to “get ahead”!  Ahead of your child?  Well, nothing personal, but I have to look out for my own.  You look out for your own.  May the odds be always in our children’s favor (reference to the Hunger Games as a parable for our times).  And if the odds are not currently in my child’s favor, then I want options, I want choices, I want a charter school or a home schooling plan or whatever it takes to put the odds in my child’s favor.

As a parent, should I not look out for the well-being, security, and success of my own child?  Yes, I should, and sometimes that parental responsibility requires my making a choice for my child I may wish were not necessary.  In principle, I want the public school to thrive for the benefit of all the children, but if the public school is a disaster area for its children, then I may have to make a choice I don’t like for the sake of my own child.  This parental desperation is what the privatizers, stealers, and destroyers of public education are exploiting for profit.  On the parents’ part, it’s not always greed and selfishness but fear and love.  I’d like to rescue the whole system but cannot, and it’s now or never for rescuing my child.

Democracy should allow room for the individual to achieve satisfaction, to thrive in life.  I avoided the word “prosper,” even though it can be a synonym for thrive, because we equate prosperity with wealth (of money) which is really only one, very limited, kind of prosperity.  Room for the individual to thrive implies freedom for variation.  That is, the individual must be allowed, encouraged, and enabled to be an individual and to develop as an individual in his or her own particular ways.

But the individual is not an island.  Democracy is “we the people,” not just “I the individual.”  Balance is needed to keep “we the people” from becoming a faceless mass in which individual liberty is lost.  Balance is needed also to keep the individual from becoming autonomous, utterly self-centered, and heedless of the well-being of others and of the common good.  There is no “we” without “I.”  Neither is there any “I” without “we,” but we Americans seem to have trouble understanding and accepting that second truth, so thoroughly have we imagined life to be a competition in which some win while many lose.

To cover up the blatant selfishness of this competition model of life, we speak with some reverence of “equal opportunity,” which is fictitious in practice and irresponsible in theory.  That’s the Hunger Games.   There is no equal opportunity in the United States, and as long as life is seen and lived as a competition, there never will be.  There will, of course, continue to be people who don’t care to win by beating others, who just want to “live and let live,” who might be quite happy if all could thrive and achieve both security and satisfaction in life, but they are the losers in the competition whose peaceful hope is rendered fictitious by the machinations of the rich elite hellbent on taking as much of everything as they possibly can.  The spokesperson for the real players in the competition is J. K. Rowling’s Professor Quirrell in book one of her Harry Potter series: “A foolish young man I was then, full of ridiculous ideas about good and evil.  Lord Voldemort showed me how wrong I was.  There is no good or evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.” (Philosopher’s Stone, 211)

Furh quotes Phenix as saying that the second type of democracy, the democracy of worth, “centers around devotion or loyalty to the good, the right, the true, the excellent.  Devotion is different from desire.  It is primarily other-regarding rather than self-interested.  It invites sacrifice and loyalty instead of conferring gratification.”  This is high-minded stuff, high enough that it may seem beyond reach realistically in any human society, especially one in which individual liberty to strive for personal success is so highly valued as in ours.  But public education is founded upon the balance between individual satisfaction and the common good of the whole people, the society.  We don’t have public education just for the huge collection of individuals (our children) and the satisfaction of those adults who happen to have children in school; we have public education for the benefit of the whole – “we the people,” the nation as well as for the smaller units of the whole, the state and the community.  Democracy depends upon the education of as many as possible of its people.  Public education is a cooperative undertaking, not a competition.  It’s done for the whole people as well as for the individual children, which is the reason we all pay for it and should all continue to pay for it.  Fuhr writes, “‘Race to the Top’ forces states to implement policies in which students, parents, and teachers compete with each other for school funding that focuses on collecting data instead of nurturing a learning environment that supports the common good.”

In my next post, I’ll consider what I regard as Stefanie Fuhr’s most vulnerable point which is also, I believe, her strongest point.  She concludes, “Our public school system is in need of a revolution that is guided by love.  Our children and future generations deserve our devotion to the notion that public education is a common good for all.”  Love?  Wow!  I can hear the laughter from the vultures circling over public education as the hyenas tear it apart.  Next time I’ll explain why I think she’s right, much more right than the hyenas or the vultures can comprehend.

Proper Pride


One side of our training as Americans has encouraged us to believe that all people are created equal, even though we may struggle to clarify just what we mean by this inherent equality. Another side of our training has taught us to practice the cynical belief that, to paraphrase George Orwell’s Animal Farm, all people are equal, “but some are more equal than others.” Justice and equality go together in one part of the American psyche but not in the other.  We love liberty but glorify royalty, root for the underdog but revere the rich and famous.  We talk about equality while maintaining our feelings of superiority or inferiority, based upon our social classes.

When liberals speak of the greed and excess of the very rich, conservatives accuse them of class warfare.  That very label, “class warfare,” voices their belief that the rich are a higher class of human beings – the VIPs, the very important people.  The rest of us are the common folk, the little guys, workers and consumers to be measured and rewarded by percentages.  We are the spectators who get excited when we spot a celebrity in our midst.  We follow the doings of the rich and famous, admiring their glamor and gossiping about their foibles, like house servants in the kitchen while the master and mistress dine.

In the seventh Harry Potter novel, The Deathly Hallows, the house elf named Creature parrots the class pride of the family he “lives to serve” as he contrasts its two scions, Sirius and Regulus Black, both deceased.

“Master Sirius ran away, good riddance, for he was a bad boy and broke my Mistress’s heart with his lawless ways.  But Master Regulus had proper pride; he knew what was due to the name of Black and the dignity of his pure blood.” (DH, 193)

Though he is a slave, Creature nourishes his ego on the sustenance that psychiatrist Donald L. Nathanson identifies as “borrowed pride.”  From his position at the very bottom of his society, he offers a slave’s adoration to the “proper pride” of his masters and mistresses who identify themselves as pure-bloods.  Creature’s servile admiration represents the attitude aristocrats expect from their lessers in human society.  Equality is the effrontery of rebellious slaves, the improper dream of house servants and fieldhands, the pretense to professionalism of public school teachers, the arrogance of labor unions in making demands upon the owners (who sometimes speak and act as though they owned “their” workers and not just the business).

What then is justice if notions of equality are offensive to the proper pride of the very important people?  The aristocratic answer goes back at least as far as Aristotle who explained justice as proportional rather than equal, but really it goes even further to the very dawn of civilization.  The Hebrew Scriptures portray it in the pharaoh of Egypt who scorns the slave-God of Moses and lays heavier burdens upon his slaves because they seem to have time to listen to talk of freedom and so to challenge the class structure supposedly established by Egypt’s gods.

Discussing Aristotle’s ethics in his book, A History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell writes, “We [modern people] think that human beings, at least in ethical theory, all have equal rights, and that justice involves equality; Aristotle thinks that justice involves, not equality, but right proportion, which is only sometimes equality (1131b).”  Russell explains Aristotle’s view of ethics further, “In unequal relations, it is right, since everybody should be loved in proportion to his worth, that the inferior should love the superior more than the superior loves the inferior: wives, children, subjects, should have more love for husbands, parents, and monarchs than the latter have for them.”

Aristotle makes proportional justice sound mathematically pretty, well-ordered, and proper.  He writes:

The just, then, is a species of the proportionate (proportion being not a property only of the kind of number which consists of abstract units, but of number in general).  For proportion is equality of ratios  . . .  (1131.3.30)

From Aristotle’s perspective, the American notion that “all men [human beings] are created equal,” is just plain wrong and can lead only to gross injustices against those persons of greater value.  Russell observes that this Aristotelian understanding of proportionate justice with proper inequality rather than egalitarian justice formed the basis for the thought world of the Middle Ages, when lords were lords and serfs were serfs, but my concern is with the persistence of similar aristocratic views of human inequality in current America.

To be sure, all human beings are not equal in every way.  Consider just the obvious matters of physical strength and stamina, athletic skill, facility with, say, mathematics, and résumé of achievements.  I express my thoughts in writing rather quickly and easily but sing terribly and produce drawings unworthy of a reasonably talented eight-year-old.  I have a good eye and so have been able to hit the object at which I threw, sink jump shots and hook shots on the run, and shoot pool fairly well in my youth; but I take longer than usual time finding the object I seek in a cluttered room.  In contrast, I have a son who can scan the room mentally when he is not even in it and locate (in his mental image!) the object he seeks.

So, yes, we human beings differ one from another, but the issue is equal value and dignity as persons, an equality that forms the basis for equal rights and equal treatment under the law.  American democracy with its one vote per person offends the proper pride of the more important people.  Hence the rightness in the eyes of American aristocrats of efforts to suppress the vote among supposedly unworthy segments of American citizens.  For the aristocratic-minded, the business world’s proportional boardroom voting seems much better: not one vote per person but one vote per share of stock owned.  That’s proportional justice at its simple best!  For the Aristotelian, how much fairer it would seem to restructure America’s election of its leaders on some form of proportional voting that would rid us of these notions of human equality.

Creature the house elf learns in the end what it feels like to find true dignity instead of the borrowed pride of the servile.  As Americans, we are still struggling with that lesson.