Is Anybody Listening?

I saw a quotation yesterday, and the ideas expressed took me back to my days at uni, when I studied educational policy, and got me thinking. The quotation was:

“Talent is universal. Opportunity is not.”

I do believe that talent (skill, intelligence, memory capacity, imagination, etc.) in varied forms is universally distributed among humanity. But I believe it is distributed somewhat unevenly in that not everyone gets the same talents. For example, no matter how much I practiced I would never have what any reasonable person would consider “athletic ability.” I just lack large motor co-ordination and fluidity. It’s how I’m “wired.” Yet I have other abilities.

We are each somewhat unique in our natural abilities. We each have something to offer community, and what we have varies from person to person. Some form of “talent” extends to everyone. And we offer what we can. This offering is our gift and, hopefully, our delight.

The second part of the quotation is the part I personally find troubling: “Opportunity is not.” No one can deny that the opportunity to develop and extend our varied and wonderful gifts is not universally distributed in society, in our various communities. And this limitation can be as fundamental and as basic as the family to which a child is born. It can be as profound as not having adequate food to eat and simply living in a perpetual state of hunger and malnourishment.

Diminished opportunity can quickly become more abstract as well. Many families struggle to provide the most basic needs of their children and therefor lack the resources to provide rich and broad opportunities to prepare their children to learn, to explore deeper learning and to become deeply curious and self-actuated. Books have been and will continue to be written about this.

Schools in poor areas are often limited in their resources. The wealthy communities make certain their tax base provides abundantly for their children’s schools. And if the resources still fall short, they make donations of time and money. I certainly in no way wish to diminish those opportunities. I merely want all children in all schools to have them as well.

Opportunity to reach the full potential of one’s talents is sadly unevenly distributed to the detriment of communities. So, in our current community structures, when you combine the diverse and varied distribution of talents with the vastly unequal opportunities to develop them to produce wealth and the pursuit of happiness, you simply can not call the status quo “fair.” It is not.

The failure of No Child Left Behind is the assumption that everyone has the exact same talents. A fair system would provide every child the opportunity to find and develop the personal gifts with which they are born. And such a system would then expect them to exercise those gifts to give back to community.

For a society to refuse to address this opportunity inequality is wrong. For those who benefit from that inequality to choose to perpetuate it is more than simply unkind. It is inhumane. And to try to hide the insidious nature of and longterm damage such inequality inflicts on community by labeling those not given opportunity, by structured design, as “lazy” and “sponging off of society” is cruel and just wicked.

Nobody needs to deny a child who is born in poverty and comes to school hungry every day a breakfast to be sure they learn the life lesson that “it sucks to be poor.” This will not motivate that child to learn in school; so, they will not perpetuate poverty.1 The child already knows better than anyone that “it sucks to be poor.” That type of inhumanity breeds resentment and anger, not motivation and opportunity.

Rather, you need to provide that child with a breakfast to remove that powerful barrier to that child’s learning. That’s one small step toward not perpetuating poverty. You need to equally distribute opportunity–the opportunity to come to school prepared to learn. Maslow figured this out decades ago. How has our society so quickly forgotten?

To the extent we have greed, we will also have poverty. I fear that many of those who have aggregated personal wealth are selfishly trying to prevent others from gaining wealth because they fear that in so doing they will lose some portion of that to which they feel entitled. The wealthy do not want taxes to provide everyone with the same opportunities to which they were luckily born. This short-sighted selfishness, this greed, will be the ruin of our communities, our society, our nation. This lack of kindness breaks humanity.

The failure to use taxes to more equally distribute opportunity is at the root of the demise of our democracy. The wealthy are actively buying government influence to reduce their tax obligations to community and enhance their personal financial standing.

Let me go ahead and tell you how this story ends. As fewer and fewer people become wealthier and wealthier, the middle class dies–gobbled up by the wealthy. Then those who are reasonably wealthy are gobbled up by the super wealthy. In unfettered capitalism, wealth cannibalizes wealth. It’s Darwinian economics.

This ends in violence. We already see it beginning with the typical middle American Trump-voter choosing to burn down the existing structures of government (what Trump promised to do but didn’t) that are not providing them with adequate opportunity.

History tells this story over and over. But once again, nobody is currently listening.

  1. Yes, this was actually a real conversation I had several months ago.