Commentary: Justice and Equity in Modern Education

by Daniel Oliver


A few days ago, in examining Harvard’s problems and the ghost of its deposed and disgraced former president Claudine Gay, this column wrote: “Education is supposed to be about reading, writing, and arithmetic—even at the college level. Once upon a time, and not that long ago, students at college read the classics to gain knowledge, learned to write stylish prose, and, for those scientifically minded, studied mathematics and became scientists.”

A critic wrote in—as readers are encouraged to do:

This is a window onto a big topic. It’s true that education is about the three Rs. But it is also true that there must be a purpose to learning those Rs. There’s actually nothing formally, and technically, wrong with “Educating students who will create . . . a more just and equitable world.” The real question is, What are justice & equity? They would like it to mean taking our stuff and giving it to other people, after keeping their share. But, to paraphrase the Grinch, Justice, perhaps, means a little bit more . . . . In any case, without a sense of purpose, or with a misdirected sense of purpose, the University will never right itself. And as this is the largest questing of Meaning, it is really a religious question that, having turned their backs on religion, they are utterly incapable of engaging, let alone answering.

Whew! Where to begin? Perhaps with thanking the reader who bothered to write a serious critique of the column—as, to repeat, all readers are encouraged to do.

First, self-defense. The column was not primarily about the purpose of education but about a related field: the chaos, at least the moral chaos, at Harvard. But also, the phrase “students at college read the classics to gain knowledge” was meant, more or less, to include the basic purpose of college education as described by the correspondent.

It is presumed, formally, that college students know how to read and write. In law, that would be described as a rebuttable presumption because, in fact, at many and probably most colleges, students certainly can’t write, and they read almost nothing. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, in their book Academically Adrift, reported that a third of the students in their sample stated that they had not taken a course that required even forty pages of reading per week.

More students than you can imagine are taking courses like (please be sitting down when you read this): “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus,” “Race, Class, Gender, and Media,” and “What If Harry Potter Is Real?”

Clearly, students at those institutions are learning nothing. They would be better off, and far better off, in trade schools or apprenticed to some organization that would teach them skills. But what about students at the tony institutions?

Once upon a time, as this column’s correspondent implies, the purpose of education was virtue. Now, at least at the toniest colleges, it seems to be primarily about getting a job; if not at the Goldman, then at some other institution where the pay is comparable. That is not what is implied in the phrase “reading the classics to gain knowledge.” There is ample opportunity after college to learn the door code to the executive washroom.

Education, traditionally, was about something else: reading the classics (including, of course, history) to learn what other people in other times thought about the fundamental issues of life.

Students read Plato and Aristotle to learn about the centrality of virtue in a life well led. Plato argued that knowledge without virtue is pernicious. What on earth did Bernie Sanders learn in college? Aristotle argued that happiness was a (or the) goal in life, but also that happiness comes from leading a life of virtue.

That Plato and Aristotle lived a long time ago doesn’t make them irrelevant. But we must move on to Annos Domini and its creation, Western Civilization (once upon a time, before the Enlightenment, called “Christendom”), from which come many or most of the ideas that we used to—and still should—cherish. And the educated person should read dozens of authors, including, inter alia, St. Augustine, Dante, Chaucer, Thomas Aquinas, Shakespeare, and Milton.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute says this about the importance of Christianity:

Christian theology established the sanctity of the individual believer and called for obedience to an authority (Christ) higher than any secular ruler (Caesar), ideas that further refined and supported the concept of liberty under law. Christian institutions, particularly the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church in its ongoing struggle with the Holy Roman Emperor and local monarchs, bequeathed to the West the idea of a separation, and therefore a limitation, of powers.

In his obituary of Jacques Barzun in The University Bookman, Mark Malvasi wrote:

Barzun took the long view that only history can provide, and rejected ‘the urge to build a wall against the past’ in ‘revulsion from things in the present that seem a curse from our forebears.’

That is what too many moderns want to do: start over, ignore the history of everything, and curse the United States because of slavery, which they call its “original sin.”

But sin is a religious concept, and in Western civilization, another related and obviously inseparable concept is forgiveness, of which modern crazies seem to have no knowledge or understanding whatsoever. Hence, e.g., the “1619” project and the endless focus on racism and “reparations” for blacks. The left wokies give no credit to the 360,000 to 400,000 Northern soldiers who died in the Civil War to end slavery, nor is it true that today’s citizens are responsible for a “sin” that ended decades ago.

Western civilization gave us the ideas of liberty and individualism, which became institutionalized in, inter alia, constitutionalism and the rule of law. Interestingly, the modern Democrat Party—and probably most of the faculty at Harvard—really don’t believe in either of those concepts.

They don’t like our Constitution because John Adams was right when he said: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Not being religious people, the liberal wokies are frantic to regain control of the Supreme Court so they can rewrite the Constitution. And think of how “In God We Trust” must rankle them!

As far as we can tell, the modern Democrat Party does not believe in equity or justice. Is Donald Trump, now facing four lawsuits, 88 felony charges, and a possible (actually, impossible, of course) 700 years in jail, being treated justly? Is it just or equitable to prosecute grandmothers for picketing abortion clinics but not hundreds of violent Black Lives Matter rioters?

So what are justice and equity? Well, that’s precisely what everyone needs to study, and not just in college—though at least there—but always. As the correspondent wrote, those are really religious questions that, having turned their backs on religion, our universities are utterly incapable of answering.

Do you think Miley Cyrus would know the answers?

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Daniel Oliver is Chairman of the Board of the Education and Research Institute and a Director of Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy in San Francisco. In addition to serving as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Reagan, he was Executive Editor and subsequently Chairman of the Board of William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review.
Photo “Protest” by  Becker1999 CC2.0



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