Equity and the Race to the Bottom
Over the last few years, the rallying cry of “woke” activists has become “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” (often abbreviated to DEI). There is little reason to object to such principles on the surface. After all, America was founded on the principle that all people are created equal. Unfortunately, the meaning of words can change over time.
Rather than the Founders’ vision of equal opportunity for all, the use of the word “equity” today denotes equal outcomes for all. The implementation of this “equity agenda,” however well-intentioned, will lead to terrible consequences.
One of the prophets who warned us about the dangers of this understanding of equity was the great twentieth-century novelist Kurt Vonnegut. In his 1961 short story, “Harrison Bergeron,” Vonnegut imagined a society with perfect equity. “Nobody was smarter than anybody else,” the narrator says. “Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.”
As Vonnegut shows, a society looking to equalize outcomes for all citizens is no utopia – it is instead a nightmarish horror. The only way to guarantee equal results is to handicap everyone so that they perform at the lowest common level. In the terrifying world of “Harrison Bergeron,” for instance, the government burdens ballerinas “with sashweights and bags of birdshot” so they cannot move more beautifully than anyone else.
The push for “equity” in American society today resembles Vonnegut’s dystopia – but nowhere more dangerously than in the education system.
At the university level, DEI bureaucracies have grown to absurd sizes, and they dominate much of campus life. A 2021 Heritage Foundation report found 163 DEI personnel at the University of Michigan, 94 at the University of Virginia and 94 at Ohio State, 86 at the University of California Berkeley, 83 at Virginia Tech, and 80 at Stanford (where Associate Dean for DEI Tirien Steinbach was recently put on leave for galvanizing an unruly protest by confronting a U.S. circuit judge who was trying to deliver a campus lecture).
In a growing number of K-12 schools across the country, such as at Culver City High School in the Los Angeles area, honors classes are being eliminated so as not to “perpetuate inequality.” Proponents of this idea say that some students can still obtain an honors “label” by doing extra work.
But more often than not, teachers are simply slowing down instruction for everyone. Students are increasingly taught at the lowest common denominator rather than being challenged to do their best. As one student recently told the Wall Street Journal, “There are some people who slow down the pace because they don’t really do anything and aren’t looking to try harder.”
Current DEI regulations at the federal and state level, as well-intentioned as these regulations may be, are fostering this approach and handicapping our education system. For example, the Department of Education’s 2022 Equity Agency Plan goes so far as to connect DEI policies directly to federal funding for local schools. In their pursuit of “ensuring equity,” ideologues are killing opportunity for America’s students.
The American Dream is that all citizens will have an equal opportunity to achieve their goals based on their individual talents and hard work. The Declaration of Independence does not guarantee happiness to every citizen – it only guarantees the pursuit of happiness.
But the pursuit of the modern idea of “equity” rather than true equality is simply a race to the bottom. Socialist regimes in Russia, Venezuela, Cuba, and so many other places show that radical egalitarianism simply does not work. America is more successful than these failed experiments because we cling to the principle of equality rightly understood. We cannot let that slip away.
The good news is that many parents are mobilizing against far-left excesses. At the ballot box, school board meetings, and even at the dinner table, parents are standing up and saying enough is enough. They do not want to sacrifice academic excellence for grand social experiments. They want their kids to become educated and ambitious, not indoctrinated and complacent.
Most Americans believe in equality. We want to make sure that everyone has, to the greatest extent possible, an equal place at the starting line. From there, each individual has the freedom to achieve what their desires, ability, and hard work make possible.
Achieving that kind of equality is the American dream, the engine that enables people from any walk of life to realize their dreams. Equity, as activists preach it, trades away this American heritage for abstractions and fantasies. Americans should instead hold fast to the political principles that have guided us to marvelous success and prosperity for nearly 250 years.
This article was originally published by RealClearEducation and made available via RealClearWire.