Monday, May 20, 2024
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Individual Initiative: The Key to Our Civic Renewal



In 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced a task force to explore reparations for chattel slavery. Recent polling suggests, however, that even most Californians are opposed to cash payments to descendants of enslaved people. Reparations just aren’t a very American idea – they clash with our commitments to individual responsibility and equal opportunity rather than equal outcomes.

In 1865, the anti-slave leader Frederick Douglass gave a speech denouncing what we might now call “reparations.” “And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall.” he said. “All I ask is give him a fair chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone!”

Douglass continued with a forceful charge: “We may explain success mainly by one word and that word is WORK! WORK!! WORK!!! WORK!!!!” He believed that the American dream could be achieved by anyone – even the victims of slavery – if they put their minds to it and worked hard.

General William T. Sherman’s “Forty acres and a mule” directive on January 6, 1865 is a good example of the kind of reparations we owed freed slaves: a leg up and the ability to pursue the American dream. The order allowed for the confiscation of hundreds of thousands of square miles of plantation land, to be redistributed to newly-freed people. The federal government wasn’t going to farm the land for them, but it was going to give them an opportunity to succeed through their own initiative and resourcefulness.

We need to find similar ways of reinvigorating the American work ethic today.

The best way to do that, in my mind, is to give every American a quality education and the skills they need to succeed in life. We need to take a hard look at our education system, top to bottom, including trade schools and other alternatives, and ask ourselves if we are providing this opportunity for everyone. The answer seems to be “No.”

In a country as rich and accomplished as America, our education system is a disgrace. Test after test shows that our young people are failing in many areas. From reading and math to civics and history, our school system is underperforming dreadfully. Our schools are doing a particularly poor job serving African American students – recent test scores for math among this demographic have declined by 13 percent. This is an unacceptable situation.

So, what to do? Since most young people never go to college, the best place to start is reforming the K-12 education system. School districts should get back to the basics and get rid of all the rest. All students need to have a solid education in reading, math, grammar, and the hard sciences, as well as our country’s founding principles and history. Our young people need to understand the freedoms our country gives them and the rights and responsibilities they have as citizens.

Teachers unions should refocus their efforts on what is best for the children and the teachers. Let bad teachers be fired. Work, as they should, for better wages and benefits that attract top talent. If they have excess funds, use them to help the children, not the politicians.

Schools of education should focus their efforts on providing teachers with quality content rather than just pedagogy. Programs such as the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University and the Center for Constitutional Studies at Utah Valley University are combining innovative ways to immerse teachers in a traditional liberal arts curricula, who will then root their students in Western civilization and the American heritage.

That being said, the vast majority of high school graduates don’t go to college. That does not mean that their “education” should end after graduation. A great array of trade schools, junior colleges, and other training facilities should be available to them. The advisors in high schools should be trained to help each graduate find the best fit for them, not just point out which college would be best.

With this kind of additional training, many can go onto very successful careers, with good incomes, often better than some college graduates, have little to no debt, and do something they enjoy. And it’s a great result for the country, creating a large, well-trained labor pool. This is something well worth working on.  

We owe every American whatever it takes to give them a “fair chance.” That begins, and is based on, a great education and job training, giving them a good place at the starting line.

It’s true that African Americans have faced centuries of discrimination and injustice. From chattel slavery to Jim Crow laws, this country denied them their rights as Americans for far too long. The answer, though, isn’t “reparations” in the form of cash payments. Instead, General Sherman had the right idea: give everyone the opportunity to plow their field, plant seed, and harvest crops through their own hard work and individual initiative.

This article was originally published by RealClearEducation and made available via RealClearWire.