The Push for Equality Punishes Academic Excellence (and Every Other Kind)


Last October Media commentators across America sniggered that French President François Hollande was vying for the youth vote when he proposed to ban homework in the French school system.

The President claimed that, out of concern for equal opportunity, homework should be done during school hours rather than at home, since requiring homework favors wealthy children whose parents have the time to help their children or more money to hire private tutors.

Many Americans probably think this goes against simple common sense, since the story has been reported with humor and sarcasm in the American media. After all, one might ask, why don’t the French require all children to eat the same breakfasts, play the same set of sports, or be raised by parents with the same level of education, since such factors also have an impact on school performance? Hollande could be accused of taking the quest for equality too far.

But this kind of objection misses an important question: why are we concerned with inequality to begin with? If another student gets better help on his homework than I do, how does that hurt me? Some might say that I will face stiffer competition for future jobs. While this is true, it misses the fact that the number of jobs available is not a fixed pie. The better the education my classmate receives, the more likely he is to be the next Bill Gates or Andrew Carnegie, creating thousands of new jobs. If nothing else, the skills he learns in school might help him become a better programmer of software I grow up to buy, or a better mechanic for the car I grow up to drive. Whatever his profession, his enhanced performance is likely to benefit me.

Notice how president Hollande is not proposing any measures to actually improve the quality of education. Contrary to his rationalizations, this policy would not help the poor. What it actually does is punish parents for being concerned with their children’s education—including poorer parents. Parents with modest means often save up for tutoring, or put in extra effort to help their children, especially if they are deeply committed to their child’s future. But Hollande’s goal of “equalization of opportunity” purposely impedes kids whose parents push them to achieve.

We might laugh at this proposal as just more French silliness, but the fact is that many Americans advocate the exact same standard of morality. One of the Occupy Wall Street movement’s main talking points has been decrying the gap between the “1%” and the “99%.” President Obama’s response to the “fiscal cliff” was to raise taxes on top wealth producers even though it wouldn’t make a dent in the deficit and would stifle future investment. We might mock the French when they punish academic achievers for the sake of equality, but we punish achievers in business under the same moral premise.

As it is with education, the poor are better off, not worse off, when the rich get richer. Wealthy investors have expanded their fortunes by bringing sophisticated technologies like smart phones to the market, but now because their profits grew as their market widened, even those of less modest means can afford an ease of communication once reserved only for the affluent. As Valery Publius observed in the Undercurrent last year:

Yes, the scale of this difference in incomes is probably historically unprecedented. But so is the scale of the innovation that has created this new wealth. It has never before been possible to sell a new “app” for $1.99 and become a millionaire virtually overnight. Who is hurt if the downloaders enjoy their software, and its producers profit?

A concern about inequality—in education or in wealth—treats intelligence and prosperity as social ills equal to illiteracy and destitution. This is the moral philosophy of egalitarianism, a philosophy (or pathological string of rationalizations) that seeks destruction of the good as an end unto itself. Until we reject the idea that equality is intrinsically good, we will have no grounds to mock its more ridiculous (i.e. its more consistent) expressions.

Posted by on January 10, 2013. Filed under Culture, Winter 2012-13. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
  • Jennifer Snow

    There was *at least* one study indicating that giving out homework has a very weak correlation with academic achievement at best, particularly in grades K-6. Granted, the studies cited in this overview study were all considered flawed:

    Not that I think the rationalization for this policy is a GOOD one, or that the government should be involved in dictating this kind of thing ANYWAY, just that you may be shooting the wrong target, here.

    • Martin

      When would one study? Create? I always felt that the MOST important part of learning was at home, in your room, with your books and notes- working things out until you’ve “got it”.

  • Jet Spygul

    Are you seriously using an irrelevant quote made by some French politician as a strawman in order to push for higher inequality? This is the most ridiculous leap in logic I have ever seen. See if this makes sense:

    1. Some guy says we should eliminate homework, for dubious reasons

    2. People who are pushing for a fairer society should go off themselves immediately. RICH people make the world go ’round, and therefore we should nullify all efforts to help poor people, because when I break my car, a mechanic can fix it, and when I need software, an engineer can make it.

    But wait, what about all those people that can’t afford a car? What about all the people that can’t afford the hundreds of dollars in fancy hardware (ipads, etc) in order to download a $1.99 app? Look at all these people that are still stuck where they are, because no one afforded them the opportunity. You can’t possibly think that it is good for American society when half the country can’t afford the stuff that rich people are trying to sell. You can only live in a fantasy world for so long. Eventually you will have to come out of your bubble.

    You are framing this as a “oh no, something is being taken away from the rich” situation, when in reality, it’s about giving the poor a better chance. Do I agree with the French guy? Hell no. But, you are delusional if you think that Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs achieved success because of homework. If anything, it’s the opposite; their free time contributed to their success. You only earn free time by not having 3 crappy jobs to work just to put food on the table.