Equality is the foundation of a just society. In theory and in statute, everyone is equal in the eyes of the law even as, in practice, we often fall short. However, even if fully applied, strict equality will not deliver the optimal society.
Why? Because even though we may be equal under the law, no two of us are alike. What each of us can best offer—and what we most need—varies. Every person makes different economic, intellectual, and cultural contributions; each requires different benefits. Which is why, when I envision the world I’m working towards, I more often speak of equity. Equity is the foundation of a fair society: one in which everyone has the resources to become his or her best self.
The value of striving beyond equality—to equity—became clear to me while observing the most fair-minded humans I know: kindergarteners.
My two children are a rare breed; they actually grew up Cambridge. The city renowned for over 20,000 college students nurtures very few youngsters. Which is unfortunate, because I found their public-school experience excellent.
When my children were in grade school, I walked around the corner and picked them up from school three afternoons a week. Note the privilege of time, safety, and flexibility nested in that single sentence. Every time I entered the Haggerty School I was struck by the genial buzz of incipient chaos. The place bore no resemblance to the ordered silence of St. Joseph’s School, which I attended as a boy. I dismissed my incomprehension quick as it registered. I don’t pretend to know anything about progressive educational methods. What I did know was that my children seemed happy, curious, thriving. That seemed enough.
A quick chat with their teacher, greeting other parents, stopping at the mom-and-pop across the street for a snack. Collecting another child or two for afternoon play, or perhaps farming out mine own. Even at the time, our urban neighborhood seemed idyllic. In retrospect, it assumes the aura of dream.
It takes a lot of rules, discussion, and general gnashing of minds for a place like Cambridge to retain its progressive liberal chops. That’s particularly true in the public schools, which are integrated by race and socio-economic status. Every public grade school includes the same percentage of children of color and those who qualify for free lunch. This objective has led to a complicated system of magnet schools, neighborhood schools, and immersion schools. Before our eldest began kindergarten, we learned how the system worked, yet chose the simplest path: our neighborhood school.
The Haggerty School had a particular niche within the Cambridge system: a focus on mainstreaming that resulted in a high percentage of inclusion students. In the 1990’s, about quarter of Haggerty students had IEP’s (Individual Education Plans). From the start, my children’s classmates included autistic boys and Downs syndrome girls, as well as kids distributed by skin shade and household income. The great thing about this mélange of four- and five-year-old’s is that Kindergartener’s acute sense of fairness can figure out how to all get along much better than us jaded old folks.
Apropos of its inclusionary focus, the motto of the Haggerty School is: ‘Everyone is different. Everyone belongs.’ A simple statement that conveys that equity is more complex than equality. Even for kindergarteners, equity can be a tough sell. Everyone getting the same thing is clearly fair. Everyone getting what they need is fair in theory, but results in children getting different amounts: of attention, of latitude, of snack. Why Josie was allowed to behave in class differently than my son took a lot of explaining, on the part of his teacher, and me.
Which gets to the crux of why equity is so much more difficult to achieve than equality. If everyone’s inputs and outputs are not the same, who decides that they should be? If everyone’s needs are different, who decides who gets what?
This is the point where my ideology soars beyond the practical; where I transcend the history of human experience to reach beyond selfishness, avarice, insecurity, and fear. I believe that each person should be able to determine what they will contribute, as well as what they need. Rubbish? You say. Anarchy? Complete societal breakdown?
Possibly. Probably, in the short run. But consider this. If people truly believed there was enough to go around (which there clearly is) and that it would be distributed fairly (which it clearly is not), then we wouldn’t feel compelled to save and hoard. If we actually trusted that we’d take care of one another, we could stop reacting to each other in wary suspicion. If we could participate meaningfully in our society, we’d realize it’s healthier to be engaged than to be a passive consumer.
This is a distant dream. One that requires more than a complete overhaul of society as currently structured. It requires evolutionary rewiring to stop eyeballing each other in fear and instead abet each other in sympathy. It won’t happen in my lifetime, or in any of yours. But I’d rather strive toward a positive direction than capitulate to the divisive posturing of our current so-called leaders.
We live in a society that provides equality in theory, if too often in name only. Let’s work to lock that equality in and make it real for all. Then, let’s move beyond equality, and work towards equity.