It is absolutely amazing what otherwise intelligent people will say once they embrace the idea that everyone should have exactly the same opportunities in all areas of life (sameness of opportunity).
Last year, for example, French President François Hollande proposed to ban homework to “restore equality.” After all, it’s just not fair that some kids get help from their parents with their homework while others don’t. Children must therefore be denied any extra, unearned opportunities that result from being born to parents who have the time to help them.
Not to be outdone, Slate’s Matthew Yglesias offers a much less fun but even more lethal proposal to level opportunity between the rich and the poor: do away with summer vacation.
A vacation, you see, “costs money, but prosperous parents are happy to spend it on their kids.” Some kids get to go to summer camp for two months, while others are stuck at home.
Since “the existence of summer vacation is a huge barrier to equal opportunity,” Yglesias thinks it ought to be abolished and kids should be forced to go to school year-round.
Let that one sink in for a moment. All school. All the time. Why? Because it’s not fair that some parents can afford more expensive summer vacations for their kids than others can.
It never seems to cross Yglesias’s mind that kids, being kids, can have wonderful summers just by playing with their friends in the neighborhood. The wonders of childhood aren’t accessible only to those who go to expensive camps. All children can embark on fantastic flights of fancy using their imaginations (and maybe a stuffed tiger). By denying children the joys of summer vacations, Yglesias’s proposal would completely ruin childhood for rich and poor kids alike.
What’s more, his underlying logic admits of no limiting principle. Yglesias is in effect proposing to ban any activity that (a) costs money and (b) may in the long run benefit those who can afford to participate in it.
But why leave it at summer? Isn’t it unfair that some kids go to enriching afterschool programs, while others can’t afford to? And what about weekends? Think of all the unfair, opportunity-enhancing activities rich parents can cram into these two-day weekends—all 52 of them!
There’s a better way to help children that doesn’t require forcing them to be in school all the time. Why not focus on improving the quality of education during the existing school year?
Yglesias, of course, would not object to that. But he worries that whatever gains are made during the school year will evaporate during the indolent summer months, those festering sores of inequality that so provoke his ire.
It never occurs to him that even the poorest of parents could simply assign to their kids some good ol’ homemade homework during the summer.
In his inspiring remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast in February, Dr. Benjamin Carson told the story of how his illiterate, single mother, concerned about his grades, would force him to submit written book reports to her. She, of course, could not read them, but her son did not know that at the time.
Of course, to talk this way is to deny that the poor are just hapless victims of economic circumstances. It is to affirm how much they may do for their children (and themselves) without the help of the state. And that’s precisely why you will never hear those who fashion themselves as the high-minded benefactors of the poor speak in this way.
The poet Auden called this the conceit of the social worker: “We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know.”