Thursday, January 17, 2013

Equality and Inequality in the American Tradition

Yesterday, I saw Chris Hayes speak at the Enoch Pratt Library about his recent book Twilight of the Elites.  As I re-read his book the other day in order to freshen up my thoughts and come up with a few questions, I was continually reminded of a passage from one of many lectures by Felix Adler (founder of the Ethical Culture movement and professor at Columbia University) that I read during my dissertation research:

"What we in America understand by equality is equality of opportunity.  We have not even got that, but that is the American ideal—equality of opportunity.  We have not got it because there is no such thing as equal opportunity for our children as long as the economic situation of the parents is so desperately unequal…It means equal opportunity for the unequal to show their inequality…And there are a great many Americans who are infatuated with the belief that that state of society would be most satisfying in which artificial privilege was abolished, in which all the differences of talent, or gift, or energy etc. should have free play….so long as it is my ability, that is, my natural privilege, gives me the advantage of you…And it is not even true that the naturally privileged, that those who are finely privileged come to the top, it is rather those whose elbows are sharp and those whose shoes are shod with iron." ("The Opening of New Horizons in the Future of Mankind," 4/20/1924).

One of the joys of studying history is the encounter of penetrating social criticism that is as relevant today as it was almost 100 years ago.

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