Equality in Education

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  • Topic: Equivalence relation, Egalitarianism, Equality
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Equality in Education
Ch.2 of Bryan Wilson, ed., Education, Equality and Society, London, 1975, pp.39-61. I
To speak of equality in education is rather like speaking of equality in love. Young men sometimes wax indignant about the unfairness of their lot, and say there ought to be arrangements whereby the available girls should be shared out equally, so that everyone should get his whack; or, more sophisticatedly, that the most desirable girls should be made to bestow their favours on egalitarian principles, so that the total female talent be fairly distributed and nobody be deprived of his rightful meed of femininity. We smile; not only at the ludicrous incongruity of bureaucrats in the Ministry of Love issuing ration cards to students giving them 2.7 date-points per week, but because the very vehemence of the young men's protestations shows that they do not understand the nature of love or what personal relations really are like. It is the same with education. Learning or teaching are like loving and friendship in being primarily a matter of personal initiatives and personal responses. I learnt because my teachers talked to me and listened to me, often told me things and often tried to see what my difficulties were and help me overcome them, and occasionally inspired me or enraged me or led me to have new insights entirely of my own. And so it is with all pupils and all teachers. In so far as anybody is educated by anyone else at all it is by personal contact and personal commitment. Institutions and syllabuses, examinations and educational authorities may have their part to play, but what makes education a reality is a personal relationship [40] between teacher and pupil, and with personal relationships no questions of equality can arise. Educationalists can ask whether one child has as many books or as many footballs as another child, or whether his teachers have as many `A' levels or as many Certificates or Diplomas of Education. They can also ask whether a certain selection-procedure is fair, or whether, in some specified sense, it gives all candidates equal opportunity of success. But if they become obsessed with these questions or if they make grandiloquent demands for educational equality of every sort, they raise the suspicion that they do not know what education is. For education is essentially the sort of thing to which the concept of equality does not apply. It is easy, and proper, to counter the demand for equality in education with the question `Do you know what education really is?' It is a fair rejoinder, but an ineffective one, because those most vulnerable to this attack are least aware of their own ignorance. And whereas time often tames adolescent anger and teaches young men what love is like and why it cannot be had as of right or assigned on egalitarian principle, educationalists seldom come to know by further experience what education is really about, and continue to talk about it and apply inappropriate concepts to it with a confidence that increases with the passage of time and the distance from the class-room. And, unfortunately, they have great influence. The educational world is a grey one in which those who can, teach, and those who cannot, administrate or pontificate, and the administrators and pontificators are allowed to tell the teachers what to do. In this book, therefore, we address ourselves not to education, but to arguments, often bad arguments, about the periphery of education, not in order to elucidate the concept or give hints about its practice, but to prevent its being prevented by the mistaken pursuit of illusory and inappropriate ideals. II

If we cannot usefully put questions about education, we can about equality. Equality has its original locus in the mathematical sciences. We can say that the number of children in this class is equal to the number in that, or that the two children have got an equal number of marks, or that the amount of money per pupil spent by this...
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