No single authority should have the monopoly of judging how valuable a particular kind of education is and how much should be invested in more education or in which of the different kinds of education. There is not—and cannot be in a free society—a single standard by which we can decide on the relative importance of different aims or the relative desirability of different methods.
Perhaps in no other field is the continued availability of alternative ways as important as in that of education, where the task is to prepare young people for an ever changing world. So far as justice is concerned, we should be clear that those who in the general interest most “deserve” an advanced education are not necessarily those who by effort and sacrifice have earned the greatest subjective merit.
Natural capacity and inborn aptitude are as much “unfair advantages” as accidents of environment, and to confine the advantages of higher education to those that we can confidently foresee profiting most from them will necessarily increase rather than decrease the discrepancy between economic status and subjective merit.
The desire to eliminate the effects of accident, which lies at the root of the demand for “social justice,” can be satisfied in the field of education, as elsewhere, only by eliminating all those opportunities which are not subject to deliberate control. But the growth of civilization rests largely on the individuals’ making the best use of whatever accidents they encounter, of the essentially unpredictable advantages that one kind of knowledge will in new circumstances confer on one individual over others.
However commendable may be the motives of those who fervently desire that, in the interest of justice, all should be made to start with the same chances, theirs is an ideal that is literally impossible to realize. Furthermore, any pretense that it has been achieved or even closely approached can only make matters worse for the less successful. Though there is every case for removing whatever special obstacles existing institutions may put in the way of some, it is neither possible nor desirable to make all start with the same chances, since this can be achieved only by depriving some of possibilities that cannot be provided for all. While we wish everybody’s opportunities to be as great as possible, we should certainly decrease those of most if we were to prevent them from being any greater than those of the least fortunate. To say that all who live at the same time in any given country should start at the same place is no more reconcilable with a developing civilization than to say that this kind of equality should be assured to people living at different times or at different places.
It may be in the interest of the community that some who show exceptional capacities for scholarly or scientific pursuits should be given an opportunity to follow them irrespective of family means. But this does not confer a right on anyone to such opportunity; nor does it mean that only those whose exceptional capacities can be ascertained ought to have the opportunity or that nobody should have it unless it can be assured to all who can pass the same objective tests.
Not all the qualities which enable one to make special contributions are ascertainable by examinations or tests, and it is more important that at least some of those who possess such qualities have an opportunity than that it be given to all who satisfy the same requirements. A passionate desire for knowledge or an unusual combination of interests may be more important than the more visible gifts or any testable capacities; and a background of general knowledge and interests or a high esteem for knowledge produced by family environment often contributes more to achievement than natural capacity.
That there are some people who enjoy the advantages of a favorable home atmosphere is an asset to society which egalitarian policies can destroy but which cannot be utilized without the appearance of unmerited inequalities. And since a desire for knowledge is a bent that is likely to be transmitted through the family, there is a strong case for enabling parents who greatly care for education to secure it for their children by a material sacrifice, even if on other grounds these children may appear less deserving than others who will not get it…
Let us by all means endeavor to increase opportunities for all. But we ought to do so in the full knowledge that to increase opportunities for all is likely to favor those better able to take advantage of them and may often at first increase inequalities. Where the demand for “equality of opportunity” leads to attempts to eliminate such “unfair advantages,” it is only likely to do harm. All human differences, whether they are differences in natural gifts or in opportunities, create unfair advantages. But, since the chief contribution of any individual is to make the best use of the accidents he encounters, success must to a great extent be a matter of chance.