What single human behavior remains the greatest threat to achieving social justice in our time? The capacity to endure needless suffering and inequity, without complaint, must surely be a candidate. Another possibility must be endemic political apathy whether arising from abject nihilism or from the belief that misery and misfortune are largely in the rearview mirror.
Even a cursory examination of the last century might lead the casual observer to conclude that humankind’s potential for inhumanity places us all in imminent peril despite our material wealth and standard of living. The compendium of psychopathic megalomaniacs and the toll of their innocent victims might lead one to believe that our comparatively “minor” social injustices, here and now, are hardly worthy of note: Mao Zedong, 45-72 million dead; Adolf Hitler, 25 million dead; Joseph Stalin, 20 million dead; Pol Pot, 1.5 million dead!
This is hardly an exhaustive list. Modern despots with death tolls in the hundreds of thousands now approach banality. The acquisition of power is a most volatile solvent to the thin veneer of civilization. So, where do our current inequities in the delivery of education fall on the moral plane when compared to historical rates of human mayhem?
The principal responsibility of education is to remind each generation that our own national aspirations and lofty rhetoric are replete with irreconcilable contradictions in the execution of this great American experiment.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal…” Ask yourself how that worked out for the 500 nations of indigenous peoples that inhabited this continent prior to our arrival, or the twenty generations of Africans sold into bondage, or our countrymen imprisoned in the internment camps for Japanese descendants during World War II. The Equal Rights Amendment remains on hold since the eighties when women are the majority of our population. The evidence suggests that, in practice, some are more equal than others…
The road to each of these transgressions originates, to some degree, in the dehumanization of the “other” and terminates at the preservation of social advantage for the “dominant” cultural force. Those that own the gold write the rules, or so the saying goes. The vestigial remnants of systematic oppression remain readily apparent in the workings of the criminal justice system and the grossly uneven efforts to promote the general welfare of the citizenry.
Devoting the resources necessary to maximize the potential of every child constitutes a moral imperative for every community. Our evolution to the status of a truly egalitarian democracy is irrevocably dependent upon the unyielding political engagement of conspicuously well-informed citizenry intent on never revisiting the errors of our heritage.
It is unconscionable to permit a “present” that is merely “survivable” to become the enemy of a future that is “optimal” for all children.
[The original version of this “Commentary” appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on February 19, 2015.]