The precept of equal of opportunity in egalitarian context is defined as an equality of opportunity among all citizens wherein everyone enjoys the equal benefits and suffers the same disadvantages distributed in the means of labor market. Equality in terms of education is quantified at minimum, which implies that the resources projected to one’s education is not directly dependent of the educational cost because it is not directly proportional to the conjecture that educational experiences will yield opportunities for the rewards distributed by the labor market (Cole, 2000, pp. 11-121). The connection I have relied on between the two ideals, however, is normative and practical, rather than logical. There are two ways we could avoid educational equality playing a major role in equality of opportunity, but neither has much appeal. First, we could achieve equal opportunity by limiting everybody’s opportunities greatly. Such a strategy might not require us to focus much on education, since we could ensure that everyone has less opportunity than they would have if they had an education (Ibid, pp. 33-135). The proponent of equal opportunity will not be satisfied with mere equality, but seeks equality at the highest level compatible with the observance of other fundamental values. Second, strictly speaking equal opportunity is attained when some have many opportunities early in life and others have many much later in life. If public policy aims at equal opportunity in this way, then the provision of education might not be an important focus of egalitarians. But this is unattractive.
As with health, concentration on the development of children is a more efficient and reliable method of delivering opportunities than trying to provide balancing opportunities late in life. Furthermore, if equality should not only be achieved but should also be seen to be achieved, a method of delivery that can be monitored publicly with relative ease is preferable. Focusing on what can be delivered to everyone at the same stage of their lives will make this condition much easier to fulfill (Cole, 2006, pp. 52-56). The concept of equality of opportunity I am using here is controversially strong, so stands in some need of defense.
In public life, though not in political philosophy, proponents of equality of opportunity generally mean something much weaker than equality of opportunity to attain the benefits distributed by the labor market. They usually mean just that employers should not be allowed to discriminate against people on bases which are irrelevant to their job performance, such as sex, race, religious or political affiliation. Of course, equality of opportunity does require that there be no discrimination on irrelevant bases. But such a standard is problematic in a number of ways.
An anti-discrimination principle clearly does not amount to equality of opportunity on any reasonable understanding of what ‘equality’ and ‘opportunity’ means (Strike, 1999, p. 54). If Julian and Sandy both have identical natural talents and inclination to exert effort, but Julian is educated only to age 10, while Sandy is put on a route which lets him pass through Harvard Law School, we would place a much higher probability on Sandy’s getting a job in a high powered law firm than on Julian’s getting it, even though there is no discrimination on irrelevant bases at the point of hiring.
Anti-discrimination at the point of hiring is necessary but not sufficient for equal opportunity, because the principle of equal opportunity requires that we compare people’s whole lives, not just discrete interactions. And achieving equality of opportunity over complete lives requires attention to the entire institutional framework within which those lives are lived, not just one particular point of competition (Ibid, pp. 56-57). Unless equality has been maintained in equipping the competitors for jobs for acquiring them, what happens at the point of hiring cannot tell us anything.
Most importantly, though, the moral basis of equality of opportunity, grounded as it is in the concept of desert, supports the strong conception I am using. Some readers friendly to the strong notion of equality of opportunity and educational equality I am deploying will nevertheless be concerned that the focus of the basic argument on the instrumental benefits of education and on labor market competitiveness, supports a certain kind of conservatism with respect both to the curriculum and to the structure of the economy itself.
It seems to support privileging those elements of the curriculum which are focused on the labor market over those that are not: art, music, physical education, and religious education will take their traditional back seat to both the more standardly academic subjects and so-called vocational education (Spring, 2003, pp. 31-32). Should we not, though, aim to educate the whole child, aiming to get children to value their own artistic or musical skills over their ability to do well in the labor market?
The line I am taking also seems to take the economy as it currently is, or as we can reasonably predict it will be, structured, as the framework for which we are preparing children. Should we not be envisioning and preparing children for a more egalitarian, cooperative and less alienated economy, and thereby, perhaps, help to give birth to it? The replies to both these charges have the same foundation. Principles of equal opportunity are, in general, insensitive to the structure of the packages of burdens and benefits for which equality of opportunity is sought.
What we aim for is that, whatever the structure of the packages and patterns of likely outcomes, the competitors for those outcomes do not unfairly face unsimilar outcomes (Ibid, pp. 38-40). This is not a problem with principles of equality of opportunity, but with the idea that they are the only principles of justice. It may well be that the final correct theory of justice comments a great deal on the patterns of outcomes, and requires that they are much more egalitarian than we currently have or than principles of equal opportunity alone would demand.
But when we are considering how to design educational institutions in the world that we actually live in, one in which the most important goods distributed by social institutions are distributed very unequally, we have a duty to children to prepare them for that world, the one that they will actually inhabit, rather than for some other world which they will not inhabit. Of course, children who face certain poor material prospects may have their lives greatly improved by the discovery of skills and capacities which, though economically useless, are intrinsically rewarding to exercise (Ibid, p. 3). But it is no kindness to develop their artistic capacities if that is obviously at the expense of developing capacities which would be a great deal more instrumental for them in the labor market. Assume that a much more egalitarian economic order would be more just than the one that we expect to inhabit. Shouldn’t we use the education of children as one of the means to achieving that order? The problem here is three-fold. First, it is not at all clear how to use education as a harbinger of the new and just order.
Educating the ‘whole child’ may help, but it may not; even teaching children how important material equality is, as a value of justice, may have little effect. The second problem is that, unless we have good reason to think that we shall succeed in reforming the economic order; if in pursuing justice our educational practices have failed to prepare some children for the economic order; then those children have, it would seem, a complaint of injustice against us. We will have failed to implement equality of opportunity, they have been the losers in this failure, and they therefore live in an inegalitarian economy which is doubly unjust.
Third, though, assume that we succeed in transforming the economy (Welch, 2000, p. 8) . No children now have a complaint of injustice: they live in a just economy, which they would not otherwise have done. But they may have a different kind of complaint: a complaint of legitimacy. There is something deeply suspect about using the education of children as the means to achieve goals the legitimacy of which depends on their being endorsable by informed and critical citizens.
This legitimacy consideration is serious, but not, I admit, decisive. Legitimacy and justice considerations are often in tension, at least in an imperfectly just or unjust world, and I cannot offer a theory of which should trump which and when (Ibid, pp. 19-22). Furthermore, it should be clear that even though legitimacy considerations give weak support to a certain kind of conservatism here, they count strongly against an uncritical conservatism.
While we should prepare children to compete effectively in an inegalitarian economy, the legitimacy considerations direct us to enable children to give critical attention to the structures they face. We need to prepare them to challenge the injustice in the world they face even as we prepare them to live successfully within it and, we need to do this even if we think that the world they face is just. I should note, that education is of course not the only good, access to which is important for children to have a full range of opportunities, and equal access to which serves equal opportunity.