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JT Barbarese, who teaches at Rutgers University, says he was spurred to write this essay after reading a Star-Ledger editorial on a pending bill in New Jersey that proposes to lower the minimum score to pass the high school proficiency test for graduation. [Ed. Note: Barbarese could have also been inspired by the efforts of Gov. Murphy’s Department of Education to warp “equitable opportunities” into “equitable outcomes,” a politically-charged exercise that reduces students to interchangeable bots.]
Years ago, I was teaching at a private prep school in Philadelphia and was charged with creating a writing center by my boss. It was a small school, so it was a small affair — a pair of Apple IIe’s in my homeroom and a small pool of graduating seniors acting as volunteer tutors.
It worked. The tutors guided without doing any editing, which was verboten, and the tutees left — happy.
A year or so into its existence, I created an archive of the best student essays, a rudimentary database of examples and models of strong writing. The “archive” itself was a single drawer in a five-foot filing cabinet in one corner of the room — modest but sufficient.
From freshmen through emergent seniors, kids came and checked out the contents or read an essay on the spot. Some had questions, some sat and read, some went off to find the author, often a senior about to graduate.
One afternoon I got a visit from the dean of students. We were friendly but not friends, or Friends (I was a non-Quaker teaching in a Quaker school), and her subject area was religion, not English. She said she had kept hearing about the Writing Center Archive from students in her religion class and had questions.
Mostly good questions, too. Was it like a lending library? No. The papers themselves never left the archive.
How did a paper end up in the archive? They were referred to me by colleagues in English or Social Studies. Were they anonymized? No, I had checked with the authors and decided there was no need to shield identities since we were a small school, and many of the kids had been together since pre-k.
Were they all A papers? Most, I said, though there were a couple of strong B and B+ papers in the group.
But what, she wondered, about other examples? Why are there no examples of papers that earned Cs, or even Ds? I asked if this was a trick question. No, she said, she was in earnest.
She wondered if it was quite fair to students who didn’t measure up to subject them to what she suggested was an arbitrary measure of “excellence” — her scare quotes. I asked what other “measure” should be used. She suggested, “One that would treat all students equally.”
An amiable conversation instantly soured. Of course, I said, I believed in equality — a Quaker Testimony — but I reminded her of the obvious, that we are not all equally gifted.
She grimaced. Why, she insisted, should one person alone be the judge of excellence?
Because, I replied, grinning icily, I was trained to do just that. If we treated all students “equally,” why give grades? If the school were to adopt a policy that mandated equal grades for all, we would both be out of jobs, wouldn’t we? That was that; she turned and walked out.
Several years later, after I had left for a position at a university, I learned from a friend that the archive, which had by then come to occupy most of that single filing cabinet, had been “laid down,” i.e., dissolved. The center itself soon followed.
Thirty years on, I realize I should have cited the highest authority I know on equality — Abe Lincoln’s speech attacking the Dred Scott Decision. Lincoln made the clarifying claim that the founders “intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects.”
For sheer transparency and plainspoken vitality, it ends the debate. Inequality is the most persistent of basic human differences. Nature does not distribute her gifts equally. Or fairly, as teachers often remind students who earn As for character but Cs in math.
William Faulkner, a racist, was also a great writer and won a Nobel.
Zora Neale Hurston, another great writer, ended her life unknown, unheralded and broke, scrubbing floors in Florida.
Albert Einstein was a great physicist but not a great mathematician; and Michael Jordan, the Babe Ruth of basketball, was a mediocre baseball player and couldn’t hit the curve.
Modifying standards of merit to satisfy the crowd does nothing to alter basic differences. The humble acorn will still grow into the mighty oak, and nothing, not years of practice, vast wealth, your deepest convictions, or even a great private school education can change the fact that some of us, even some of the worst of us, simply do some thing better than others.