Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs and Steel provides a provocative rebuke to what I think is a pervasive, almost irresistible conclusion for most of us, i.e., “The people in power wield it because we are superior.” Diamond contends instead that “the striking differences between the long-term histories of peoples of the different continents have been due not to innate differences in the peoples themselves but to differences in their environments.”
Diamond makes a case (over and over from different angles) that during the last 13,000 years, four mostly chance factors provided some cultures with advantages over others that continue to shape our world:
- availability of domesticable crops and large animals
- east-west orientation of continental axis to facilitate the spread of agriculture
- transfer of knowledge between continents, and
- population size
Only after 400 pages does he take the final step and contend that, indeed, if their locations had been reversed 13,000 years ago, the Aboriginal Australians (the most primitive current day culture) would now occupy most of Eurasia, the Americas and Australia, and the original Eurasians (from whom white Americans descended) would be “the ones now reduced to downtrodden population fragments in Australia.”
While I am suspicious of such a politically-correct conclusion because of its attractiveness, I do believe that on any scale—local, national, international—what we do with our advantages in life is more important than how we got them. We have to believe that “to whom much is given, much is to be expected” and use our advantages for the greater good, not hoard them and boast about them.
I briefly tutored a ninth-grader a few years ago at an urban high school whose web site prominently displayed the tag line, “Where Every Student is College Bound.” On a tour of the school, the principal took our new group of tutors into a classroom and asked the students, “How many of you are planning to go to college?” The principal pointed to the one student who hadn’t raised his hand and asked, “What about you?” When he said, “I want to go to barber school,” the principal replied, “Well, good for you! Okay.”
So I’m thinking, “I’m confused. In practice it’s okay for a student to have plans other than college, but the school feels compelled to proclaim that everyone there has the same plan. Which is it?” I think you can guess that I agree with the former and disagree with the latter.
Isn’t this type of posturing a contributor to our lack of rational policy discussion in many areas? Have buzz words and catch phrases completely overwhelmed our ability to recognize the need for nuance? As the Wizard of Oz said in the musical Wicked, “There are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities, so we act as though they don’t exist.”
BTW, the last time I looked, the high school in the anecdote had removed the tag line above from the masthead of their web site, but they were still conflicted about the point. The school’s mission statement said, “The staff will empower students to graduate in four years and successfully pursue college, armed forces, or employment training to become productive citizens of a global society.” But under the heading, “What We Expect,” it still said, “At ______ High School, every student is college bound.”
Overstating your point–even if it’s a good one–only serves to undermine it.