Inequality out of Equality in the Classroom

Equality has always been one of the most fundamental of American ideals. In fact, this country was essentially birthed from the very premise that all men were created equal.

And in many respects, America has managed to uphold this standard, with welfare to the poor, health care for the sick, trial for the guilty. For despite the growing shortages in jobs and respectable celebrities, what this country still has in plentiful abundance are mechanisms designed to alleviate those in need and, at times, take from those with excess, in order to maintain this relative sense of “fair.”

However, it is not difficult to see that there is something profoundly ironic about this methodology. For it can be readily observed that in order to enforce equality, one must often use inequality; that in order to be fair, one must paradoxically be unfair, by, for instance, disregarding those that are capable in order to aid those that are not.

For students, this reality is commonly observable inside the classroom setting.

Due to the wide gradient in intellect within their audience and the customary lack of resources to cater to this overwhelming variation, teachers are forced to convey their material at a single, uniform level to ensure maximum coverage. Furthermore, with lecture attendances numbering in the several hundreds, and faced with the daunting task of having to facilitate the huge diversity of mental capacities, ranging from the brilliant to the dully uninterested, teachers often decide to make the best use of their time by tailoring their lessons to the “average” intelligence, which — according to the famous bell curve — constitutes the greatest majority of any class.

However, what does this mean for the brighter students, or those that are below the mean?

For although this “middle ground” structure may guarantee that most of the class is accounted for, it poses a clear disadvantage to those that are ahead or behind — the former paying expensive tuition to be taught what they already understand while the latter is left to decipher what they cannot seem to grasp.

By trying to implement a balanced curriculum, instructors have unexpectedly created an imbalanced system, one that feeds the dominant average and starves the smaller remainder.

And yet even in light of this fact, there remains a most puzzling question. How does this gradient of intellect manage to persist? If teachers are restricted by time, energy and money to educate at a compromised “medium,” how is it that, year after year, the student body has still not homogenized into a body of uniform intelligence?

It is because equality itself is merely an idea — a theoretical concept. In an imperfect world such as ours, it is a standard that can never truly be attained. For despite the great wisdom that founded this country, despite what our government so actively tries to promote, and despite what we ourselves would like to believe, the truth of the matter still remains: that all men were in fact not created equal — not by a long shot.

Some of these discrepancies may be genetic, some by how we were raised and others as a result of our personal decisions in life. But regardless of whether it is because they were born smarter, taught how to study by their parents or simply make better use of their own time, the consistency of the highest academic performers — even in spite of classroom equality — just goes to show that what truly separates the good students from the excellent is not the information that they are given, but what they then choose to do with it.

The beauty of America is not the implementation of equality. The beauty of America is our ability to break it — to take what you have and make something better, to go beyond the set norm and be rewarded for your perseverance and initiative. To create inequality.

Much in the same way, we students must learn to receive class material and supplement it with our own studies and understanding. For it means very little to be “average.” Rather, we should strive for “extraordinary.”

Benjamin Hong is a second-year biological sciences major. He can be reached at bshong@uci.edu.