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In Defense of Liberty and Education for All
How does a society become socially free and have equal opportunity for all its citizens? According to the conventional democratic American belief, all people should be granted the same educational opportunities so that everyone has the fair chance to succeed in society. However, in William A. Henry’s essay, “In Defense of Elitism,” he argues for the archaic belief that society should limit higher educational opportunities because most people do not have the capability to compete in college. Henry wants to scale back the number of college students in America to an accomplished few. As such, Henry contends that the educational standards will ultimately rise, which will make college more prestigious. Upon inspection though, Henry’s views and beliefs are rendered false because his evidence is exaggerated, distorted and inappropriately compared and contrasted to support his claims. In reality, Henry’s beliefs clash with America’s true intentions for a democratic society, which are depicted in Benjamin R. Barber’s essay, “America Skips School.”
The journalist and critic, William A. Henry III, criticizes the egalitarian American view regarding education, which he believes degrades the value and accomplishment of receiving a college degree in an American society. Henry tries to argue this by explaining that there are too many students enrolled in college and that the standards and requirements of courses will as a result decline. The essay argues that obtaining a college education has become too commonplace and that the prestige and honor of higher learning has diminished. Essentially, he thinks the American society has allowed too many unqualified people a chance to earn a degree and he criticizes the public educational system in order to bring back elitism in education.
In America, the number of students achieving University education has grown substantially in recent decades. Henry has noticed this trend in America and that “Half a century ago, a high school diploma was a significant credential, and college was a privilege for the few,” but now, “Nearly 30% of high school graduates ultimately receive a four-year baccalaureate degree”(Henry 122). He believes “30%” is ridiculously high compared to the “typical 10% to 15%” of other first world nations (122). Henry further criticizes the American education system claiming that today “high school graduation is virtually automatic for adolescents… and college has become a normal way station in the average person’s growing up. No longer a mark of distinction or proof of achievement”(Henry 122). Henry’s claims exaggerate the evidence in an attempt to reestablish stringent university admissions criteria, and call attention to the depreciating value of a college education. He distorts the truth by considering education, now days, as effortless or “automatic,” when truly, it always takes a great deal of hard work to learn and become educated for anyone (122). Unlike Henry’s claims, the amount of persistence, dedication, and endurance it takes to finish four years of higher education is universal and will always be considered a “proof of achievement,” because college is always a personal long-term investment and does not depend on how many people actually attend. In addition, Henry’s method of supporting his claim is lopsided because he does not mention the visible positive aspects of the “30% of high school graduates” who earn a degree. Obviously, the recent rise in university attendance undoubtedly shows an overall increase in adolescent concern for higher education and self-improvement. Overall, Henry’s claims about the devaluation of the college degree and the overabundance of college students fall short of convincing because he only addresses the negative aspects of educational opportunities and uses hyperbole to render his argument conceivable.
Aside from Henry’s crude remarks about higher education, he also claims that depriving more people of education can benefit our country in the long run by restoring “general [educational] standards”(Henry 125). He proposes that the standards of education have dropped with the rise of college students over the years. Henry illustrates his point by maintaining that there is a “sheer decline in the amount of work expected in class…. [because the] influx of mediocrities relentlessly lowers the general standards at colleges to the levels the weak ones can meet”(125). Henry bases his claim on the fact that in the 1940’s, at the all girls Catholic Trinity College in Washington, “A course in Shakespeare meant reading the plays, all 37 of them”(125). He uses that information and compares it to the fact that at a particular “fancy” college, a professor recently told him that in his Shakespeare class students only read four plays and “anything more than one a week… is considered too heavy of a load”(125). Henry’s claim is extremely unconvincing because his method of unfairly comparing and contrasting the evidence only explains the “general standards” at two different schools at different time periods (125). It could be true to a certain extent that standards have decreased with larger class sizes, but Henry does not support his claim correctly because of several fatal reasons. Henry describes the standards at Trinity College in the 1940’s but does not compare it to the standards at Trinity College in the present day. This concludes nothing because comparing two different schools, that can naturally have unique standards, does not show the change in standards over the years. Another flaw in Henry’s logic is that he does not report whether the student population increased, decreased or stayed the same over the years in those particular schools. If Trinity College is private and exclusive, it is possible that the school did not increase the class size since the 1940’s to keep their same profile, but we do not know the truth because of Henry’s careless comparison. Therefore, Henry’s weak evidence does not directly compare the changes in “general standards” with larger class sizes, so his assumptions are invalid.
As opposed to the arguments made by William Henry, Benjamin R. Barber takes a totally different view about the importance of higher education. Barber believes in the conventional American egalitarian view and discusses the need for mass education in our society in, “America Skips School.” He declares that the history of American democracy is based on creating a society of educated individuals who have the intellectual ability to live in liberty. Barber argues that public education will make our citizens more knowledgeable and allow them to become more involved in the politics of America, which will create a stronger democracy.
Barber bases his egalitarian claims on evidence for the conventional American view. He uses history as proof that higher education is a necessity for all citizens recalling “Jefferson and Adams both understood that the Bill of Rights offered little protection in a nation without informed citizens. Once educated, however, a people was safe from even the subtlest tyrannies”(Barber 5). Barber understands the genuine purpose for educating a public and that it endows people “the competence to participate in democratic communities, the ability to think critically and act with deliberation in a pluralistic world, and the empathy to identify sufficiently with others and to live with them despite conflicts of interest and difference in character”(Barber 6). Barber’s claim is sound because it agrees with the noble ideals set by our founding fathers and can be applied universally as every country naturally wishes to have a peaceful and educated society. Barber uses logic in arguing for mass public education, quoting two of the most influential founders of our democracy, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Barber knows that in a democracy, the people decide what is best for the nation, and if the nation is uneducated they will make the wrong decisions. Jefferson and Adams warn about those “tyrannies” of an uneducated society, which is why Barbers claims are truthful that education allows people to “think critically and act with deliberation”(6).
To answer the question of how a society achieves equality and opportunity for its citizens, one should totally disregard William A. Henry’s callous remarks and illegitimate claims in his essay, “In Defense of Elitism.” His reasoning for selective educational opportunities tries to divide our country, which will discriminate individuals, amplify class tensions and most importantly negate the democratic principles our country has worked so hard to establish. In contrast, William A. Barber’s realistic and convincing essay, “America Skips School,” highlights the ethical and constructive values of an enlightened American society, which is undoubtedly vital to the survival of liberty and justice.
Barber, Benjamin R. “America Skips School.” The Norton Reader. Ed. Linda H. Peterson, John C. Brereton, and Joan E. Hartman. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993. 454-459.
Benjamin R. Barber introduces the conflict between educational expectancies and societal expectancies on children in America and that society gives the impression that material success is better than educational success. Barber supports his views on society by relating them to the fact that in America “We recommend history to the kids but rarely consult it our selves” and that our nation pays far more money to actors and sports stars than to teachers. The purpose of Barber’s essay is to show that it is not the fault of the children of America for the lack of interest in academics but the fault of society for contradicting what they preach and what they practice. The paper is directed towards government officials who can make changes in our society, educators who want to know the reason for academic deficiencies, and parents who can encourage their children to become more interested in academics.
Henry, William A., III. “In Defense of Elitism.” The Blair Reader. Ed. Laurie G. Kirszner
and Stephen R. Mandell. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996. 121-126.
The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and critic, William A. Henry III, criticizes the egalitarian American view towards education, which degrades the value and accomplishment of receiving a college degree in an American Society. Henry points out that there are more students enrolled in law school than there are law partners in firms and that the standards and requirements of courses have dramatically decreased in recent years which shows that obtaining a college education has become too common place and the prestige of higher learning has diminished. The essay shows that the American society has a “lack of respect for true intellectual and cultural accomplishment” by allowing mediocre students to lower the standards and difficulty of earning a degree and he criticizes the public educational system in order to bring back elitism in education. Henry directs his writing towards government officials and University leaders who may reconsider their mission statement towards making a more efficient and prestigious educational system in America.
Malcolm X. “A Homemade Education.” The Blair Reader. Ed. Laurie G. Kirszner and
Stephen R. Mandell. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996. 185-193.
The African American activist, writer and lecturer, Malcolm X, claimed that intense independent learning in isolation is far more effective than to attend college where there are more distractions that interfere with studying. Malcolm X defines his views on the basis of his own challenges and victories in overcoming his illiteracy in prison and the facts in history that show how the formally educated White man can still act in ignorance and blindness towards other races. The purpose of his essay is to inform individuals that they have the power to change themselves in order to overcome obstacles in life that try to stop them from realizing and living their dreams. Malcolm X’s essay speaks to African Americans who do not realize their full potential and to college students who may want to reconsider their means of getting an education.
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