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Jewish World ReviewOct. 15,1999 /5 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Thomas Sowell

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Let's hear it for unfairness! -- "FAIR" IS ONE of those nice words that make us feel good -- no matter how much damage or dangers it leads to. The concept has sunk in so deeply that nothing causes such indignation as the charge that some person, policy or institution has been "unfair."

Yet when I hear educational policies discussed in terms of fairness, my reaction is: Thank G-d my teachers were unfair to me when I was growing up in Harlem back in the 1940s!

My seventh-grade English teacher, for example, used to require everyone who misspelled a word to write that word 50 times as part of his homework and bring it in the next morning. Misspell three or four words, on top of the rest of your homework, and you had quite an evening ahead of you.

Was this fair? Of course not. Kids on Park Avenue probably heard those words at home far more often than I did. The magazines and books in their homes probably contained many of those words, while my family couldn't afford to subscribe to magazines or buy books.

Fairness was never an option. The only choice was between the temporary unfairness of forcing us to learn things that were a little harder for us to learn and the permanent unfairness of sending us out into the world unprepared and doomed to failure.

Many years later, I happened to run into one of the guys from that school on a street in San Francisco. He was now a psychiatrist and owned a home and property in Napa Valley. If he wanted to live on Park Avenue, I am sure he could afford it now.

As we reminisced about old times and caught up on the things that had happened to us since then, he mentioned that his various secretaries over the years had commented on the fact that he seldom misspelled a word.

"Mine too," I said. "But, if they knew Miss Simon, there would be no mystery as to why we don't misspell words!"

Although I never finished high school and struggled to make ends meet for a few years before going to college, when I took the Scholastic Aptitude Test I scored higher on the verbal portion than the average Harvard student. That was probably why Harvard admitted me. No doubt much of that was due to Miss Simon and other teachers like her who were "unfair" to me.

What if they had been fair to me and my schoolmate? Where would we be today? Maybe in some halfway house -- if we were lucky.

Some people say that my philosophy is "tough." But it is life that is tough. My ideas are a piece of cake compared to life.

What about the other kids who went to school in Harlem in the 1940s? Their test scores were very similar to those of white kids in similar neighborhoods, sometimes a shade ahead and sometimes a shade behind, but always in the ballpark -- unlike today.

Education is just one of the areas in which the mushy notion of fairness makes those who believe in it feel good about themselves -- at the expense of other people's lives.

We are so used to hearing about policemen warning criminals about their right to remain silent that some of the younger generation may not realize that this is something that never existed during three-quarters of the history of the United States.

Back in the 1960s, both the Attorney General of the United States and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court thought it was unfair that inexperienced and amateurish criminals would make damaging admissions that more savvy crooks and members of crime syndicates would never make. Therefore cops were required to warn everybody, so as to bring the dumbest crook up to the level of the most state-of-the-art mafioso.

There was no thought of the cost of creating this fairness between different categories of criminals. No one asked: How many women are you prepared to see raped, how many neighborhoods terrorized, how many people killed, for the same of this conception of fairness?

A police chief who tried to caution a conference of judges in 1965 about the consequences of such decisions was literally laughed at -- by two Supreme Court justices, among others. How many victims or their widows or orphans would have laughed is another story.

Someone always has to pay the price of fairness, whether in money or in other ways. There are many examples in my recently published book, "The Quest for Cosmic Justice."

This straining for an abstract and impossible kind of fairness and justice is one of the most tragic quests of our time.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate