A Land of (Still Imperfect) Opportunity

Watching an ESPN documentary about Mary Decker Slaney, and The Wire, and the Netflix original series “Orange is the New Black“, has me thinking about the American Presidency, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and how illusive equal opportunity still is.

Without a doubt, U.S. citizens have greater opportunity to improve their lives than the average world citizen. And U.S. citizens have more opportunity today than fifty years ago when King and others marched on Washington. Those two points are inarguable, but too many U.S. citizens extrapolate from them to argue that everyone in the United States—young, old, female, disabled, dark, poor, heterosexual, non-English speaking—has equal opportunity to succeed. Thinking that we’ve achieved equal opportunity for all may be the most pernicious myth we tell about ourselves.

I was shocked by a scene from the middle of the Slaney documentary. In one of her best performances ever, she won the 3k at the 1985 World Championship in Helsinki, Finland. Amazingly, there wasn’t a single East African in the race. Today, nine or ten of the fastest ten middle distance women runners in the world are Ethiopian or Kenyan. They have only had the opportunity to demonstrate their excellence on the international scene for a few decades. Now, the international track is a level playing field.

Watching the Wire and Orange is the New Black back-to-back is eye-opening. They remind the viewer just how white and middle class most television is. And the incredible amount of acting talent that resides in every ethnic group. The Wire, about Baltimore’s inner city, had a mostly African-American cast. Orange, set in a women’s prison, has a culturally diverse, predominantly female cast. The writing, acting, and producing on both shows is remarkable.

It makes one wonder how many other just as talented culturally diverse writers, actors, and producers are trying desperately to get their feet in Hollywood’s mostly monocultural door. For every actor we see on a small or large screen there are at least another hundred who are equally talented. The only difference is they lack connections and opportunity. Give black, hispanic, asian, and female actors equal opportunity and they will do memorable, award winning work.

And if that’s true in athletics and the arts, why wouldn’t it also be true in education, business, medicine, politics and every aspect of modern life? It’s laughable that we maintain the myth of equal opportunity in the U.S. when we’ve had 44 in a row male presidents.

We should celebrate the slow but steady extension of opportunity in the United States, but not kid ourselves with claims of equal opportunity writ large. Everyday, some in our communities are told by others that they’re too young, too old, too female, too disabled, too dark, too poor, too queer, too foreign. Refusing to see that doesn’t change reality.

Two Roads Diverge—The Conclusion

The conclusion—Our children and the fork.

What should our children do to increase their odds of enjoying some semblance of economic security?

For the last several years I’ve been preaching a liberal arts education gospel. The message has been that the key to success in our increasingly competitive knowledge economy is a rigorous higher education that develops analytical, writing, critical thinking, and related intellectual skills. Then this mind-blowing article appeared in the New York Times—Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Cheaper Software.

Fork anxiety alert.

E-discovery companies like Cataphora are forcing me to rethink many of my assumptions. In terms of employment success, a college education, even a law degree, guarantees less and less. Instead of starting over with a brand new gospel, I need to supplement my call for a rigorous college education with additional strategies.

One overlooked strategy, self-sufficiency, is beautifully described in the book Little Heathens. Each of our children have to decide whether to follow our model of pursuing competence or expertise in one particular area, and then trading that competence or expertise into money through long work hours, and then handing significant percentages of the money over to others for a litany of products and services including, but not limited to: growing and preparing food; making and cleaning clothes; entertainment; education, hair and related personal care; pet grooming and care; cleaning and repairing bicycles, cars, and homes; tax preparation; counseling and medical care; yard work; personal trainers and life coaches.

Rightly or wrongly, most modern peeps have convinced themselves that their time is worth more than it costs to pay for those types of products and services. But the fork will change that equation for some of our children. What if our children experience under or unemployment, what if their wages can’t keep pace with inflation? What if they have more time than money? Although no one is talking about it, self-sufficiency is a common sense insurance policy in an increasingly unpredictable woods.

In addition to greater self-sufficiency, young people who develop a specific craft or trade will enjoy more economic security because they’ll be able to use their craft or trade to supplement their income or weather periods of under or unemployment. If artificial intelligence or related technological breakthroughs make them redundant for six months or a year, every four or five years over the the course of their adult working lives, my daughters could teach violin to Tiger Mother offspring. Put all of your economic security eggs in the intellectual skills basket at your own risk. Teach your children to lifeguard or teach swimming, to cut hair, to repair bicycles, to landscape, to design web pages, to care for and tutor younger children.

Also, and we’re nearing the end of our journey, agitate and advocate for “life-skills” in your children’s school curricula. We have to push back against the President’s and high profile business leaders’ insistence that all we need to negotiate the fork is marked improvement in math and science education. Truth be told, I’m not very self-sufficient, more handsome than handy, so for my daughters to become meaningfully self-sufficient, I need the help of teachers and other adults in the community.

Where’s the room in the curriculum? Not sure, but independent, Waldorf, and other alternative schools often find room for life skills. The publics would be well advised to turn to their smaller, funkier brethren for guidance. And since I don’t expect that to happen, parents better put their heads together to figure out how to help their little heathens become more self-sufficient.

And to borrow from Sue Sylvester (I shudder if you have adolescent children and don’t get that reference), that’s how Ron sees it.