How Do We Gauge Human Potential?

January 17, 2018

We know Donald Trump is a racist. The ‘shithole’/’shithouse’ controversy adds nothing to what we have known for some time, and has become a distraction from efforts to provide legal status for DACA/Dreamers.

Skillfully or chaotically (we’ll never know) he has used the controversy to advantage in blowing up a potential deal. What fills media attention today? Not immigration but rather this controversy about his crude language.

Also obscured is what Trump has revealed about how he gauges human worth or potential.

What makes one person more valuable than another? Wait, you protest (and well you should), ‘each person is equally deserving of merit.’ Or, more famously, “all men [sic] are created equal”…”endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” True enough, and supremely important, but that doesn’t prevent us from choosing some people over others for certain tasks or opportunities. We do it in hiring, in admissions to colleges, in electing or choosing leaders, even in choosing friends and neighbors. Be honest, now, don’t we?

So how do we gauge human worth? Or perhaps how do we gauge human potential is the easier or more appropriate question to address.

We’ve seen how Donald Trump answers that question. Those who are wealthiest or most successful are those we should prefer, says he in word and deed. That’s why he would prefer to have immigrants from Norway rather than from Haiti. That’s why he would prefer to have Betsy DeVos as education secretary – or why he would prefer any of the other plutocrats he has placed in positions of authority or responsibility. Deep down, it is probably part of why he has signed tax legislation that gives massive tax advantages to the already wealthy: he believes those with wealth will do better things with the money. Trump’s answer is an offensive answer, isn’t it? And it seems far more important to reject what Trump has said on that basis. We cannot allow public policy to be framed by always giving preference to the already successful.

But what is our answer? If we should not prefer those who already have shown external success by whatever means, how should we choose? Choose those who have greater merit? Greater motivation? Better character? If merit is your answer, what is the measure of merit? If character, same question.

Take immigration policy. If we can’t allow everyone to immigrate to the United States who wants to, how shall we choose? Focusing on the Dreamers allows us to sidestep that question. The Dreamers are already here, and they weren’t responsible for their making entry into the U.S. Of course we shouldn’t deport them; of course we should give them a path to citizenship. Once that’s settled, however, to whom should we give preference? It’s a difficult and awkward question.

I’ve encountered its difficulty and awkwardness before in college admissions.

Those colleges and universities that are the wealthiest (largest endowments) are also largely the ones that have the most applicants. These institutions mostly choose those applicants that are already the best educated – the ones who have shown the greatest marks of success in education (high test scores, high grades).

That’s a great deal like Trump’s answer, isn’t it? (I know that’s uncomfortable to say.) We’re a nation that says that everyone should get a good education, but we lavish the most resources on those who are already the ones farthest ahead in education. We do that, don’t we, because we believe those students will turn out to make the biggest contributions to the lives of others: they will be leaders, and wealth creators, and exemplary service providers.

I came to be uncomfortable with this line of thinking in college admissions, especially when I realized those wealthiest/most in-demand institutions (the ones that choose the already best educated) claimed for themselves the title of ‘best colleges’ – those that ‘rank’ the highest. That seemed upside down. I came to admire most those colleges and universities that made the most difference in the capabilities of their students, whatever their students’ starting situations. I came to admire (as best I could discern it) those colleges and universities that helped students develop their potential.

For many decades in immigration we could duck this question of who we should choose because we didn’t try to control the flow. People just came whenever and by whatever means they could. Then the only question we had to answer was ‘what now?’ What efforts should we make to help the newcomers settle here, find a place, make a life? Some thought we should do little: sink or swim. Others thought we needed to show some hospitality.

Now that we are trying to limit and control the flow of immigrants, whom should we choose among all those clamoring for entry? Those already the wealthiest? Those who have waited in line the longest? Those with the greatest potential?

And if ‘greatest potential’ is your answer, how do we gauge human potential?

Surely not by wealth.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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