Like ineradicable fungi spreading across a diseased body devoid of inoculants to fight it off, there is a growing educational malfeasance taking root in many of our nation’s public schools that few seem to have the moral courage to speak out against. Honors Programs are being eliminated or are being considered for elimination on the premise that they discriminate against the non-gifted, most of whom fall into minority groups. The elimination of such programs is being defended in the name of equity and recognition.
The theory behind the “deleveling” of subjects such as English, social studies, biology, math and science, and history is to give all students the opportunity to engage in rigorous instruction. In the highest-performing school district in Rhode Island, Barrington High School has been in an uproar over the cancelation of such courses. Many of them have since been restored.
The school had been moving into a “one universal design for learning,” or one curriculum for students of varying abilities. The “universal design” is seen as a way to offer equal access to a rigorous curriculum to traditionally under-represented groups.
In San Diego at the Patrick Henry High School, more than 150 parents protested the school’s decision to eliminate eight advanced and honors courses from its offerings, including advanced English, History and Biology. The school’s principal, Michelle Henry, announced a more equitable program that will be part of a district pilot of “Honors for All.”
Parents have rejected the program on the grounds that equity does not mean giving each person the same thing; rather, it means giving everyone the opportunity to reach their potential. The Honors for All Program has been criticized by one parent who said that it “has no difference as to who can enroll in the class, and the honors part of it is actually a project.”
Other parents complained by saying: “This is how scholarships are allocated, so scholarships that actually pay for that college come from a weighted GPA.”
New York City is gradually phasing out its controversial gifted and talented student program after years of debate that such exclusive classes added to the further segregation of students. A new program called Brilliant NYC promises to provide a more equitable model that will allow children to reach their full potential. The new program, according to the Department of Education, promises to abolish the test administered to 4-year-olds before they can enter kindergarten to identify gifted and talented students. It was replaced by an accelerated instructional model in the Fall of 2022 that served around 65,000 kindergarteners.
My sense is that the pauses in abandoning some of the honors programs are only temporary. But let us stop here and reflect on the morality of the rational discrimination that occurs from having honors programs that single out exceptionally talented and gifted children. Not all human beings are equal. We are equal before the law—and that’s about where equality starts and ends. We are not all equal in intelligence, moral prudence, frugality, perseverance, discipline, athletic prowess, focus, drive, resilience, persistence. Many of the aforementioned characteristics are reinforcement virtues that hone and refine the talents and gifts we are either endowed with, or, that we acquire and cultivate by our own efforts. In any event, such virtues are often responsible for the outcomes and consequences of actions pursued by everyone including the talented and the gifted. Even among the gifted there is a hierarchy and a pyramid of ability that ranks people superior to others in various skill sets and intellectual capabilities.
The moral purpose of Honors Programs that single out the gifted and talented does not lie in their social utility value: that they will one day maximize the well-being of the greatest number of people. The moral value of such programs is contained in a single concept: justice.
Justice does not simply consist in punishing wrongful or harmful behavior, or in restoring reparative claims to those wrongfully aggrieved. It also consists in rewarding the good for exercising and manifesting virtuous acts in the world. We reward the good because it is deserving of being rewarded.
The de-levelers, those attempting to abolish honors programs for gifted and talented students, are inverting that pyramid of ability by reducing all of humankind to the lowest common denominator of its least competent members. They are attempting to extract unequal results from unequal causes and to grant equal rewards for unequal performance.
The enterprise is an egregious attempt to glorify mediocrity on the grounds that individuals from certain demographic groups are either congenitally incapable of aspiring to achieve the level of excellence that would be demanded of them to gain entrance in stand-alone honors programs, or (as has been alluded to by several educators) black students simply do not see themselves in such programs because not enough people who look like them are enrolled in said programs.
One can try to raise the cognitive capabilities of minority students to meet the standards of an honors program; but if they do not, that is no excuse to dwarf and compromise the minds of those who are superior in intellect. An athletic coach would not lower the grueling training regimen of his athletes who face fierce competition from rival teams because some team members were simply unable to meet the standards.
This, though, is the problem when any life sphere becomes democratized—be it education, entertainment, arts and culture, or now, even travel. One sees a leveling effect taking place and the most vulgar, crass, mediocre and substandard of behaviors, pedestrian tastes, and thoughtless judgments replacing refinement, elegance, elitism, and meritocracy in the best sense of those terms.
What can we expect from the gifted students who literally have been canceled in the name of sub-standard and average students whose mediocre cognitive template becomes the standard used to adjudicate all disputes and determine operational values they must adjust themselves to? The toughest of giants among the gifted will transcend the cult of mediocrity that enshrines the working philosophies of K-12 government schools. Those among them who are self-motivated, self-directed and have self-contained egos will see in reason the malarkey behind this egalitarian equity movement. They will cultivate their minds in private, fuel their own drive and not take any of the “universal design” seriously. They will adduce themselves as evidence of the utter stupidity of the ways in which they are being forced to dwarf their minds into twisted pieces of putty to fit the one-size-fits-all programs for the cognitive ballasts designed to weigh them down. Filled with the plenitude of their own brilliance, such students are forces of nature and outliers who will survive.
Most, unfortunately, will shrink into lethargy, plagued by a chronic sense of betrayal by the custodians of their minds who sold them out. The emotions of contempt and revulsion are what they will feel as their spirits run dry and there is no cultural fuel to keep them going; nothing but the lifeless, ever-growing swamp of mawkish sentimentality out of which emerges “universal designs” to accommodate and stifle potential minds and their possessors who will be made to feel out of order for pinning their aspirational identities on anything other than mediocrity and baseness. Frederick Douglas, the former ex-slave and great American writer and orator wrote: “There is power in the human mind, but education is needed for its development.”
Trapped, entombed, and feeling as if they are living on a dead planet where all around them is futility, a growing grievance industry and a cult of entitlement fostered by those whose needs are legitimized by the paucity of their ability and imagination, such gifted students will sink into existential boredom and give up. They will give up on life’s better possibilities, on the glory of their burgeoning minds, and the sense that the world was made for them to fashion it in a magnificent vision they were beginning to formulate. They will converge on convictions which will be confirmation of what they knew deep down before they started: that meritocracy in America is dying; that it pays to be a victim; and that those mediocrities are cash cows milking the system and flattening the culture with their philistinism.
Somehow, those of us who have fought the battles need to find them; we need to pick them up and offer them the spectacle of our own lived lives as aspirational models on which they can pin their identities. Battered as such lives may be, we need to tell them that the struggle is worth it. The battle is theirs to fight and to win. We must tell them the alternative is death and that they must choose life. But to win their confidence and to inspire them we must continue fighting for them and, primarily, for our lives. We must show them our victories and let them partake in them. If they are willing to be fellow fighters, we must let them know that, as in our own lives—failure and defeat are not options.
Jason D. Hill is professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago specializing in ethics, social and political philosophy, American foreign policy, and moral psychology. He is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center. Dr. Hill is the author of five books, including “What Do White Americans Owe Black People: Racial Justice in the Age of Post-Oppression.” Follow him on Twitter @JasonDhill6.