Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Unfairness in Life and Education

Written by johnleemk on 12:41:54 pm May 7, 2007.
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One of the most important moral traits instilled in us from young is a sense of justice and fairness. Although innately, almost everyone has a sense of fairness — even toddlers who don't know what fractions are can tell you that one slice of pie is larger than the other — this is made explicit by our acculturation to human society.

Now, there are many good reasons for being fair to others. If you give others a fair shake, they will give you a fair shake too. And in the long run, equality of opportunity benefits all of us, because if you deny the opportunity to become a doctor to the wrong guy, you may just die of the cancer he could have cured. (To exaggerate a little.)

The problem is that many of us are led to believe that life is always fair. The purpose of an education is to prepare us for the life we are about to lead — and part of the reason we're supposed to have a "lifelong education" is because we must always learn how to lead a better life.

In school, we have morals about fairness and justice drummed into us from young. This obviously serves a purpose, because an unfair and unjust society won't get very far.

But at the same time, is it really preparing people for life if they end up thinking that life is going to be fair to them? That they should not need to prepare for the worst — that if they give people a fair shake, they will get a fair shake as well?

At this point, a number of people will correctly interject and point out that school isn't as fair to us as they claim. Even teachers have favourites, and everyone knows someone who has gotten away with cheating on a test paper.

But the point is, ideally schools are fair to us — and they certainly try to be fair to us. As a result, deviations from this ideal of justice are treated by everyone as outliers (which they normally are) — and thus the evidence presented to young minds suggests that life will be fair to them if they only play fair.

Unfortunately, life isn't fair to people. Far too much in life depends on luck. You can say the same thing to the same person at different times, and get different results. (Just imagine presenting a proposal to a boss who is in a bad mood, and a boss who just got promoted.)

And we haven't even considered that the moral conditioning of our schools does not prevent many people from acting unfairly in life. Some people, like the ill-tempered boos, don't do it on purpose; others intentionally act maliciously to get ahead.

But regardless of actual intent, the effect is still the same: life is not fair. So why do we persist in this charade in our schools, acting as if life will always be fair to us?

Because it still serves a purpose: to encourage as many people as possible to be fair to one another, and ameliorate the ill effects of the gods playing with us for their sport.

And yet, it hardly seems fair to cocoon our young and shelter them from the unfairness of the real world. Like it or not, bad things happen to good people, and it seems to me that not enough people realise this — or at least take it into consideration when they think. (Assuming they do think, of course.)

I think the solution is for educators to be more open and explicit about the truth. They shouldn't teach students by treating them unfairly (though this makes a good moral experiment — a few decades ago, some psychologists arbitrarily divided test subjects into prisoners and prison guards, and within a few weeks, the conditions in this fake prison were almost as bad as those in Abu Ghraib).

What educators ought to do is to tell students that although they should be fair to others, they should never presume that others will be fair to them. Plan for the worst, and hope for the best.

Of course, there will always be those pesky students who ask why we should be fair to people who might not be fair to us. The answer, I hope, is simply enough: because if nobody is fair to anyone, then we would be all poorer for it than in a society where at least some people are fair to some other people.

This does not dovetail with the idealistic shell we would necessarily like to shelter our children in. But it fits better with reality, and would, I think, prepare students for the injustices of a real world without turning them into Machiavellian schemers.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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