Equal Opportunity Yes. Equal Talent No.

I wonder if anyone else is dismayed by that emotional and uplifting television advertisement from a certain university, the ‘Stand Up’ commercial. If you watch enough TV you have heard it. You know, “Stand up if you are a working mother” and “Stand up if you are a first-generation college student.” But my dismay is when the speaker adds, “The world in which we live equally distributes talent, but it doesn’t equally distribute opportunity.” This one sentence just ruins it for me. Why? Because the world in which we live most assuredly does not distribute talent equally. I am sorry, but LeBron James and Dennis Jansen do not have equal talent for basketball. No matter how much I work at it, no matter how much training I get, no matter how much money you or I throw at the task, I will never be as good as LeBron at hoops. Our raw talent is just not equal.
So why say it? Why say talent is equally distributed when it so clearly is not? Perhaps it is like what we tell our children; we tell them they can grow up to be anything they want to be. We say this to young children to encourage them to have lofty goals, and to work toward those goals, and to make decisions and choices in light of those goals. We imply that working hard toward those goals will lead to success, even if we know that success is actually a combination of hard work, talent, and luck. Perhaps we say this to them because we know, rather instinctively, that we can’t do much about their talent or luck, but we can encourage them to work hard toward their goals, to at least take care of what is under their control.
Still, advertisements for potential college students are not exactly aimed at children. The audience is much older, and it is not true that they are all equally talented. Even given the opportunity, they are not going to be equally successful, whatever that might mean.
Equality of opportunity is a bedrock principle in the U.S., even if it is a principle that is in some times and in some places more honored in the breach than in the observance. But as I said above in another context, lofty goals are important even if they don’t quite get achieved. They are important for individuals, and they are important for societies.
However, equality of talent is not factual, and it is not a bedrock principle. Individuals vary, talents vary across individuals, and vive la difference. Thank goodness we are different, so we can have individuals who become basketball virtuosos and piano virtuosos and Nobel laureate scientists and award-winning novelists.
Institutions of higher education, even when advertising or when self-promoting, should speak carefully. They of all entities should know that words matter. It is certainly commendable to be part of the effort to achieve that lofty goal, equality of opportunity. But equality of opportunity is not going to make us all equally successful, because we do have different talents, we choose different paths, we exert different efforts, and we have different luck.

Posted: July 15, 2021 by Dennis W. Jansen