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Tuesday, November 20, 2018

For Discussion

Which is the greater virtue: equality of opportunity or equality of outcome? 

I ask because Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s story, “Harrison Bergeron,” has been much on my mind lately: so much so that I just wasted twenty minutes trying to scan a page of it from my 40-something-year-old copy of Welcome to the Monkey House. My computer and scanner aren’t talking to each other this morning, though, so I’ll have to do this the tedious way.

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

Some things about living still weren’t quite right, though. April, for instance, still drove people crazy by not being springtime. And it was in that clammy month that the H-G men took George and Hazel Bergeron’s fourteen-year-old son, Harrison, away.

It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn’t think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains...

“Harrison Bergeron” was first published in the October 1961 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The deeper we get into the 21st Century, the more firmly I come to believe that a.) it is the single most genuinely prophetic short story published in the past 60 years, and b.) there is no way this story would be published today—at least, not in F&SF—because there are too many people now who would be profoundly offended by the core premise of the story.

Agree? Disagree? Let the arguments begin.



Tyler Tork said...

Equality of outcome is impossible and undesirable because not everyone wants the same things, and many of them aren't comparable. I think it's best to give everyone their best chance to succeed on their own terms.

Unknown said...

I've worked in the public schools for 37 years in (almost) every capacity: janitor, teacher (of all levels: elementary, MS, high school, public, private, and charter) and ability levels: special education, standard, gifted/talented, International Baccalaureate, EL); all, however in the sciences (astronomy to zoology; from 5th grade to physics). I am currently a school counselor (that's as close to administration as I EVER want to get).

While you state the first with confidence, I can state with as much confidence that while that might be true of the STUDENTS, that is not true of parents, teachers, administrators, superintendents, or legislators. The second sentence is, unfortunately akin to religious belief and precisely as relevant in the a-religious world we live in today.

Unknown said...

Oops -- forgot, we homeschooled both of our kids from elementary through early middle school at which point one WENT to a private school; the other to a public middle school. We asked what they wanted when they were old enough to weigh the pros and cons.

Unknown said...

Rats...and I organized, supervised, and taught science labs for homeschool students...

Anonymous said...

I've cited this story more than twice in response to different discussions. There's a short black and white film of the ballet scene that I remember seeing at a theater before the main feature.

Another prophetic story by Vonnegut is "Player Piano." I was reminded of it when I saw a short feature on a robot chef that was programmed by using the motions of a real chef.

Mark Keigley said...

This is interesting. The "small" libertarian part of me sees a bit where this might be potentially prophetic and troubling for you and others. The middle conservative bit of me wants to be sure that free markets are protected and that social justice warriors don't get their way "totally" and the Democratic Socialist bit of me says ...nope, nope, nope... all we want is a least common denominator we all can agree on for restraining the elements in society that want to kill us and ours from being able to do that...i.e. an intentionally dysfunctional GI Bill that forces our vets into suicidal mode .....a European health care model that is working great for Europe - Canada- Australia-New Zealand and others applied to us with the accompanying tax structure that shifts corporate welfare and the military industrial complex over a bit cover this stuff. As far as nationalizing anything, perhaps: as hift back to pre-1973 >>