The way you categorize the different positions into left and right hereditarian and egalitarian views is a good starting point I think to discuss how to deal with this issue politically.
I want to however present a slightly different view, as I don’t really approach the problem in a way which fully fits either category.
As far as I am concerned it doesn’t really matter why a child is at a disadvantage when they start school. It could have been genetics. It could have been bad parenting. Bad luck or anything. They should get the help they need regardless.
This goes both ways. As a parent I have had a lot of difficulty with the Norwegian school system because I have children who are at least currently quite a lot above average. Here personality also plays a role. Some kids are okay with being in class when the level is too low for them. Others start acting out and get frustrated.
Ultimately we must treat people as individuals, and realize they each have specific needs.
However parallel to that we cannot avoid dealing with group identity, discrimination and racism. With affirmative action I don’t necessarily support quotas. However I think it is a no brainer that you pick a disadvantaged minority if two candidates are basically equal good.
And here is the big can of worms. We tend to talk about talent and skill as if it is written with a clear number in our forehead. Even in the software industry which I have spent most of my life, where we deal with quite hard skills, judging how good somebody is, isn’t that easy. The whole hiring process is deeply flawed. Nobody has to my knowledge really come up with a great way of doing it.
Hence I don’t entirely buy this idea that the alternative to affirmative action is a meritocratic system. I don’t think it was ever really a meritocracy. We really only have a vague approximation of a meritocratic system. And it is a system which heavily tilts in the favor of privileged classes, whether by skin color, class, culture or particular personality traits.
But let me take some concrete examples from the Software industry which I think illustrate the problem of measuring talent.
The Guerrilla Coder
Few people have probably bothered me as much through my career as what I would call the guerrilla coder. They get shit done, features pushed out and bugs squashed but in an entirely short sighted manner. They produce horrible unmaintainable code. They add to the workload of everybody else who have to deal with their poorly documented spaghetti code. Their bug fixes are so fragile that they really only cause harder to debug bugs cropping up much later.
Yet to management and people who hire somebody, these are usually seen as star performers. A manager will just look at how long time did it take for the guy to get feature X done or bug Y squased. They have no concept of the quality in which this was done.
The Genius who cannot work with anybody
Sometimes you have exceptionally talented people who solve very tricky problem and create very good algorithms. High performance code. You name it. Yet the person is incapable of having a conversation with anybody else in the team. Cannot communicate to others what they have done.
Their code is just too clever for most people to grasp. I have seen some people like this. They may leave a beautiful piece of code in terms of what it can do. Yet in the end they contribute nothing to the company because nobody can figure out how to use the code or maintain it. It gets ripped out and something new is written from scratch.
In other words you deal with talent, that actually added no value.
Soft Sciences vs Hard Sciences
IBM did a study a long time ago. I will try to find it at some point. I am just writing this from memory now. They found that a lot of the people we think of as the smart and talented ones, those with math and engineering degrees actually ended up being the least productive when measuring over a 10 year period or so.
Why was that? Because as the cases I mentioned above, they tended to make complicated or advanced code that few could understand. They where also typically bad at documenting and describing how their code worked. Hence over time their code fell out of use because people could not maintain it or understand how to use it.
Meanwhile many of the people with a softer science background documented their code better, and wrote it in a clear more straightforward manner which meant that code could still be used productively 10 years later.
Programs for the Talented
Although I have kids who have not always been given the challenges they need, it doesn’t mean I really buy into the idea of streaming and putting smart kids in special classes. It is one of the reasons I don’t feel I quite fit into the categories you devised.
Often things like friendship matter more to them than being in a special talent class. For me getting the right level of challenge is primarily about making children happy. Getting school at the wrong level can be frustrating to a child.
Also the problem of streaming children is that you start to really drag the bottom further down. Children can be stimulated by other smarter children to get pulled up. A society where everybody is strongly grouped according to ability quickly develops into a very unequal and segregated society with deep conflicts IMHO.
Instead I favor strongly Khan Academy’s concept of the flipped class room. There you still stay with your regular class, but every child is advancing at a different pace because the lecturing is all individualized. In class teacher go around and help children with homework and questions, rather than lecturing.
This allows children at very different levels of development and ability to co-exist in the same class without the problem of talented children being frustrated about being help back and those of less talent feeling they cannot keep up.
I am a social democrat at heart, and that is the kind of society I grew up in. In see a major value in people of different backgrounds being able to mix and learn from each other.
Equality and Economic Growth and Progress
I think it is a false choice, that we are selecting between more equality and representation among minorities and talent and progress. I take a holistic view of society.
Maybe it looks as if you will be worse off when we pick a less talented women for a job. But what if that women getting in that position means 10 other brilliant young women getting inspired by seeing that they can also pursue such an opportunity?
Suddenly the talent pool has been expanded. With a larger talent pool, society will progress more, not less.
There is an enormous cost to society in lost talent when a culture in a poor black neighborhood develops where they belief is that doing well in school is a white thing, and you should not even try that if you are black. But if you get highly visible black professor in the public sphere that can change a lot.
Maybe he wasn’t the most talented. But whatever was lost from picking somebody of less talent may be recaptured many times over by convincing more young blacks in disadvantaged neighbourhoods that they too can aim for the top. You don’t have to be white to be a professor.
Micro vs Macro Thinking About Society
I see this as a problem with those on the political right. They tend to zoom too much in on a single individual position and situation. They are not looking at the bigger picture. How does an action affect society at large.
I notice this difference very clearly when a compare a more social democratic country like my own and the US. The hollistic thinking seems so often to be lacking in the US. In Norway there is a concept called “Samfunns økonomisk nytte” which describes the economic benefit of something to society as a whole. It could be something like a road, train or post office, which doesn’t necessarily turn a profit. It isn’t a profitable enterprise by itself. However one can calculate that the economic benefit to society as a whole is large.
This is a concept frequently discussed in Norway, I cannot remember almost ever hearing anyting comparable discussed in the US. People always zoom in at the individual company and ask questions like “Is this company making money or not?” If it isn’t making money it is deemed a waste, a liability or whatever. The big picture thinking is lacking.
We cannot advance society by a myriad of tiny little local micro optimizations. Trying to get the most talented person in at a particular job at every time, ends up being this kind of local micro optimization. It does not take into consideration side effects and global impact at a national level.
What is the Point of it All?
And at the end of the day we have to ask what the point is? Is maximum scientific progress in shortest amount of time or maximum increase of GDP per year the measure of real progress?
I can double fast food consumption and GDP grows, but did society get any better?
You can create magnificent advances in medical sciences, but if those advances only benefit the a tiny rich elite, was it worth it?
I think a slower economic growth and progress is likely preferable over a fast progress if it means one can maintain higher levels of equality, and lower levels of social problems, crime, conflict and unhappiness.
Ultimately society has to serve humanity. More money or technology has no value if it cannot make human life better.
Hence limiting discrimination and raising up minorities does not really go at the expense of anything because it is in many ways what society ought to be all about: Making life better for as broad set of the population as possible.