I’ve been rereading the Hunger Games on a whim, and was really impressed with a discussion of Katniss’s father. This is from the scenes following the reaping, where Katniss is on the train to the Capitol. Specifically, she’s continuing the mockingjay pin that Madge gave her. Mockingjays, it turns out, are of special interest to Katniss because of a connection with her dead father:
the jabberjays mated with female mockingbirds creating a whole new species that could replicate both bird whistles and human melodies They had lost their ability to communicate words, but could still mimic a range of human vocal sounds, from a child’s high-pitched warble to a man’s deep tones. And they could re-create songs. Not just a few notes, but whole songs with multiple verses, if you had the patience to sing them and if they liked your voice.
My father was particularly fond of mockingjays. When we went hunting, he would whistle or sing complicated songs to them and, after a polite pause, they’d always sing back. Not aeveryone is treated with such respect. But whenever my father sang, all the birds in the area would fall silent and listen. His voice was that beautiful, high and clear and so filled with life it made you want to laugh and cry at the same time. I could never bring myself to continue the practice after he was gone. Still, there’s something comforting about the little bird. It’s like having a piece of my father with me, protecting me.
Aside from his value to his family, it seems that Katniss’s father had an almost preternatural talent for singing. But he couldn’t develop this beyond blind talent because the resources to do this just weren’t there, and the rich folks in the Capitol who are so consumed by being entertained miss out on some of the best entertainment available. Why? Because when you break the connection between virtue and talent on the one hand and wealth and resources on the other, eventually some people who could do good aren’t going to be in a position to actually do that good.
I’m a philosophy grad student, a philosopher in training if you will. I was lucky to be educated at state schools in an economy and government structure where public universities were comparably affordable. And mine actually had good programs offering courses in topics that made me think – aesthetics, religious history, ethics, logic, language, literature, eastern philosophy, the list goes on. But these days the cost of state universities is going up and up. The public university is finding itself in a bit of a pincer movement between corporate-endowed professorships on the one side (with the strings attached you’d expect) and political activist groups trying to control what happens in universities, both what’s taught and what programs are offered. And there’s a real move to value the hard sciences over social sciences and humanities. You heard it even in the inauguration, where Obama talked up the importance of science education but didn’t go further than that.
I’m not trying to turn this into screed about problems in higher ed. Really. This is the topic that most impacts me. But my point is, when you underfund tax-supported higher education and in particular in non-STEM fields, you limit the ability of the poor to try to excel. And maybe in most cases that’s not so tragic. There are only so many philosophy professorships out there, after all. But brilliant philosophers can be born to any corner of philosophy, and any gender, any race, etc. When we make it harder for certain groups to study philosophy, you also lose the potential great philosophers born into those corners of society. And that hurts everyone. Just like how the Capitol lost out on hearing Katniss’s dad’s voice because of the way their society simply didn’t let him do anything with that talent.
I know there are lots of other reasons why income inequality is wrong. I could point to the suffering this causes, or the frustration on the part of the talented who can’t work with what they’re good at, or even how taking away choices is bad for its own sake. But I think this self-interest argument works, too. You never know where the next Mozart or Einstein or Plato is going to come from. Because of that, it’s important to nurture everyone and help them all succeed. Anything less risks losing something really special that I’d want for myself.