All that potential lost to the ages

Photo by Jan Meeus on Unsplash

Take better than half the population of people in this country and tell them to stop learning. Tell them they can’t do math or science or reading. They can’t invent things or improve society and they really shouldn’t participate in the systems of politics or entrepreneurship. Start this process shortly after they are born. Then you’re kind of just left with whoever is left to run things, learn things, build things. Dedicate also a portion of their time to making sure that the other people, the ones not learning, don’t start doing any of the things mentioned.

This week I read two essays on a similar topic written about 230 years apart. One was by the currently very alive essayist Jordan Kisner (author of Thin Places) about renowned social and economic activist Silvia Federici. The second is by the (presumably) long dead Judith Sargent Murray, an early pre-feminism feminist from colonial times.

Kisner’s essay on Federici is a fascinating argument for the payment to citizens for purely domestic work. Typically falling to the women of the home — there is more than a trillion dollars in minimum wage work done to little fanfare and scant recognition by women. The pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the disparity between how men and women approach domestic duties, and Federici has been re-popularized.

Murray’s essay is eerily similar considering its age. The premise of her work “On the Equality of the Sexes”, published in 1790 in the Massachusetts Magazine, argues against the lost output, thinking, writing, science-ing, and, perhaps most importantly, happiness of women who are not taught or allowed to flourish intellectually. The same argument she was having in 1790 we were continuing at least 200 years later. Fascinating.

This is saying nothing about our tortured relationship with race and caste in the US. The human potential we’ve driven into the ground for a couple of dozen generations is staggering.

Imagine the state of human achievement if we simply allowed whoever was born to seek out a productive life according to their talents, wishes, and inclinations? It brings to mind the definition of a “free market” in the first place, an often touted raison d’etre of the American economy. Can we really be free, as a society, if any member of your society is imprisoned in any capacity?

We have thrust artificial barriers and limiters on our own achievement as a society in favor of promoting a narrow simulacrum of ideal human. In the US, white males have been the ones to place that limiter on every other segment of society since the birth of the nation. Imaging having double or triple the intellectual output as a nation? As a people?

And that’s not really how it even works — we would likely be an order of magnitude more productive, feeding off of the intellectual energy of that many more people.

And of course it’s not just intellectual achievement, but human happiness and growth in leisure and athletics and quality of life.

Judith Sargent Murray just wanted girls to have a chance to choose what they wanted to do the same way boys do. That was in 1790. I don’t know that they get the same choices yet today.

Peanut butter first, code second.

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