One of the things I do in the fall is volunteer as a coach for cross country runners at Ballard High School. I usually end up coaching the kids at the end of the pack. That’s how it should be. Because with cross country, it’s not just about the fastest runners, it is also about the kids in the middle and the kids who can barely finish — everyone who wants to put their best effort out there to compete for their best time.
Here’s the thing, though: Life is a little different than a cross country race. In a meet, every kid begins at the same starting line. In life, that is rarely the case. Too often, America’s “Race to the Top”-style public policies put a few kids on the starting line or the inside lane — usually those who were born with the luck or heritage to get a strong start in life — and most others a few hundred meters back, or in the far outside lane.
Competition can push us to work harder and get better — and that’s a good thing. But when this “race” mentality runs unchecked, the danger is we start to believe the winners are the only ones who matter. And when our economy, our educational institutions, and our government are creating social and economic injustice — especially by continually giving more advantages to those born with a head start in life — then we’re no longer living in a democracy.
There was a name for this mentality a century ago: Social Darwinism. It was the excuse for the favoritism of the market and the adulation of the wealthy. “Race to the Top” may sound more civil, but it is the same thing. Suddenly, it’s just another day when The New York Times sponsors an International Luxury Conference in Miami, while more than a fifth of Florida residents lack health coverage and 1 out of 7 people there live in poverty.
American democracy began with the exhortation to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To actually make progress toward those ideals, we all need certain things, including a good education, affordable and accessible health care, respect for work at all levels and a secure retirement.
In a true democracy, these foundations are not just for the winning few, or the top half, or even the top 80 percent. They have to be a reality for all of us: the poorest who can’t make ends meet; the middle class family undermined by stagnating wages, skyrocketing housing costs and college tuition; the kids who took a wrong turn and ended up in prison; the people too ill to work; the developmentally disabled; the alcoholic; the ex-spouse; the person who yelled at you in road rage this morning; the co-worker who gets you to do all the work.
Because when these are cordoned off only for the wealthy, the winners, or the “good” people, it’s not a democracy at all. Only when they are shared and enjoyed by all — the good, the bad, working poor people and pampered trust fund babies — are we truly fulfilling the promise of America’s ideals.
At the end of the day, we’re all in this together. Our economy will fail to function for most of us if the gains continue only going to the top. Our society will break down if we continue disempowering people based on their race, gender or sexual orientation.
In high school — especially in a diverse one — it’s hard to get by if you only learn algebra and English. You also have to learn how to get along with the winners, the losers, the best test takers, the cheaters, the kids late for class, and the smokers in the alleys. (Or if not get along, understand that all these kids are part of your world.)
Cross country running provides a big envelope to take in a lot of different kids. There is no bench. Everyone gets to run. Some are stars, some are in the middle of the pack, some come in at the very end, every single race. But they all finish. That’s the beauty and spirit of cross country. And with the right public policies in place, it can be part of the American Dream, too.