Two years ago, my family and I were the hosts for an exchange student from Denmark. Together with my son Sammy, Rikke Nørholm Andersen attended the local high school. In the early fall, to promote camaraderie and to give Rikke a chance to practice some useful English, my wife set up a Monopoly game on one end of the dining room table and left it there for the family to return to and continue playing whenever everyone’s schedule permitted.
As the game went on, an interesting thing happened. My wife and my son were relatively lucky in their rolls of the dice, and they began to acquire properties and, eventually, build houses and hotels on them. Rikke, on the other hand, got off to a bad start, and she never really recovered.
She was not able to buy as many or as desirable properties. After a while, she was forced to borrow on her properties and then to borrow money without collateral. In his desire to keep the game going, Sammy, acting as the banker, began to give rather than lend Rikke money from the bank. He didn’t want her to be left behind—if only because her dropping out would make the game less interesting.
Inexorably, Rikke continued to land on properties owned by my wife or my son, and in time the money she had been given was gone. My son gave her more of the bank’s money. I think we all thought, at first, that Rikke would make a furious comeback with the generous loans and then gifts from the bank, but, as the play continued and Rikke was never able to extricate herself from her plight, we gradually realized that she was doomed. She herself took on a more and more resigned attitude.
What went wrong? Certainly, the game started with an admirable degree of equality of opportunity for all participants. Rikke was as familiar with the game and as skilled a player as the other participants. Even so, she lost, and continued to lose, and began to think she was a loser (at Monopoly, at least).
My family and I had lived and worked in Denmark from 1990 to 2000. The Monopoly game gave us and Rikke a reason to think about that time and discuss the differences in the prevailing American and Danish attitudes toward equality and freedom, and the relationship between the two concepts. Americans say that no child should be left behind, and they seem to think that education is the key to ensuring that children are not left behind. There seems to be little understanding, though, that the schools alone cannot equalize opportunity for children who come from homes and neighborhoods with very different socioeconomic characteristics, nor that schools may, unintentionally, but by their very nature, widen the gap between more-advantaged and less-advantaged children.
Surely nothing is more important to a child’s chances of success in this country than his or her “choice” of parents. Heritable characteristics are important, but, for the most part, seemingly immutable. We cannot achieve much if we focus on inherited traits. Much more important in terms of equalizing opportunity are the differences in the nurturing qualities of the parents to whom the child has been assigned in life’s biggest lottery:
• Do the parents read aloud to the child or not?
• Are there books in the home or not?
• Does the child see his or her parents reading or not?
And so on and so forth. The influences of the home and the neighborhood are manifold.
Talk about accountability is empty talk when its focus is exclusively on the individual and never on the society.
It is difficult for a Dane to understand the constant American talk about “individual responsibility” when so much that is an important influence on the course of a child’s life is beyond the control of the individual—beyond the control of the child, and beyond the control of the parent. From the Danish perspective, the more appropriate questions about responsibility are these:
• How can American society shirk its responsibility and let so many children be born into homes and neighborhoods that put the children at a disadvantage from which most of them have no realistic chance of making a comeback?
• Why is American society not held responsible for the existence of such homes and neighborhoods?
Danish people, collectively, as a society, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s, took responsibility for the plight of their less fortunate fellow citizens. They, the Danish people, decided to emphasize social harmony, cooperation, and communitarianism, and to reduce the undesirable effects of competition and individualism and greed on their society and on their children. The freedom to be rich and privileged and to exploit those who were less fortunate in their choice of parents had to yield to the right of all members of the society to be treated with respect and dignity. The social legislation passed in this period had as a governing principle, according to one history, “that social security benefits were a right and should not be considered as alms leading to loss of civic rights.” Labor unions and the country’s Social Democratic Party, both representing forces conspicuously without real power or influence in the United States, played a big role in the transformation of Denmark into a more equitable society.
Furthermore, the Danes seem to recognize (to a degree that Americans do not) that, even if there is some degree of equality of opportunity in one generation’s passage into adulthood (which there demonstrably is not in the present-day United States), there will be, nevertheless, unequal outcomes.
Unequal outcomes are inevitable, given the diversity of the traits inherited by these young adults (who, as far as we know, have done nothing to earn or deserve their inherited traits) and given the stratified nature of the society and the economy in which these young adults will find a place.
The unequal outcomes in any one generation mean that the children of that generation will have come from unequal homes and neighborhoods. They will therefore not be able to compete under conditions of equality of opportunity. To expect the schools to level the playing field whenever the homes and neighborhoods are unequal is to expect pie in the sky.
If Americans truly want no child left behind, they need to “take responsibility” and make sure that each and every child in our society has what he or she needs in order to not be left behind. In Denmark, the people do not try to shove all responsibility off onto the individual. In Denmark, there is a collective effort to make sure that the children have, as a minimum, parents with “livable wages,” access to universal health care, proper nutrition, adequate lodging and clothing, and truly equal access to good schools and trade schools and universities.
Danes are noticeably less eager to punish and much more inclined to think that society can rehabilitate transgressors than Americans are.
Only when these prerequisites are in place can there be a meaningful discussion of the role of the schools in making sure no children are left behind. Talk about accountability is empty talk when its focus is exclusively on the individual and never on the society.
Until American society takes its responsibility to its children seriously, talk about individual responsibility is ignorance at best and hypocrisy at worst. Perhaps because the Danes do take their collective obligation much more seriously than Americans do, Danes are noticeably less eager to punish and much more inclined to think that society can rehabilitate transgressors than Americans are.
In Denmark, government is generally regarded as a friend and protector, and most Danes declare themselves satisfied with the services they get for the taxes they pay. Private corporations are regarded as potential exploiters and polluters that need to be regulated in the public interest.
The Nobel laureate for literature in 1972, Heinrich Böll, has a character in one of his novels explain that he and his wife play Monopoly with their children because it is a good way to show them how the capitalist system works. The implication is that the children will see that the private-enterprise system needs to be carefully regulated to ensure that private-sector activities are beneficial to all people, and not merely exploitative of the society’s working and poor.
We could all benefit from such a game.
A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2007 edition of Education Week as Monopoly and ‘No Child Left Behind’