“But no wonder Derek can’t get better than a C in history,” Mrs. Bowman was saying. “I looked at his American History book last night, and I was asleep in five minutes.”
“And that’s not surprising,” Mr. Magundi said. “The only historians worth a dime are the ones who can look back a hundred or a thousand years and get hopping mad about what they see there, because those are the only ones interested enough in the subject to write books worth reading. But no one would dare let a good historian write school textbooks. If tomorrow you printed in a textbook that Aaron Burr was a scoundrel and a traitor, the day after tomorrow your office would be surrounded by irate parents carrying placards denouncing you as a Communist or a Satanist. You would discover that somehow, in the minds of thousands who had never before heard his name, Aaron Burr had come to stand for everything that was Christian and democratic. You would never know the source of that association; you would only know that, the next time you printed a textbook, you would be sure to make it as neutral and dull as humanly possible.”
“Sometimes, Mr. Magundi,” said Mr. Bates, “it seems to me like you’re sticking up for the terrorists.”
“I don’t think so,” Mr. Magundi replied. “To say that certain actions by our government might encourage terrorism is not to excuse or condone terrorism. Terrorism is simply evil, but it would be ridiculously foolish not to ask whether some of the things we do make it more or less likely. If Mrs. Bowman refused to lock her house on the grounds that there ought not to be thieves, we wouldn’t quarrel with her condemnation of theft; but few of us would be surprised if we heard that her silver had been stolen.”
“Well,” I said, “the people of Egypt have had their say. Now the only question is whether the change of governments will be good or bad for the United States.”
Mr. Magundi shook his head. “The only question is, What business is it of ours?”
“The corporation’s first responsibility is to its stockholders,” said Mr. Bates.
“No,” Mr. Magundi replied, “the corporation’s first duty is to the moral law, just as yours or mine is. A corporation is legally a person, and it cannot expect to enjoy the privileges of personhood without the responsibilities. When a man loses touch with the moral law so completely that he becomes a danger to his neighbors, we have procedures for locking him up as a dangerous psychopath. If a corporation is legally a person, then a corporation that displays all the behaviors of a deranged psychopath should be legally a madman; and we should be able to lock it up in some sort of receivership until we’re sure it’s no longer a danger to the community.”
“But why, Mr. Magundi?” Brielle asked. “Why won’t you tell us whether you’re a liberal or a conservative?”
“Because I’m both,” Mr. Magundi replied, “and I can’t see how anyone in this country can be one and not the other. The only tradition we have that’s worth conserving is the liberal tradition—the tradition of individual liberty and equality before the law. It’s true that there are people who call themselves liberals who don’t believe in that stuff, and there are people who call themselves conservatives who propose the most monstrous innovations; but I can only assume they don’t understand the meanings of the words. Any true conservative in America has got to be a liberal, with a whole-hearted love of the principles stated in our Declaration of Independence and given legal force in our Constitution; and any true liberal in our country has got to be a conservative, defending that tradition against all the innovators who would try to take it away from us.”
“I was just thinking what an international group we are,” I remarked. “My ancestors came from Spain and Scotland; Brielle’s grandparents came from Hong Kong; Mrs. Bowman’s ancestors came from West Africa, and of course Mr. Bates’ came from England.”
Brielle turned to Mr. Magundi. “Where did your ancestors come from, Mr. Magundi?” she asked.
“Lawrenceville,” he answered, just as the streetcar rolled up and opened its door.
“Nevertheless,” I remarked sagely, “our schools are the bastion of our democracy.”
“Balderdash,” said Mr. Magundi, employing his strongest expression. “Our schools are the assassins of democracy. They stab democracy in the heart and dance on its grave. If schools were democratic, they would take it as their mission to make sure that each student succeeded in his own particular way. But our schools exist to divide children into classes. Their purpose, starting in kindergarten, is to mark which children will succeed and which will fail. And it is absolutely necessary that a certain number should fail. The failures are not just unfortunate imperfections of the system: the system is adjusted until it produces the proper number of failures. What would happen if one teacher worked so hard, and succeeded in teaching so well, that every student in every one of her classes earned an A, year after year? How would we reward that teacher? You know the answer: if she refused to change her grades so that her class produced the proper number of failures to balance the successes, we’d fire her. No, democracy is not the aim of our schools. Their sole purpose is to create an aristocracy of designated achievers who will be allowed to succeed in life, and an underclass of failures who must scratch out a living by serving the achievers.”