The Magazine of the University of Minnesota Duluth

Volume 16 • Number 2 • Spring 1999


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In the introduction to his latest book, John "Jack" Coons, 1950 UMD graduate and Berkeley Law Professor Emeritus (pictured above) considers a simple division. "There are those who worry because men are different and there are those who rejoice because they are the same," he said. The book, which explores human equality from the philosophic, ethical, theological and legal perspectives, may have it's beginnings in Coons' earliest memories, those of his childhood home. He said, "The belief that men are equal was an orthodoxy of my cradle. Sometimes it returns as a child's interpretation of the lonely men who wandered the roads of the 1930s. They came asking for odd jobs and were content with food and a chance to thaw. I was told that they were people like us, but few of them looked like us. . . They managed without the soap and razor that I associated with my father. And some of them spoke and acted strangely. But I was assured that they were the same as we, which meant that they were very important."

The book, By Nature Equal: the Anatomy of a Western Insight written by Coons and Patrick Brennan asks the question, "What do we mean when we refer to people as being equal by nature?" Coons and Brennan argue that even if people possess unequal talents or are born into unequal circumstances, all may still be equal if it is true that human nature provides them the same access to moral self-perfection.

Plausibly, in the authors' view, such access stems from the power of individuals to achieve goodness simply by doing the best they can to discover and perform correct actions. If people enjoy the same degree of natural capacity to try, all of us are offered the same opportunities for moral self fulfillment. To believe this is to believe in equality. This truly interdisciplinary work not only proposes the authors' own rationale but also provides insight to several other contemporary theories of equality, while it engages historical, philosophical, and Christian accounts. Furthermore, by divorcing the "best" from the "brightest," it shows how descriptive equality acquires practical significance. Among other accomplishments, By Nature Equal rescues human dignity from the hierarchy of intellect, identifies racism in a new way, and shows how justice can be freshly grounded in the conviction that every rational person has the same capacity for moral excellence.

This is not Coons' first work. He is the author of numerous published articles, special reports and eight books. He wrote Education by Choice: The Case for Family Control, with Stephen D. Sugarman (Berkeley: University of California, 1978). It is a detailed case for introducing competition and choice into the provision of education. He also wrote Freedom & Responsibility in Broadcasting and Making School Choice Work for All Families.

Coons grew up a few blocks from the UMD campus and was most likely the first graduate from UMD. He finished in three years plus one summer session, graduating nine months earlier than the first graduating class that was not the Duluth State Teachers College. After graduating from UMD, Coons went on to graduate from Northwestern University Law School. He was a professor of law at Berkeley from 1967 until his retirement in 1994. Coons' areas of expertise include law and society, law and education, and children and the law. He has served as a national consultant to such organizations as the National Education Association, Office of Economic Opportunity, Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Institute for Contemporary Studies, National Crime Commission and the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund.

As we go to press, Coons is scheduled to be the featured speaker at the 1999 UMD Commencement Ceremonies. During the ceremonies Chancellor Martin will award honorary Doctor of Law degrees to Coons as well as to Duluth civic leaders Beverly and Erwin Goldfine.

-- Cheryl Reitan
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