NFG Community Organizing Toolbox

colist-admin at colist-admin at
Sun May 27 20:26:14 CDT 2001

[ed:  David is responding to Max's argument about the role of education in 
social change [excerpted below David's message.]

From: David Croteau <dcroteau at>

      While as an educator I, of course, support access to quality
education for all.  But I think seeing education as "the greatest
force for 'leveling the playing field'" is a serious mistake.
      If we are talking about the economic "playing field,"
education--especially the credentials that come with higher
education--in fact helps to entrench economic inequality.  Degrees
have economic value precisely because they are relatively scarce.  The
advantages conferred upon graduates come only because others do not
have this education.  Once a credential--be it HS diploma or college
degree--becomes widely available, it loses its market value (as
today's undergraduates are all too aware).
      Indeed, we need only look back a few decades to see through the
myth of education as economic leveler. While Americans in increasing
numbers have been accumulating more and more formal education in the
last 30 years, inequality in the US has continued to increase.  More
education does not equal a more level playing field, though it does
give those with an education (especially from prestigious
universities) an advantage over those without one.
      Further, I'd argue that this emphasis on education--a distinctly
individual response to a social problem--diverts attention away from
what truly does help to establish a more level playing field:
collective action.  Without romanticizing either problematic unions or
a period of great racial and gender inequality, we have to remember
that stronger labor unions of the post WWII period--not more access to
education--was a key factor in the relative leveling of incomes.  You
want a more level playing field?  A good place to start is by
organizing people getting the short end of the stick.
      Finally, I also think we sometimes engage in a sort of "blame the
victim" scenario when we chastise students for focusing on education
as a means to a job, rather than as a good in itself.  I teach a large
number of first generation college students who would never be in
school if stable, good-paying manufacturing jobs were still widely
available.  They face a relatively bleak economic future and have had
the mantra "get an education" driven into them for years.  Thus, they
find themselves in a largely alienating educational experience
clinging to the hope that somehow this will help them achieve a more
secure future for them and their families.  The irony is, in some
ways, it *will* help them individually.  But it won't do a bit of good
in leveling the playing field
 > >From: Max Grinnell <kmgrinne at>
>Given the heady environment I find myself immersed here in Hyde Park 
>everyday, I must make a plea for what I feel to be the greatest force for 
>"leveling the playing field" in our proverbial toolbox, namely education. 
>Now, this education doesn't have to be the Great Books type that we have 
>(or used to have) around here (of course, this should really be at least a 
>small part of it), but providing a quality education for the young, with 
>people who care about the welfare of children and so on. This idea of 
>valuing each developmental stage of life is not new at all; Rousseau 
>talked about in Emile over two hundred years ago, but people all over the 
>U.S.have forgotten this like some sort of self-induced amnesia. I have yet 
>to get to the question of the viability of community organizing in the 
>United States (to say nothing of it in Chicago) but I will save that for later.
>-Max Grinnell The University of Chicago

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