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March 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 6

“Rethinking the Purpose of Education” / Facing Inequality and the End of Work

Instead of choosing from among partial solutions to society's problems, we need to recognize that real answers will emerge only when social institutions work together—and schools can help make the connection.

Of all the dilemmas that present themselves to us postmoderns, it has been said, one of the most uncomfortable is to become impaled on the horns of a false dilemma. To be sure, sometimes we must make choices: vanilla or chocolate, Dole or Clinton, Harvard or Yale. But, more often than not, the truth lies somewhere in between, or even in a combination of the choices.
Thus, in their articles ("Rethinking the Purpose of Education," February 1997), Stanley Karp and Alex Molnar are surely correct when they note the terrible toll that inequities of class and race exact on American students. But Richard Murnane and Frank Levy also stand on firm ground when they note that college graduates have sustained their role in the economy better than have high school graduates over the past decades, and that employers will continue to be selective in hiring for the best-paying positions. And Jeremy Rifkin's argument that the microchip is steadily disemploying people worldwide, creating possibilities for either increasing misery or increasing leisure, also seems indisputable.
What, then, are schools to do? Rifkin urges that they recognize the increased role of third-sector organizations in a world in which both government and business downsize to the point that voluntary community activity becomes a survival skill rather than a trendy frill. Molnar calls for an ambitious dismantling of secondary education and its replacement by smaller classes and democratic reconstruction. Murnane and Levy urge that basic skills be inculcated in every high school graduate to produce a larger number of qualified jobseekers. And Karp sees a revolution in politics, economics, culture, and nation as the only answer to our current ills.
Are these choices mutually exclusive? Not necessarily, I would argue; but I believe that things are actually worse than my colleagues admit. For one thing, the inequality issue is not only as bad as Karp portrays it but is steadily getting worse (as Molnar recognizes). Its victims include many more than Karp's student Jose and his fellow graduates of Paterson's beleaguered schools; they include an increasingly isolated group of middle class adults and children who face futures of diminished opportunities and rewards.
Rifkin recognizes this reality in his bestseller, The End of Work (1995), in which he foresees a future in which only one in five workers holds an adequately paying job, with the other 80 percent consigned to various low-wage "McJobs" or quasi-permanent unemployment. To be sure, many low-wage positions will require a semblance of the basic skills Murnane and Levy describe, but ubiquitous computerization will generate no reason to provide adequate compensation.
If only half of our college graduates can expect to make it into the top fifth of all workers, there will be room for the high school graduate only if a college graduate is fired. Murnane and Levy's solution to educate all makes sense only when paired with Rifkin's proposal to reduce the workweek. And only the kind of social transformation Karp and Molnar envisage can address the increasing divisions between the ever richer rich, the stagnating middle, and the declining poor in contemporary America. But who is actually positioned to spearhead that transformation?
Molnar hopes that schools are ready to take the lead, eliminating grade levels in the elementary and middle schools and replacing secondary education as we know it with community schooling and drastically lowered pupil-teacher ratios. As he notes, "All of this will take a lot of money," but where will all that money be found, and how will the gatekeepers of American education suddenly transform themselves into champions of a "collective future" built in a sustained, serious, humane, and democratic way?
Nor does government or business offer much hope as a leader in the effort. The disappearance of the welfare state means more than the end of welfare as we knew it (Van Til 1995). It also means the end of government (including public schools) as a tool for reform. Further, politicians of both major parties have repeatedly demonstrated that politics is often about personal enrichment rather than public service, just as businesses often grant huge salaries to CEOs while slashing the ranks of employees.

The Role of the Third Sector

In such a time of governmental and market failure, the third sector does not have to be invented to spearhead the process of societal transformation. Its current role already extends much further than the offering of soup to the homeless or occasional prayers for the nation's health. The third sector is where demands for social change have always emerged, become clarified, and been brought by the American people to their centers of power and decision making. In the basement of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, for example, Martin Luther King Jr. rallied what became the core of a great civil rights movement following the arrest of Rosa Parks.
As sociologist D.H. Smith observes, the third sector is far more than the 1.2 million certified tax-exempt organizations in our society, which themselves account for 7 percent of our organizational payrolls and 9 percent of all employment time. It is also the force of some 8 million additional grassroots associations, ranging from school associations to neighborhood groups to sports associations to fraternal organizations. It is a far more powerful force than the "few glimmering fragments of community effort in a sea of despair" that Molnar describes.
Voices deeply troubled about inequality and the end of work are currently emerging from both community and nation (Sklar 1995), making an impact on every political perspective. From the conservative camp, William Bennett calls for cultural renewal and the restoration of the good society. From the liberal side comes Rifkin's reminder that we need not only a strong economy and an effective government but also a vital associational sphere. From the center comes Amitai Etzioni's call for a blending of rights and responsibilities in a new "communitarianism."
Chickering (1994) provides one way of understanding the shape of contemporary American public thought in an essay entitled "Citizenship: Transcending Left and Right." He argues that both the American left (liberals) and right (conservatives) are themselves divided into two quite distinct groups depending on their valuing of freedom or order: "Conservatism is therefore divided into libertarian (freedom conservative) and traditionalist (order conservative) parts; and liberalism includes freedom liberals (anarchists, the counterculture, civil libertarians) and order liberals (socialists, welfare state liberals)." Within the third sector's many advocacy organizations, these differences are clearly evident.

The “PECTS System”

Contemporary thinkers provide answers aplenty for our social ills: Family! Church! Lower taxes! Community participation! School reform! A return to fundamentals! Rights and responsibilities! An end to failed programs of big government! Choice! Life! And so on. But do these answers amount to a solution for our national ills? What is not being addressed?
  • P = Politics (or government): how we make decisions about basic problems we face in our communities. This is done by a system we call "constitutional democracy."
  • E = the Economy: how we organize work to make our living, produce goods and services, and create wealth. This is done by a system we call "mixed capitalism."
  • C = Culture: how we make meaning of life through language, ethnic identity, and religion. This is done by structures we call families, schools, churches, and neighborhoods.
  • TS = the Third Sector (sometimes called the voluntary or nonprofit sector): how we join with others to create fellowship or common cause. This is done by means of tax-exempt organizations, clubs, and voluntary associations.
No set of answers will solve society's problems unless it shows how the elements of our PECTS can work together to provide real solutions. Ultimately, such solutions will emerge when it becomes widely recognized that both tradition and change are important, that both freedom and order must be secured. This will happen only when the contributions of each major sector are recognized: when cultural values sustain family, religious, and community life; when third-sector organizations organize both collective action and service freely and effectively; when business organizations discover and serve the humanity of their employees as well as their consumers; and when government assures a level field of opportunity and fairness in policy, economic reward, and individual expression.
Working in partnership with government, businesses, and families, third-sector groups can advocate the expansion of employment by asking government to provide a living wage for community service, to offer a tax deduction for volunteering (Rifkin 1996), or to restrict self-service delivery of such products as gasoline (as is law in New Jersey, for example). They can show the way for business by themselves hiring "one more" person, organizing bartering and "time-dollar"-based forms of community sharing of service (Cahn 1992), and advocating a shorter workweek (Rifkin 1995). They can work with school boards to initiate and expand job sharing of certain staff positions when warranted (Gans 1995).

Schools and Service Learning

Schools are increasingly including lessons on the ways of civil society in their curriculums as a means of preparing tomorrow's adults for active citizenship. Many classrooms have become enriched by service learning, in which traditional instruction is supplemented by directly involving students in the work of community organizations. Through such involvement and the reflection on its meaning that follows in the classroom, students learn to navigate the many social interactions required of effective citizens.
The service learning movement is only one part of a transformational process sufficient to sustain democracy, justice, and economic opportunity in the coming years. But it provides our best and most realistic starting point, for it gives educators, parents, and students a chance to see the world as it is and to begin to explore the many other steps needed to address the terrible challenges the future will present.
Teachers and administrators are increasingly developing visions of their roles in addressing societal realities and needs. To take just one example, my daughter Claire will spend the last month of her senior year at Strath Haven High School in Pennsylvania engaged in a full-time service learning project. It is part of an innovative Senior Experience developed by her social studies teacher, Robert Larzelere. With assistance from Rutgers University and the University of Pennsylvania and from community groups such as the Swarthmore Friends Meeting, the Senior Experience promises to extend classroom lessons regarding social change and social justice into the personal lives of these emerging citizens.
Because it seems increasingly likely that the future will require the emergence of a potent citizen movement to defend the rights of all to productive work and decent income, it is imperative that citizens such as Claire and her classmates become ready to mobilize the uniquely powerful resources of America's third sector. In that way Karp's interest in equality will more likely move to the forefront of consideration; Murnane and Levy's skillful students may find themselves more likely to secure good jobs; Molnar's vision of a transformed school structure may actually be implemented; and Rifkin's faith in the power of the third sector will, by the very processes engendered by that vital sector, find itself redeemed.

Cahn, E. (1992). Time Dollars: The New Currency That Enables Americans to Turn Their Time into Money. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press.

Chickering, A.L. (1994). "Citizenship: Transcending Right and Left." In Building a Community of Citizens: Civil Society in the 21st Century, edited by D. E. Eberly. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, pp. 175-190.

Gans, H. J. (1995). The War Against the Poor: The Underclass and Antipoverty Policy. New York: Basic Books.

Parsons, T. (1966). "On the Concept of Political Power." In Class, Status, and Power, edited by R. Bendix and S.M. Lipset. New York: Free Press, pp. 240-265.

Rifkin, J. (1995). The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era. New York: Tarcher/Putnam.

Sklar, H. (1995). Jobs, Income, and Work: Ruinous Trends, Urgent Alternatives. Philadelphia: American Friends Service Committee.

Smith, D.H. (in press). "The Rest of the Nonprofit Sector: Grassroots Associations as the 'Dark Matter' Ignored in Prevailing 'Flat Earth' Maps of the Sector." Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly.

Van Til, J. (1988). Mapping the Third Sector: Voluntarism in a Changing Political Economy. New York: The Foundation Center.

Van Til, J. (June 1995). "Goodbye, Welfare State." NonProfit Times, pp. 22ff.

Jon Van Til has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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