The Level Playing Field

Posted on September 16, 2018

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What do we mean by this old adage, “playing on a level playing field?” A few weeks ago, while walking my two Standard Poodles, Miller and Dudley, and their new sidekick, Stanley a Golden Doodle, out at Bryce Lawn, I noticed a soccer camp going full bore over at the UA playing fields. The kids were out there early before it got hot, and they were racing across the fields, kicking, jumping, playing like kids maybe a half century or so ago in a neighborhood lot. This, of course, was a lot more organized.

None of the kids at the soccer camp at UA had any advantages over any of the other kids. They wore different colored shorts and t-shirts but they were all competing fairly, no advantages given or taken. And if you tripped someone, you paid the penalty. Same rules for all. Playing on a level playing field.

As I was thinking of our world today with all its problems, the little adage kept running through my mind. That’s what this country is all about, isn’t it? Playing on a level playing field?

It means in the largest context possible—across all America and including all Americans—that we all compete for everything equally, at least in theory. Don’t undermine our argument immediately by thinking, “but what about….” Let’s think of the positives, rather than the negatives—like race, privilege, ethnic origins, religion, and all the other attributes that make up this remarkable nation. Some of those were, by the way, both positive and negative depending upon the time/era and circumstances.

The positives were emphasized in the desire for both liberty and equality in the very dawn of this country’s history with the American Revolution. These were, understandably, ideals we hoped to lift up in our national culture. To truly give all an equal opportunity to realize their dreams and/or ambitions, we needed to provide the “level playing field.” And one of the most powerful ingredients was to provide an equal access to education. Education was viewed not only as necessary to promote learning, but it also became a social escalator.

The first “public” school in the country was established very early in our history, in 1635 in Boston. The Boston Latin School is still the oldest public school in the nation. By the beginning of the independent republic after the Revolution, many examples of public education existed, largely in the New England states where literacy was a keystone of learning about one’s God.

It is no coincidence that the earliest colleges, like Harvard, 1635, were established to train ministers. If you were a good Puritan and were going to read the Bible to grow in your faith, then you perforce had to be literate. This very phenomenon, schools and literacy, was undermining the old system of privilege and control that the Church and the nobility of old Europe possessed over the great mass of people. We were moving towards a level playing field.

In the nineteenth century Noah Webster and Horace Mann moved to make that level playing field ever more significant in our national culture. They espoused public education, supported by tax dollars, for all citizens. Education in the public schools was not just about ‘riting, ‘reading, and ‘rithmetic, but about teaching certain values, like patriotism, Christianity, obedience, and let’s call them the rules of the road, or how life works. Few were cut any slack because of ethnic origins, race, color, privilege, birth, family or any other factor. That slavery still existed and automatically kept blacks off the playing field was true until the Civil War, and the struggle to get them on the level playing field lasted a century after the end that War.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, America was swarming with immigrants who wanted to get on that playing field.  If you came over as a poor Russian or Italian or Chinese immigrant during the great wave of migration at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, the key to moving your children forward was to educate them in the public schools.

Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that the shakers of the world are more important than the teachers, such as the little snippy piece attributed to George Bernard Shaw, “those who can, do, those who can’t, teach.” It is the moms and dads and teachers of the world who make us who we are. Let’s hear it for teachers and those level playing fields.

Published as “Education is the key to a level playing field,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, Aug. 19, 2018

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