Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

The fallacy of the "leveled playing field"

j.nahig's picture

The term “level the playing field” has always bothered me- but because we are using it, I would like to extend its literal meaning to its fullest potential as an abstract metaphor (please don’t groan, I promise this won’t be as bad as you think). Let the symbolism commence.


Imagine two teams on an actual soccer field. Suppose that that soccer field is level only because both teams have received schooling. Supposedly, because the playing field is leveled, each team has a similar chance of succeeding in the game. One day you decide to visit the field, and see that it is in perfect condition and completely even. How wonderful! (Ostensibly) everyone has equal access to the same footing!


But we all know that the condition of the field doesn’t determine which team is going to win – the players do. So let’s look at the teams. One team has shoes, shin guards, and practice gear in immaculate condition. They have expensive drill equipment to practice with. The team also has: the best coach in the league; daily and regularly practices on regulation sized fields; no other commitments; the money to pay for summer camps; and parents who can come to every one of their games to cheer them on. In short, they have been groomed for success.


Let’s look at the second team. They all come from a lower class neighborhood and are the children of lower class parents. They have equipment that is in fairly poor condition, because they lack the money to buy new items. They never know where they’re going to practice, because they can’t pay for field time regularly and daily. Sometimes, they can’t even practice on grass.  This gives them multiple disadvantages, one of which is that they have less time to practice situations that are mostly dictated by the space they are in on the field (for example long passes, and shots on a goal that is the dimensions of the goal they will play with in a game.) It’s also hard to find time for all of them to meet, because they have other commitments like looking after their brothers and sisters while their parents are at work, or working a job(s) that has long and/or unpredictable hours. This means that they rarely have a whole team practice. Their parents aren’t always there to cheer them on.


So when the teams metaphorically walk out onto the leveled field – the job market – that has been leveled by their both receiving educations, they are not equally prepared. The idealistic mirage of a leveled playing field is just that – a fallacy.


And let’s face it…the odds are that, when faced against each other, the first team will win and the second team will lose.



Obviously, this is an incredibly extreme and polarized metaphor, which does not represent the many people who fall somewhere in between these two “teams”. This is not to say that there aren’t people in the team “groomed for success” who are bad players, or that the conditions the second team practices under make it impossible for them to succeed. It simply means that this so called level playing field is truly not level – an educational system does not inherently level a playing field. This is because the “access” (a word which we have conveniently been discussing very often) that different people have to education is different. The first team was born into wealthier families who live in wealthier school districts. The second team was born into the opposite. The playing fields aren’t level.