Education itself does not solve major social problems

March 21, 2000

San Francisco, Calif. -- Education is not the solution to major social problems like drug and alcohol abuse, according to a Penn State anthropologist.

"The way people think about things is rooted in their daily experience," says Dr. E. Paul Durrenberger, professor of anthropology. "If what you teach people is in agreement with daily reality, then education appears to work.

"However, no matter what you tell people, if it is counter to daily experience, it does not have much impact and will not make a difference," Durrenberger told attendees today (March 22) at the annual meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology in San Francisco.

Durrenberger's research surveyed stewards in locals of the Service Employees International Union in Chicago. Included were locals covering nursing home workers, public sector workers, industrial workers and building service workers.

"The loss of labor union power accelerated in 1981 when the Reagan administration began a series of policies to break the power of the unions," says Durrenberger. "Unions began acting like insurance agents for their members rather than motivators to action."

The push now is for unions to move back to organizing new work sites and becoming active in local and national politics. To do this, the already unionized shops need to do a better job at taking care of themselves and to help in organizing non-union shops. However, the shift back to the origins of unionization is not necessarily going smoothly.

To understand why, Durrenberger surveyed the stewards -- local union members elected by their coworkers to represent them to management and to the union. He asked the stewards and the union representatives what were the most important factors that provided power to negotiate good contracts.

The stewards and the representatives -- people hired by the local to handle as many as 20 work sites and to help negotiate contracts and settle grievances -- completely agreed that the most important factor for negotiating good contracts is to have the whole industry unionized.

"The answer implies that a major goal of stewards would be to organize non-union shops so that a larger portion of the industry would be unionized," says Durrenberger. This is also the goal of SEIU.

However, when he asked the stewards, what is the most important thing for you, they answered that the most important areas were settling grievances and negotiating contracts. Organizing new sites was not listed as important, nor was getting favorable politicians elected.

"Why is there this difference if the stewards believe the best way is to have everyone unionized?" says Durrenberger. "Organizing should be most important."

He suggests that the stewards' daily lives are preoccupied with settling grievances. Even though the union is educating stewards that the unionization program is important and even though the stewards agree that unionizing the entire industry is of utmost importance, what they know is not informing their actions.

"This research suggests that education is not effective in changing people's minds," says Durrenberger. "In order for there to be change, the everyday social and cultural setting must be changed, which is not a simple activity."

As an example, he suggests that problems with binge drinking will not be solved by educating students that binge drinking is bad, especially not if they then go downtown and find a myriad of bars selling inexpensive alcohol. Nor will anti-drug campaigns serve to halt illegal drug use when inexpensive drugs are available on the street.

Durrenberger admits that he does not have a solution, but what he does know is that the enormous amount of money and time spent on education against drugs and alcohol, for example, will not solve the problems.
EDITORS: Dr. Durrenberger is at (814) 863-2694 or at by e-mail.

Penn State

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