Which Work is Work?

Which Work is Work?

Seems we’re all still reacting to the Flanagan piece slamming school gardens. Here’s a piece from Civil Eats that quotes Booker T. Washington on the value of physical work. The contempt shown by so much of the middle and upper-middle classes for people who work with their hands is, I’m convinced, partly responsible for the devastating loss of manufacturing jobs here in America. When you believe that work is only something other people do, and when you believe that those others, because they work with their hands and bodies must necessarily be inferior to you in your nice clean office, in your nice clean house (cleaned by whom?) and when in many parts of the country, even your yard and garden are tended by strangers who arrive once a week in a truck and then leave again, well, if your experience of the physical world is so mediated, then how could you ever know how satisfying physical work can be?

Is the real fear behind this school garden backlash that the kids might like it? And then what? Is the real fear that they might want to be farmers or gardeners or carpenters or to actually do something with their hands rather than to march off in lockstep to law school or MBA programs (because god forbid we deprive Wall Street of another generation of those all-important hedge fund managers)?

I remember when Patrick went off to Sterling College in Vermont, a terrific little school where he not only learned to write a paper for the first time, but learned to skid logs with draft horses, and to birth sheep and cattle, and tap trees for maple syrup (although boiling syrup’s not a good job for the ADD-inclined, look away at a crucial moment and it burns). That school was full of upper-middle-class kids whose parents were, in many cases, appalled that their kids wanted to be farriers, or farmers, or environmental biologists — you know things they could do outside, that involved working with their hands. And Patrick’s fellow students had, for the most part, spent their entire school lives being told they were dumb, or that they should apply themselves more, or that they just weren’t trying because they weren’t the kinds of kids who could sit in classrooms all day without doing something.

What has 40 years of insisting that college is mandatory and the only path to success gotten us? A nation where we have no plumbers or electricians or even just factories that make things. A nation where ordinary middle-class suburbanites don’t even know how to run a lawnmower. A nation of kids being raised in front of screens and in the back seats of SUVs being driven from “activity” to “activity” but not allowed to just play outside. Hmm. Progress?

Maybe it’s time to take another look at what Mr. Washington had to say. Civil Eats » Booker T. Washington on School Gardens and the Pleasure of Work:

Above all else I had acquired a new confidence in my ability actually to do things and to do them well. And more than this I found myself through this experience getting rid of the idea which had gradually become a part of me, that the head meant everything and the hands little in working endeavour and that only to labour with the mind was honourable while to toil with the hands was unworthy and even disgraceful.

…While I have never wished to underestimate the awakening power of purely mental training I believe that this visible tangible contact with nature gave me inspirations and ambitions which could not have come in any other way. I favour the most thorough mental training and the highest development of mind but I want to see these linked with the common things of the universal life about our doors.

3 thoughts on “Which Work is Work?

  1. I just saw this today and it struck such a chord with me.

    My husband found his calling while attended Texas A&M. At the time it didn’t require a degree. He dropped out in his junior year. For over 30 years my husband has worked in land surveying. It involves being out in the out of doors in every kind of weather imaginable, subjected to insects, snakes, angry animals and at times crazy armed neighbors. It requires lots of calculations and also knowledge that can only be learned by doing.

    His knowledge and expertise brought him a lateral move to an inside job with his firm. His mother just was so relieved that her son didn’t have to do all that dirty manual labor any more. I wanted to throttle her.

    As a survey party chief he was the head of his crew and directed them and taught them. He loved what he was doing. He is respected and well know amongst his peers as one of the best and brightest around and his skill was (and still is) an asset to those he works for but for years it seemed to me that he was seen by her as less than his petroleum VP son or her daughter with the fancy degrees.

    It seems to me a strange madness that, in today’s world, Stradivarius would be seen as doing “dirty manual labor” fit for only the “undereducated” or as a hobby for the retired.

  2. I know. I have a younger cousin who went to one of the best private schools in Chicago (my aunt teaches there, and our whole family went there). When he graduated high school he scandalized many of his classmates by signing up as an apprentice pipefitter. He flip-flops between pipefitting jobs and horse training, and it’s worked out really well for him. He’s one of the smartest people I know (and the funniest) but he *hated* classroom life. It’s not for everyone, and I hope we can get over that as a culture …

  3. I agree, absolutely. I read that piece too, and the first thought that when through my mind was that the author is showing absolutely no respect for manual labor.

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