On the Limits of Education and the Meaning of Work

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From the opening scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rich and Strange (1931) from http://filmtravers.com/reviews/FT_Rich_and_Strange_1931.html

A couple of weeks ago, I told my freshman composition class that they needed to think hard about whether they should be in college. This flies in the face of what community college professors are supposed to say. We’re programmed, in one way or another, to tell students that getting a college degree is important to their success, that it can help them to a good, stable job, and that it will improve their lives–all of which are excellent things. There’s only one problem.

I no longer believe it will.

I won’t go into the fact that my students, like most community college students, live on the edge. It takes little to derail them: an illness, a sick parent or child, pregnancy, a missed payment on their house or car, a pink slip. Granted, these are not the kind of people who are movers and shakers, who are watching TED talks on how to make their work meaningful as well as rewarding (a sample of which you can find here). Yet these very students are among the most ambitious I’ve ever encountered in my 25 + years in higher education, and all they want is the lowest degree possible after high school: an associate’s degree, which may not be worth the paper it’s written on.

I won’t even go into the argument alluded to above: that the value of associate degrees is not guaranteed (although articles like this one in the October 3, 2013, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education make that sobering point). My point was quite different, and it’s one I wish more people would consider.

It stems from the fact that most of us–99% of us, in fact–have to work to feed, clothe, and sustain ourselves. Of course, humans have always had to work for sustenance, and for much of our history, this work wasn’t too engaging. How interesting is it, for example, to gather berries or tend livestock? It may be satisfying, to a certain degree, but it isn’t mentally stimulating–at least, not in the same way that studying philosophy, or working on a multi-national marketing project, can be. Some time in the last fifty years or so, it seems that Americans have added several requirements to any job that we consider for a career: it must be lucrative, it must be meaningful (whatever that means), and it must be intellectually engaging. Any truly desirable job must exercise our minds and feed our souls as well as fill our pockets.

And because of this expectation–that our jobs will exercise and use our minds–we have given up the responsibility to do so ourselves. What this means is that when we take a job that is not intellectually challenging, as some of us must, we tend to give up on seeking out ways to enrich our minds through work. We succumb to the lure of popular culture, with its insipid siren call to watch pointless television shows; we anesthetize ourselves with a partying culture that emphasizes drinking, drug use, and sex as a means of escape from an existence of drudgery. Once thoroughly anesthetized, we are seduced into accepting the status quo without questioning if it is, after all, the best way to live.

It doesn’t have to be this way, however. What I told my students is that they need to find out what’s important to them and make that their Work–with a capital “W.” This Work, I said, is what will get them through all the crummy jobs–and there will be many of those–they’ll be forced to take. For example, maybe their Work is writing short stories, or playing jazz guitar, or spinning wool and knitting sweaters: the actual Work they do doesn’t matter. Rather, it’s the devotion they bring to it, their dedication to it, that will enrich them and allow them to deal with having to take work that doesn’t allow them to find life meaningful. Be a barista if you have to, I told them; but make sure you have Work to make your work worth doing.

Those of us who live in capitalist countries, whose work is appropriated by others for profit, have the greatest need to find our own Work, so that we make our lives count for something other than a ledger sheet of profit and loss. If we must labor to live, and if only a few of us can find work that exercises all–or even a majority–of our faculties, then it is up to each one of us to find the Work that makes us human. This is what I was urging my students to do when I told them to think about whether they should be in college: do not let college prevent you from finding your Work and dedicating yourself to it. Don’t expect to find a job that will line up perfectly with your Work (although some people are lucky enough to do that). Instead, I said, get a job to help support that Work and make your life possible; your Work will make it meaningful.

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1 Comment

Filed under Careers, Criticism, History, Writing

One response to “On the Limits of Education and the Meaning of Work

  1. Gerrit Emaus

    I just wanted to say thank you, Professor. I am glad that I have the opportunity to hear your opinions on these matters. As a student, I am exposed to the “earn a degree, find a job, and work to build up a retirement” mindset, but what a dull existence. It is refreshing to hear somebody mention the fact that we need to enrich ourselves and our minds more than mearly waking up for an eight hour shift, working the eight hour shift, going home, an repeating the cycle.

    Like

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