Education Opinion

Dirty Work

By Nancy Flanagan — February 13, 2012 3 min read
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Ever have a summer job as a teenager? Yup. Me, too. I was a chicken fryer and pot washer at a KFC. I had a 6:00 a.m. waitressing gig at a dockside breakfast joint where fishermen impressed with my coffee-refill speed left hefty 50-cent tips. I’ve been a cashier, a security guard and a berry picker. The list goes on.

Ever find yourself exploited on that job? Yup. Me, too. Having your shift cut an hour after walking to work because business is slow. Paying for your own stained, ill-fitting uniform shirts. Worst of all: hosing out the dumpster.

So here’s the question: Did those experiences build character and shape your work ethic?

Ask Newt Gingrich. He’s got a plan to re-invigorate economic awareness and entrepreneurial spirit in public schools.

It’s easy to muster up righteous outrage at Gingrich’s gratuitous and Malthusian take on What Poor Kids Need if they aspire to the good life. Still--there are a couple of interesting questions buried under Gingrich’s politicized bombast.

First--Aren’t distasteful jobs good for all kids, at some level? Don’t we agree that children are better off learning to clean up after themselves, respect the needs of others and do their part to contribute to an orderly world? Aren’t these the principles that lie under service learning--our communal responsibility to pitching in?

Second--Someone has to do all the scut work that Gingrich would readily assign to poor children. Someone will always be needed to clean and maintain facilities, transport people, fix broken pipes and serve lunches. What happens to children who go through life with no sense of what it means to care for others--or the inherent dignity of work, done well?

I’m always amazed at the rhetorical push to send all kids--but especially children in poverty--to college so they can get a degree and make more money (an assumption that turns out to be pretty dubious), presumably doing something other than manual labor. What does it say about us, as a society, when we elevate credentials over hard work?

If politicians suggest that children do janitorial work because it’s their presumed future, and they might as well learn how to punch that clock now, the argument becomes repugnantly classist. Shades of Sir Charles Adderley, the man in charge of British education policy in the 1850s:

It is clearly wrong to keep ordinary children of the working-class at school after the age at which their proper work begins...as arbitrary and improper as it would be to keep the boys at Eton and Harrow at spade labour."

That’s my take: all children would benefit from first-hand experience with shovel-ready labor. While my experience hosing out the dumpster didn’t do much for my character, it certainly made me understand that filthy dumpsters need tending before the odor drifts to the lot where paying customers park.

Japanese children routinely clean their own schools, including bathrooms--not because it’s more economical, but because of their strong cultural belief in community responsibility. This is not a pitch to eliminate school cleaning staff, who handle heavy equipment and chemicals, not to mention dangerous bodily fluids. I have enormous respect for custodians, whose jobs make schooling possible.

But--some of the most revealing moments in my teaching career occurred when I directed my middle school band students to stack chairs for vacuuming or wipe down the sink area where kids sanitized mouthpieces. A middle school band room sees five oversized groups of 13-year olds tramp in and out daily, strewing their belongings (and saliva) everywhere. In no time, the room can resemble the city dump.

There was always someone who said “Isn’t that the janitor’s job?” Which was always followed by Mrs. Flanagan’s fiery sermon on cleaning up after ourselves.

When we expect other people to do our dirty work--from toilet swabbing to being deployed to Afghanistan-- we can’t claim we’re pursuing equity and dignity through education.

Refill on that coffee, sir?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.