Education Opinion

On Values, Work, and Opportunity

By Mike Rose — November 10, 1999 8 min read
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We should think about the number of opportunities we provide for young people to develop and exhibit behavior and values that have personal and social benefit.

For some time now, there has been a troubled national conversation about the skills and values of young people entering the workforce, concerns about their literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving ability, and, as well, their weaknesses in the so-called “soft” job skills: punctuality, responsibility, a sense of workmanship. More recently, with the shock of schoolyard murders, a broader and more anguished conversation about youth and values has consumed us. Young people mystify and frighten us; they’re opaque, alienated, asocial.

I wonder, though, if our collective anxiety is distracting us from, even blinding us to, a wide range of behaviors and values that are constructive, engaged, and laudable and, in fact, are dearly sought in our national assays of young people’s lives. We don’t look in the right places—which are, not infrequently, right beneath our noses—and, to paraphrase Michael Harrington, we always seem to ask the wrong questions.

I’ve been doing some work over the last few years that has sparked some different questions. I’ve been studying the cognition of skilled work, particularly as it develops in young people: the conceptualizing, problem-solving, trouble-shooting activities involved in building a cabinet or repairing a faulty circuit. This has turned out to be a rich project revealing complex thought and skill. But what has also been revealed is a range of values that would offer an unexpected contribution to our national lamentation over the loss of values.

Let me offer some examples, ones drawn from observations of high school classes in carpentry, auto mechanics, and plumbing—places that might not be, for some, the first places in the curriculum to look.

During my visits, I heard continual expression of (and saw material evidence to support) a desire to do a job correctly, to make something work. We can call the values expressed here utilitarian values, ones dealing with function and use.

Willie is a member of a team that is building computer tables for the district office, and he is showing me the base of one of them. The base is an octagonal oak structure with supports radiating out at four points. The top will be fastened onto these supports. Willie explains how their teacher helped them draw plans for the multi-angled structure, and how they built a prototype first. “It has to be just right,” he observes, “or it won’t work.”

Consider, as well, Nancy, who, with another student, is replacing the brake pads on her sister’s car. She works through the class period and into lunch. As she is finishing up, tightening wheel nuts with a pneumatic wrench, she talks about the importance of good brakes, how she is “really picky about brakes,” how they can make the crucial difference in protecting both life and property.

And there is Carlos, one of a crew of students volunteering at a Habitat for Humanity site. He is assembling the frames for the walls of one of the bedrooms. These frames consist of two long, horizontal two-by-four boards with six shorter two-by-fours, called studs, nailed vertically in place 16 inches apart. Carlos begins by measuring and marking the 16-inch increments on the horizontal boards, and then lays out the vertical studs accordingly. He measures again. Then he begins nailing the studs in place, driving one nail, then another, stopping occasionally to check with his eye or a framing square the trueness of the frame. I ask Carlos about this precision. He says that when the frame is finished, “I know it’s going to be straight and well done.” He pauses and adds: “That’s the way I am.”

We should think hard about the kind and number of opportunities we provide for students to develop and exhibit behavior and values that have personal and social benefit.

These young people are meticulous about the work they do, aware of the consequences of error, exhibiting both pride in and commitment to doing a good job. There are ethical ramifications here—Nancy links her work to the safety of others—and a process of self-definition. Carlos’ precision is associated with his sense of who he is.

In addition to values related to use and function, I, as well, saw ample evidence of values that are more aligned with craft and aesthetics. Christian is completing a bookcase for his room, showing me a small flaw along the base. Under a strip of oak that both decorates and reinforces the base—in a place that no one will be able to see, once the bookcase is upright—Christian points to a tiny gap in the otherwise flawless seam where strip and base join together. The gap is between one-sixteenth and one-thirty-second of an inch wide. Wood inevitably warps, and, as Christian explains it, he placed his finishing nails “too high on the strip,” thus not correcting for a small irregularity in the oak strip. Next time, he notes, he’ll place the nails lower, checking the seam more carefully. Now, though, he’s going to fill the gap with putty and sand it. “No one can see it,” he says, “but I want it to be right.”

I heard comments like this frequently. Students would go over something one more time, redo it, or repair it to make it more appealing to the touch or the eye. The tiny gap in the seam will not affect function in any way, but it violates Christian’s sense of what good work should look like—even when the only gaze on it is his.

What has been evident in these examples, but not articulated, is the way these students’ values about utility and craft direct their behavior. Let me provide one last example that nicely illustrates this point.

Peter is working with Joe, a retired plumber volunteering his time, on the sinks in a women’s shelter. Peter works hard and fast, taking stairs two at a time, says he enjoys getting this experience with a seasoned plumber, and is curious about the function of things—he’ll ask Joe to repeat a task or manipulate a device so he can see how something works. At this moment, they’re replacing the faucets on a bathroom sink, and are about to fit the sink back into its cabinet. Peter takes a quick look at the drain pipe and p-trap, running his finger inside the trap. “Oh, look at this!” he says to Joe. The trap is corroded, and if you squat down, you can see the build-up of rust and debris. “We’ve gotta change this,” he says, “we can’t put it back together like this.”

The schedule for the day specified faucets only, so Peter goes in search of his instructor, wanting to get approval for a new p-trap that he will then have to go find in the crew’s supplies. Peter’s curiosity, his thoroughness, and his desire to do good work combine here toward action that was unplanned and that both satisfies his sense of workmanship and yields benefit to others.

These illustrations reveal some of the very qualities whose loss we bemoan. They also generate for me some thoughts on
a number of issues related to education, work, values, and opportunity.

The first has to do with our ways of seeing. The constructing and repairing events described here are, in some ways, pretty mundane, not as sensational as the usual glimpses we get of young people. To be sure, these events are part of a flow of experience that also can include isolation, peer insult, commodified romance, distorted masculinity, and both virtual and real violence. We’re right to worry about this—especially since adults are ultimately responsible for much of it. But young people’s lives are complex and nuanced. What might come into focus if we got in close to other activities that mattered to them? I presented examples drawn from a particular kind of skilled work, but, in my experience, we could find similar moments in a writing class or chemistry lab, in church projects, farm routines, or a martial-arts program. If all we look for is pathology, we’ll miss everyday moments of promise.

These vignettes are also reminders of something we easily forget, particularly in times of distress. The development of values occurs best in situations where young people are engaged in ongoing, meaningful activity. The values displayed in these examples were not taught in a didactic way, nor were they the topic of a lecture or instilled through lists, logos, or disembodied religious texts. They emerged from engagement in substantial work. They were not laid on from above.

The final point, and for me the critical one, has to do with the opportunity we as a society provide for young people to become engaged in sustained activity that requires hand and brain, action and reflection on that action. It costs money to do this. And it requires careful planning. And the involvement of committed, skillful adults. Peter’s moment with that p-trap—the exercise of his curiosity, knowledge, and workmanship—was made possible by the negotiations his instructor had with the agencies that ran the women’s shelter, by the presence of the older, volunteer plumber, by all the training Peter’s instructor had provided before that day in the field. This means a commitment to young people’s development over the long haul.

The question we should be asking is not: What has happened to our young people? Rather, we should think hard about the kind and number of opportunities we provide for them to develop and exhibit behavior and values that have personal and social benefit.

Mike Rose is a professor in the graduate school of education and information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America (Penguin).

A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 1999 edition of Education Week as On Values, Work, and Opportunity


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