Teaching Opinion

Have We Lost Respect for Hard Work?

By Deborah Meier — January 21, 2016 2 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Harry and friends,

Yes, indeed, it’s been a gradual but long term process—the disrespect for “ordinary” work. In my promotion of “play” I had forgotten that “work” is almost as alien an ideal as play these days.

We’ve grown accustomed to idealizing wealth—money for money’s sake. Corporate and entertainment world values dominate the imagination of too many Americans. All means are legit if they serve the goddess of gold.

Instead of recoiling in horror over the fact that “just 62 people own as much wealth as the 3.5 billion people in the bottom half of the world’s income” (according to Oxfam), we admire those 62.

That includes white working-class youths who ought to be up in arms about it. The disrespect for white working-class people is closely linked to the devaluation of manual work, which Mike Rose writes about in The Mind at Work.

This devaluation includes too many Black youngsters too.

I suggested to some seniors at the old Central Park East Secondary School (CPESS) that they could get a paid internship in masonry which would lead, in just a few years, to a very well-paid job, perhaps better than anything a four-year BA would offer. Ditto for an apprenticeship in antique repair being subsidized by Lloyd’s and other insurance and auction houses. A “merely” decent job had lost its allure.

The presence of a respected and mighty labor movement had added something that’s hard to replace when no organized power lies in the hands of ordinary working people—if not singly, together.

There’s a song we used to sing at Mission Hill, and that we sang together at the end of their two-day retreat in Hillsdale last weekend: “Step by step the longest march can be won, can be won. Many stones can form an arch, singly none, singly none. And by union what we will can be ... " The house was back in order in less than 10 minutes while we all sang this together.

Work to be proud of seems to have lost its luster. It’s connected to citizenship in many ways—first and foremost because a “job well done” suggests a moral stance, a value system that treats all work that improves the world with dignity and respect. Any work well done, my parents used to say (and not always mean), is worth it whether it pays well or not.

Are there ways that the Left can help restore that old-fashioned idea, without pretending that decent wages for decent work isn’t essential too?

Berea College in Appalachia has always intrigued me—it’s a nearly free college that finances itself by having minimal paid labor—everyone works to keep the school alive. The least prestigious job is as important as the most. Similar to the old-fashioned Israelis kibbutzim. Ted Sizer used to argue that students in K-12 schools should take on more responsibilities for the upkeep of their schools. Of course, there’s another side to this—they are replacing adult labor!

Democracy is always filled with contradictions that need to be resolved within their own context. But ... hold on ... they also need to be solved with an eye on the impact of their decisions on other contexts!

The old socialist question “Under socialism, who’ll take out the garbage?” had an answer: “The young.” Such dilemmas are relevant again with Bernie Sanders reintroducing the word socialism into our respectable political vocabularies. Hurrah!


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.