Sunday, July 18, 2010

What about work?

(For the next while I am trying a new approach to this blog.  Each Monday I will post on a particular theme for the week.  Any posts that follow during the week will expand on the theme; the following Monday I'll write about a new theme.  Trying to put a bit of organization to my writing here, in hopes that it eventually adds up to something in addition to discrete mini-essays on learning...This week's theme is Work.)

With all of the attention higher education gives to getting graduates employed, it is astonishing how little interest we have in work. By this I mean simply that it is rare for an institution to help its students consider what work is, how it shapes human beings, and how it gives meaning to life.  I cannot think of any college (though I am sure there are some) that requires courses about the meaning of work, only a few campuses that consider the learning that comes from employment while in school, and only an handful of business programs that attend to the questions about justice, human fulfillment, and the social good that emerge from the way that employers structure work.

This issue is on my mind for several reasons.  I've spent the past 18 months on a task force working to connect student employment at Westminster to the college's learning goals.  Our hope is that every student who works on campus will have a job that leads to learning, and that that learning will be of value to the student.  My wife's job currently requires 14 hour days and weekend work, with almost no consideration of the toll a workload like that takes on her, us, or the quality of her work.  And I have been asked to take on a major additional assignment at the college, serving as Interim Dean of the Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business, an assignment that raises questions about my ability to complete good quality work while maintaining the balance and clear-sightedness that might make it possible to do that work.

Our inattention to work is not for lack of meaningful content to study.  The meaning of work is a core concern of many major religions (right livelihood in Buddhism; the notion of a holy day of rest in Western religions); assumptions about it undergird Marxism and Capitalism; the topic is more universally experienced by students than anything except sleep.

What is more, the recent economic downturn has pushed the meaning of work to the fore of American culture.  I had lunch last week with two former students, honors graduates of the college, recipients of graduation awards, perhaps the two most civically engaged students I have ever known.  Neither has full-timer permanent work.  One works temporarily for the state doing field biology; the other takes tickets at the local aviary.  Work is a huge issue for them--they both have large amounts of student debt, but they both also want to live decent lives and be part of the human conversation rather than structuring their lives around their jobs.  And on a more abstract level, the problem of work is at the center of some of the most influential books published in the past year--Rework and Shop Class as Soulcraft among them.

I don't have any idea about how to insert (or is it re-insert) the study of work into the curriculum.  But it seems that if faculty, staff, administrators, and students do not take up the questions that come out of work seriously then our institutions are failing our students, and we are failing ourselves.

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