There was a certain look students had when they would come to my office a few days into a new semester to confess that they were "dropping down" from University Prep English. Rather than soaring on to academia after their senior year, they were now trundling towards community college or—worse yet, they thought—the workplace. Some shifted nervously in their seat, some avoided eye contact, but all elicited some visible sign of shame: this was not the way it was supposed to go.
As my students and their peers saw it, conceding to applied level courses was, largely, giving up. From this point forward, they would tread the tepid waters of an education where—if the rumors were true—teachers spoke loudly and slowly in extra-patronizing cadences, novels and essays were replaced with movies and trivia games, slack-jawed students who weren't creating a general disturbance were drooling into their Dr. Seuss activity packs, and, basically, the faintest whiff of literacy was rewarded with straight A's and a standing ovation.
Thankfully for most who opted out of the university stream, these rumors were not remotely true and there was absolutely no shame in making decisions that would veer them away from the hallowed halls of the ivory tower and into fulfilling careers as construction workers, welders, plumbers, farmers, electricians, landscapers, and so much more. Their classes were challenging in different ways, and were usually grounded in more tangible, practical lessons; although the ability to think creatively, abstractly, and intelligently was also always demanded.
So why all the shame? Why were students and parents and teachers all complicit in subtly—or not so subtly—endorsing such attitudes? Because although we might have struggled against it as a community, there was (and continues to be) a powerful cultural narrative within which our smaller school narrative was unfolding. This narrative suggested that the "best and the brightest" should naturally go on to those white-collar careers where success is tailored suits, stylish haircuts, manicured cuticles. It was wealthy, brainy, and always clean.
Now teachers do a good job across the board, I'll assume, of encouraging students to follow their desires and to find the best ways to use the skills and gifts they've been given. And they even do a good job, I'll add, in directing students to swim against the powerful culture-currents that push them to believe the best criteria for deciding on work have to do with money, power, and prestige. But what teachers don't do such a great job at—an opinion based partly on experience, partly on recent stats— is working to direct students in how to swim equally hard against those currents which suggest that people with dirt in their fingernails, or grease on their jumpsuits, or cow dung on their work boots are not fit to be taken seriously in our "modern" world.
Our cultural bias against manual labour is perhaps as old as it is complex and varying in its causes. For as long as there has been work there have been classes of people who have thought they were above it and classes of people enforced into it, brutally or otherwise. We've had centuries of slavery, class and caste systems, and even now influxes of migrant labour to do the manual work so many believe they're above. Perhaps more powerful than all of this is the rise of machines to "save us" from such work. In fact, this last chapter in our relation to manual labour is one of the most powerful in shaping our imaginations concerning work. Why buy the latest vacuum cleaner, or food processor, or riding lawn mower? Because physical work is always only drudgery. And who wouldn't want to be saved from that?
This is not to falsely romanticize manual labour. I realize it is onerous and often downright backbreaking. But that's also not the whole story. Such physical work places serious demands on the body, but it is also intellectually stimulating, creatively demanding, and overwhelmingly fulfilling. So when it comes to how we view manual work today, it seems we have a perception problem, one that needs changing. But how do we bring about such a change within our schools, or more broadly, within our culture?
If you're interested in such questions, and perhaps even have a few answers of your own, then you're going to want to follow the interesting and important conversations that our Work and Economics program director, Brian Dijkema, will be having in the next few weeks as he, alongside industry leaders, educators, and political leaders, shows that working with your hands should not be a source of shame, but a source of meaning, prestige, and pride.