This morning I am thinking about work.
Not just my work, which, frankly, I wish I wasn’t thinking about; there is only one day left of regular classes, followed by three days of finals — except I’ve already given all of my finals, so that’s three days of nothing — and then the school year is over. My students stopped thinking about school weeks ago if not earlier; I wish I could follow their example. Ah, well, I’m sure after this coming week I will stop waking up at 4am and thinking about school.
Until the next school year starts, that is.
This morning, though I am also thinking about work in general: why we do it, why we consider it a person’s defining characteristic, and why we hallow it. And why my students have such a love-hate relationship with it.
So why do we work? To some extent, of course, work is necessary for survival; life is a struggle, with too much life vying for not enough resources; there’s not another way that life works on this particular planet, that is just, as they say, how it be. When we were primates in trees, and actual predators and prey, we had to work to get food and to avoid becoming food. When we became hunter-gatherers, it was the same; and we added work required to build a society, starting with a family or a pack and building up to a tribe, a clan, and then, with the discovery of agriculture and animal husbandry, a village and a town and a country. Now there’s all that added work to prepare the area for habitation, and then to protect it from those who are still working in the predator-prey field. And, basically, we still do that: we work to survive, and we work to maintain and protect what we have.
The question is, what we have, and what the threat to it is, and whether it really needs this much work to keep it.
We work for more than mere survival. We work to get more than the minimum: we work for personal gain. I don’t just want enough food to keep from starving, I want enough food to be satisfied, to be fat and happy; and I want the right kinds of food. Not just all the squirrels I can catch: I want donuts. And Cheez-Its. And good coffee. And also, I don’t want to eat squirrels. But now we enter into the realm of abundance: because frankly, if there are limited resources and we are competing for them, and there are people working to survive while I am working merely for Cheez-Its and good coffee, then the survival workers are likely to win, because they want it more and they will work harder. Of course, there are people working to survive in this world while I work for Cheez-Its (And I feel like an absolute heel saying that, but it’s true, so thank you for reading the work of a heel), but we have localized abundance, and localized limited resources; and we have lots of people working hard to make sure that the people with limited resources can’t take my Cheez-Its.
So now we have working for survival, and working for personal gain and abundance. (We also have people working to protect my abundance, but they generally do that work for the same reason I do mine: they just have a different job. Inasmuch as they work to promote and preserve a culture, I’ll get to them in a sec.) I’m struggling to find a way that my working for Cheez-Its is positive, in the face of the fact that people are starving and working for food. I mean, I can’t fix the famine in Yemen, not even if I give up Cheez-Its (I’m not trying to be flip here, but if I changed to something less shallow than Cheez-Its as my example, it wouldn’t change the fact that I am working for abundance while Yemenis starve to death.); but in the grand scheme of things, there can’t be a moral good in working for abundance in a world with people who lack what they need to survive.
But there are still other reasons why we work. Take the one I just left alone: working to protect and promote a culture. People who do that often work without a tangible reward, which means they aren’t working for survival nor for personal gain. Why do they do it, then?
Take the attempts to reshape the national culture. Fundamentalist Christians are trying to re-brand America as a Christian nation. But we are not a Christian nation, not explicitly nor implicitly, not historically nor ideally; so this means, essentially, that Christians are trying to take the nation we have and turn it into their nation. Why? What would they gain from it? Clearly not survival and not abundance; there is no money in protesting abortion. (There’s plenty in being a politician or a PAC that promotes abortion restrictions, but I’m not talking about them; I’m talking about the people who march with signs, and yell at people outside Planned Parenthood, and write opinion letters and online arguments about abortion and gay marriage.) Do they work to gain a place in Heaven? No, that’s guaranteed to them based on their own good life and good faith. The salvation of other American souls? That also is based on Americans accepting the Christian faith, and unless you think banning abortion and gay marriage will make people see the light of God in church every Sunday, then the attempts to achieve those political goals doesn’t make sense for their faith.
“Because it’s the right thing to do” seems to be the answer that makes the most sense (Unless we accept the notion that socially conservative movements are aimed at the eventual goal of subjugation of the masses for the elevation of conservative Christians. Then it’s more taking of something that isn’t theirs: power. And there’s a different idea of why we work.). Not that I think banning abortion and gay marriage are the right thing to do, but lots and lots of religious people, particularly devout Christians, do think so, and they’re the ones putting in the work to take these institutions (Is that the word for pregnant women in the aggregate? Marriage is an institution; is pregnancy? Motherhood? Womanhood?) under their control. So here’s another reason why we do work: not for survival, and not for personal gain: for morality. And maybe for control, for power.
Working for power doesn’t make sense. Power is, essentially, the ability to gain something without having to work for it. If I have power over my slaves, say, then I can order them to make me a cup of coffee, and I get the coffee without having to make it myself; presumably I also force my slaves to do work that will bring in enough money to buy the coffee. I’m buying myself a life of leisure, a work-free existence. So if I have to work to gain that power, so that I can use the power to stop working, then it’s a wash. The only thing that makes it make any sense is if I can gain power disproportionate to the work I put in, so I work less hard to keep my slaves subjugated than my slaves work to keep me in coffee and Cheez-its. It would make sense if I put in work at the outset in order to stop working after I gain the power I seek; but that requires a kind of power that remains even when I stop working to maintain it, and there aren’t a lot of powers like that. Most power leaves as soon as you stop working to keep it.
So then the people who work for power aren’t looking only for power: they want to wield that power to some other purpose. It makes sense if this comes back to morality. People who work to gain power over others, so they can force those others to act the way the powerful one wants them to act, because the powerful one thinks that’s the right thing to do: okay. That’s just working for morality at one remove. You could also work for power in order to use that power to gain greater abundance and personal wealth; though at some point the abundance becomes more than you could ever need — Bill Gates, the Waltons, especially Warren Buffett (who is 88 years old), will never be able to spend all of their money. That becomes a circle: work for power, to gain wealth, to gain more power, to — ? Presumably work for moral goals, as the Koch brothers have, as Sheldon Adelson and George Soros do.
Have I missed anything? Is there any other reason we work? Oh, wait, of course: we work for the benefit of other people. I work so I can give my wife food, so I can buy chewtoys for my dogs, so I can afford a house with a fenced yard for my tortoise to live in. (I give my wife more than food, and I do also give food to my pets. Just so we’re clear.) On some level I do these things for selfish reasons, for survival or my own luxury, because I like when my wife takes care of me and when my dogs treat me like a wonderful person — often immediately after I feed them; but I also do work for other people who do not benefit me directly. (I know that many people who fight to end abortion feel they are doing the same thing. Allow me to disagree. I do not think that anyone arguing against gay marriage is sincerely doing that for the sake of other people: it is a moral conviction they hold, and nothing more.)
And here’s where we come to my students. I work hard for them. Not for my survival; believe me when I say I could do a tenth of the work that I currently do and keep my current position, and therefore keep my salary; actually, if I arranged it well, and focused my minimal efforts on prepping my students for tests, I could potentially make more than I do now, because my school has merit pay for test scores, which I consistently ignore in favor of working hard to teach my students. I don’t work hard for personal gain: I don’t get anything tangible from students except the occasional gift of coffee or baked goods. I got a $25 gift card for Starbucks yesterday, but I make $25 an hour or so, and I’ve spend far more than an hour on the student who gave me the gift. (Please know, especially if it’s you who gave me the card reading this, that your gift was much appreciated: far more than my salary.) It’s the same problem as working for power: if I work so I can get gifts that save me work, it’s a wash. In my case, considering the amount of work and the value of my gifts, it’s worse than a wash, it’s a waste.
To some extent I work hard as a teacher for a moral purpose: I believe that education is valuable, and that literature and reading and writing are both valuable and wonderful, and I want to promote those ideas; my efforts contribute to that, I think. But not enough: because for all of my effort and all of my passion, my students do not generally become readers. Maybe they gain some respect for literature and for reading and writing, but they aren’t converted to my beliefs. The other reason I work hard is for their benefit: my students often don’t read well, and rarely write well; I think their lives — not my life, and not necessarily the country or the world as a whole — would be better if they could read and write more clearly, more purposefully, more powerfully. So I try to help them. For their sakes.
The biggest hurdle I face in that effort is, naturally, my students themselves (Also the educational establishment, which would really prefer it if I taught to the test and the skills and standards they have determined to be more important than literature; but that’s their moral purpose for work, not mine, and I haven’t been converted to their views. So, no.). Because the only way my students improve is if they work.
And why would my students want to work?
Not for survival; I hate to think that any of them would be denied food or water or shelter because they didn’t do well in school. I’m sure it happens sometimes, but I would turn that parent in for abuse and neglect, not praise them for motivating their child to learn. Not for luxury or personal gain, not exactly; some of them get money or presents with good grades, but that’s rare at the high school level, and only has influence around grade time: when it’s September and they feel like sleeping in, the awareness that they’ll get paid for every A come January does not get them out of bed to study for that test. The same for the overarching motivation we try to use on them in this country: work hard in school, then go to college (Where you’ll work harder, and buy yourself a mountain of debt which means you’ll have to work EVEN HARDER when you’re out of school) so that you can get a high-paying job. THEN you can work for abundance and personal gain.
You know what? That’s too much work, for not enough reward. The reward is much too distant, and too fraught; because we all have stories about people who work hard and are miserable, and we share those stories with students. Students see their parents working too hard to earn money, and they are capable of recognizing that their parents may love the work they do, but that doesn’t make it worth the hard effort they put into it. I myself am not a good example to become a teacher: they all know how hard I work for them, and how little reward I get for it. Why would they work hard now, to work harder in college, to work harder as a teacher?
Even my students aren’t that dumb.
Maybe we should rethink this system.