Traditionally, Labor Day is both the unofficial conclusion of summer and the beginning of the academic year. Though most schools in Charlottesville no longer follow this pattern (including the University of Virginia), this week’s Culture Briefing attends to the fact by highlighting three articles on work, education, and meaning in the late modern world.
The first piece is an excerpt from Barry Schwartz’s forthcoming book, Why We Work. Published in the Sunday Review of the New York Times, “Rethinking Work” begins with recent survey data suggesting that 90% of working adults described themselves as either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” from their jobs. In Schwartz’s summary, this means “nine out of 10 workers spend half their waking lives doing things they don’t really want to do in places they don’t particularly want to be.”
While Schwartz makes no real attempt to provide a comprehensive answer to the question of why we are so estranged (alienated?) from our labor, the preliminary answer he does offer has to do with the fact that, in much of modern life, “work is structured on the assumption that we do it only because we have to.”
This is a mistake. As Schwartz has it, our interest in our work goes much further than subsistence through wages; we are, rather, the kinds of beings who pursue meaning in our work, and when such meaning is denied to us in the menial tasks of our jobs, we will do almost anything to search for and create it. And, crucially, this sort of meaning-making may well buck the logic of efficiency that undergirds our contemporary forms of monetary compensation. This, however, reveals something important about the relation of money to work. “If people were always paid to load couches into vans,” Schwartz says, “the notion of a favor would soon vanish.” This is for the simple reason that “money does not tap into the essence of human motivation so much as transform it. When money is made the measure of all things, it becomes the measure of all things.”
Money, the measure of all
things universities: so argues Hunter Rawlings, former president of Cornell and the University of Iowa in a brief blog post for the Washington Post called “College is not a commodity. Stop treating it like one.”
Rawlings’ point is fairly straightforward: even if we grant the premise undergirding so many of the “English majors make better tech CEOs” pieces that seemingly justify the ongoing presence of English departments in modern universities, “if we are going to treat college as a commodity, and an expensive one at that, we should at least grasp the essence of its economic nature.” (For two examples, see this piece from the Washington Post or this one from Forbes).
According to Rawlings, college, unlike a car, “requires the buyer to do most of the work to obtain its value.” Even in the most crass economic terms, an education is unlike commodities like cars insofar as it appreciates rather than depreciates over time. Rawlings is quick to draw a distinction here between a “degree” and an “education,” reminding us that it is quite possible to be poorly educated at elite institutions and well-educated at lesser schools. This is for the simple reason that education is not a commodity but, rather, “a challenging engagement” in which both teacher and student “have to take an active and risk-taking role if its potential value is to be realized.”
This notion of risk-taking in the life of the mind is at the center of a stimulating and wide-ranging interview with former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Though Williams is widely regarded as one of the world’s great theologians, a lesser-known fact of his work is that he also composes and publishes poetry. In this interview with Image, Williams connects the “risk-taking” quality of writing poetry to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ notion that the world is “charged with the grandeur of God.” Writing, in such a world, is risky precisely because the writer is simultaneously uncovering and creating meaning within the world. As Williams puts it:
Words or images or musical sounds that are charged in that way are an extraordinary testimony to the fact that we human speakers have been given the bizarre and utterly unpredictable gift of doing something a little bit like God—producing a reality that is charged, that is present, and that passes the radiance on to another level.
While not all workers work with words, addressing the disenchantment of work illustrated in Schwartz’s piece is essentially the poet’s task; and, crucially, this dialectic between active pursuit and a kind of expectant waiting is at the heart of writing poetry itself. According to Williams, there are some poems that simply “arrive”—coming in to take residence in what he calls the “inner vacancy where images and sounds can mill around and settle.” But, as any writer knows all too well, the space required for the right word to arrive must be created—that is, hewn out through effort and cultivated skill. “Most of the time,” as Williams has it, “we’re struggling to clear out the clutter and debris.”
In our view, anyone interested in understanding work or education in our day must inhabit this basic dialectic between uncovering and creating meaning within their specific sphere of human activity. In so doing, we may find ourselves—workers, students, and poets alike—engaged in the curiously God-like task of “passing radiance on to another level.”