Did you ever have the following conversation in high school or college while talking to an adviser or mentor?
Mentor: Someday soon, you’ll have to have a job.
Student: Yes, I know, and I don’t know what I want to do!
Mentor: Before worrying about the specifics of what you want to major, or how much money you hope to make, or where you might be working, let’s talk about purpose. Let’s talk about impact. Let’s talk about doing good. Does this make sense?
Student: No. Please explain!
Mentor: Have you thought about the impact of your job on others–both in your immediate community and the global village–and also how what you might pursue as a vocation will affect the environment?
Student: What do you mean?
Mentor:According to Wendell Berry, “…the industrialization of virtually all forms of production and service has filled the world with “jobs” that are meaningless, demeaning, and boring—as well as inherently destructive. I don’t think there is a good argument for the existence of such work.” What Mr. Berry is lamenting is the surplus of jobs where people aren’t providing any tangible, positive service to their immediate community. Instead, they are cogs in a machine, completely blind to the environmental and ethical impact of their work.
Student: This is all a bit abstract to me.
Mentor: Read about Monsanto, and hopefully you’ll start to understand a bit.
Student: So you’re saying there are questions I should ask about work, beyond simply how much money I can earn?
Mentor: Yes. Are you going to begin a journey in which you try to align your intelligence, skill, and passion with your work? Are you going to be content working for others, or be your own boss? Do you think it matters whether or not you believe in the product or service that you are helping to sell or produce? Will your job help the long-term health of your community and the earth?
Student: Wow, you’ve given me a lot to think about. I’ll be back to talk with you again in a few weeks.
The idea for this simulated conversation sprung from a TeachThought blog post, in which Terry Heick cites Wendell Berry and questions the role of public education in creating academic fluency versus preparing students for “good work.” The idea of good work, of course, opens the door to ethical and philosophical discussions about our economy, the future, and the purpose of our lives during our short time on earth. As far as I can tell, this type of discourse is absent in schools. And that’s a shame.
It’s hard to make money at jobs that must be done, according to Berry, versus simply engaging in the economic engine: “…there is a lot of work needing to be done—ecosystem and watershed restoration, improved transportation networks, healthier and safer food production, soil conservation, etc.—that nobody yet is willing to pay for. Sooner or later, such work will have to be done. We may end up working longer workdays in order not to “live,” but to survive.”
Did you experience ethical conversations about work in high school or college? Is it the role of public education to provide a space where more meaningful conversations about work exist? Do you agree or disagree with Berry that there are too many meaningless, boring, and destructive jobs out there? Is this discussion too far-fetched/Utopian, given that millions of our future graduates are going to continue struggling to find any work to pay the bills?