There is much more to say about the pleasures of so-called “peasant labor,” particularly in the wake of my romanticized, self-satisfied babble a few days back.
I must first say this: Yes, I love physical work, and I have at least a middling capacity for it (unless wittle Benny gets a boo-boo, in which case all bets are off until I’ve fully rehabilitated my blister). And yes, it does occasionally feel to me as if the work I do to earn my moneyed living is, to quote something I read recently “white collar, desk-bound, pontificating bullshit.” So there’s that. But the larger truth is that I’m incredibly grateful to be able to provide financial support to my family in the manner I do, and the minute I stop being grateful is the minute someone should just haul off and slap me upside the head.
There was comment the other day about someone’s father or maybe uncle, about how he worked construction his whole life, never turning down the overtime, and now his body is a wreck. Maybe the work was good while his joints and muscles held up, maybe he actually loved it. Or maybe not. But either way, he did the good, honest labor, and it twisted him up, wrung the health and vitality right out of him.
The same day, I heard on the radio, on a call-in talk show, yet another despairing conversation about the state of our nation’s educational system, about how we really need to be sure we get more kids into college, about how we’ll never compete as a nation if we don’t send more young adults to university, about how it used to be enough to maybe get a high school degree, and then you needed at least two years of college, but now, if you don’t have at least a bachelor’s degree and maybe even some sort of post-graduate paper, well… you lose, sucka. I’d link to it, but I’m not willing to risk you wasting your precious time listening. Besides, you can hear the same damn conversation in a million different places every day of the friggin’ week.
These things are connected, of course. The wrung out father/uncle, the ceaseless lament about our nation’s ability to compete on the global stage and how we must push our children harder, funnel them more efficiently into the higher educational system, give them the tools they need to compete amongst themselves. Because we all know college graduates earn more money over their lifetimes, right? Because we all know the science-and-technology-heavy jobs of the future require more than a high school diploma.
Hey, I got a question for ya: Whose gonna build your fucking house? Who is going to saw the timber to make your toilet paper? Who is going to grow your food, make your clothing (what’s that? Chinese children? Ah, I see. No worries, then), fix your car, unclog your septic, maintain the playground with that neat merry-go-round your kids love so much? Who’s going to play the music you listen to on your way to work? None of these require college degrees. Not a friggin’ one. All are essential, honorable work. Way more essential and honorable than creating apps or yet another platform for posting selfies on the internets. Probably even more essential and honorable than writing for a living, though I’m loathe to admit as much.
Hey, I got an idea for ya: What if we, as a society, stopped worrying so damn much about our nation’s ability to compete. About our children’s ability to compete. What if we recognized that, sure, college can be a great thing for some people, and we should do what it takes to make college accessible to those people. But what if, concurrently, we stopped creating this manufactured stigma (is there any other kind?) about those who choose differently, and furthermore, we started paying them a wage commensurate with their role in keeping our society on its feet. Maybe then the commenters father/uncle wouldn’t have had to take all that overtime. Maybe then his body wouldn’t hurt so much when he wakes up in the morning. Maybe then children who are not cut out for college wouldn’t feel like second-class citizens. Maybe then they wouldn’t be treated like second-class citizens. Maybe then we’d stop destroying the biosphere in our clawing, kicking, screaming scramble to compete with other nations. With other humans.
I know many people who went to college, and many who didn’t. Maybe it’s just the oddball folks I associate with, but I honestly can’t say that those who graduated college are doing better than those who didn’t. Might be making more money, sure, but are they overall enjoying their lives more? Not that I can tell. Are they engaged in honorable, even righteous work? Many are. But are you telling me there’s something more honorable than selling firewood? Than milking cows or building houses? Fuel. Food. Shelter. Seems pretty damn honorable to me.
When people ask if I’m concerned about my children’s ability to gain entrance into college, I can honestly say that I’m not worried in the least. Partly, I’m not worried because I know that if they want to go to college badly enough – if there’s something they are passionate about learning that can only be learned in such a place – I know they’ll figure out how to make it happen. But the other reason I’m not worried is because I have seen with my own two eyes that it is still possible to build a good and worthy and fulfilling life without a college degree. Is it getting harder to do so? Yes, I believe it is. But of course the primary reason it’s getting harder is because we are gullible enough believe the stories we are told about education and competition. We listen to programs like the one I heard and we lament right alongside the invited guests and the call-in listeners, and our lament leads to worry, and so we bundle our kiddos up and put them on the college train without even considering whether or not they’re the least bit interested in the destination.
I believe that laments like the one I heard on the radio are built around a myth, one that is perpetuated because it serves broader stories of economics and success. This myth loves nothing more than people competing against one another for their share (and more!) of the resources our industries churn out. Like so many of the stories we are told and sold, it’s a myth that’s become so pervasive that we are no longer aware it’s anything but the gospel truth. And that, more than anything else, is what makes it dangerous. As ever, the things we should be wary of are generally not the things we’re told to be wary of, but rather the things we don’t even know to look out for in the first place.
Damn. All that and not even 5:30 a.m. It’s gonna be a hell of a day.