Consider for a moment the least respected human being in a school. No, it’s not the teachers or the students. It’s the janitor. This is a human being — an adult, a citizen — whose work, whose labor, is so horrible, so odious, that even the lowliest of student would not be asked to do it. And we’re not just talking about cleaning bathrooms, a task that involves some level of danger and toxicity and personal sacrifice. No, simple labors like emptying a garbage can or sweeping a floor are simply beneath the respect of a teacher or student.
But it’s not just the janitor. Almost equally as disparaged, or even more so, are the cafeteria staff. If asked in this moment to conjure up an image of a school cafeteria worker, the resulting mental picture is unlikely to be positive. (Apologies to the exceptions.) In fact, if one catalogs the many adults responsible for the functioning of a school, it’s the rare laborer who emerges with much dignity at all. Bus drivers? Landscapers? Mechanics? Front office managers? Not until you get to the administrators and academics do the instinctive stereotypes begin to sway in favorable directions.
While students are intimately married to the work of their teachers — being guided towards a mastery the teacher has already earned — they are deliberately and severely divorced from any physical job in a school.
What’s the effect on the students, then? What secret (or not so secret) message is repeatedly reinforced? What quiet and corrosive ideas are being pushed, as subtle as the symbolic green light on Gatsby’s dock or beautiful young women in the background of pickup truck advertisements?
The ‘message’, repeated daily and in a thousand quiet whispers, is that labor is bad. Physical work — cleaning, cooking, building, fixing — is not worthy. Why, it’s so bad we wouldn’t even ask children to learn how to do it.
But where does this come from? Is it a general attitude within society itself? Maybe it’s simply true: labor really IS demeaning and worth avoiding. Everyone who toils in muscle and sweat, food and dirt, really isn’t worthy of our respect?
I posit here that the attitude comes, in fact, from those of us who teach, from the academics. Teachers are the ones responsible, because teachers — and the Universities from which they arrive — are the ones who set the terms. As a general rule, people tend to promote their own self-interests and concerns, even when they don’t deliberately mean to do so. And most teachers are not laborers. They go to college right out of high school. They read a lot. They are good at studying and taking tests. If some people are good at running or caring for others or building physical objects or performing acts of dexterity and strength, teachers are good at thinking about things. Teachers then go on to the University, with its own rather narrow rules and behavior, and in a powerful feedback loop bring it all back down to high school when they graduate into teaching jobs.
I myself am as guilty of this as anyone. I shudder to think of how often I used ‘burger flipper’ as an insult or threat to my students. How frequently I championed college over anything else. How I studiously I ignored construction or mechanics if it didn’t involve engineering. How subtly I encouraged enlisted military service to those not academically gifted enough for the officer class. And how little I ever actively promoted small acts of labor like cleaning or cooking.
A fundamental concept that drives an English literature class is the notion of secret meanings or forces. Students read ‘deeply’ for hidden meaning, for symbolism and theme and the subtle effects of literary devices. ‘Things aren’t obvious,’ students are told, ‘and we act for reasons we are unaware.’ We love/hate advertising in English class for all the ways marketing secretly promotes sexism or racism or body image. We emphasize this stuff because the power of knowing the secrets is liberating and can free us from mistake or error.
It’s not just English departments, of course. The higher you rise on the academic elevator, the more likely the doors open onto floors dedicated to revealing the secret forces on our lives. Psychology. Sociology. Economics. History: all are often motivated to reveal the hidden influences.
So it’s not without irony that the Academics, in driving school curriculum and structure, quietly and subtly and secretly promote their own unique set of behaviors about work and labor upon students.
And we should know better! After all, a significant premise of our occupation is the power of hidden bias. We are bewildered at the working class response to ‘the ivory tower’ and academics, and endlessly argue the hidden forces driving their attitudes, all the while ignoring our own actions.
In terms of policy, we have been quite vocal lately about the powerful effects of social attitudes towards marginalized people. Yet we seem entirely deaf and blind to the way we treat labor in our schools.
Maybe it’s time we changed that. Maybe we should not merely encourage labor among our students, maybe we should fold it into the fundamental structure and curriculum of school with respect and dignity.
Students should cook the food that they eat in school, and learn how to do so safely from the professionals already there. They should clean their own classrooms, guided by the people who know through hard-earned experience what the work involves. They should staff the front office, and mow the lawns, and help with the transportation.
They should be taught that work, no matter how physical, is dignified.