Saturday, May 23, 2009

What Makes Work Good?

I've seen several interesting articles this morning. This article in The Washington Post talks about colleges that are experimenting with three year degrees, and it discusses, briefly, the notions, both historical and current, of why we send kids to school. This article in The New York Times makes a case for working with one's hands, and it's by an author who has done any number of jobs, some academic, some physical. Matthew B. Crawford says, "I used to work as an electrician and had my own business doing it for a while. As an electrician you breathe a lot of unknown dust in crawl spaces, your knees get bruised, your neck gets strained from looking up at the ceiling while installing lights or ceiling fans and you get shocked regularly, sometimes while on a ladder. Your hands are sliced up from twisting wires together, handling junction boxes made out of stamped sheet metal and cutting metal conduit with a hacksaw. But none of this damage touches the best part of yourself."

Interestingly, Crawford now owns his own motorcycle repair business. I've been rereading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which covers some of the same philosophical territory as these articles, albeit in more depth (to be fair, Crawford's article is excerpted from his forthcoming book, which I plan to buy the minute it is available). I suspect that most educators wrestle with the question of what education should do. Ah, the old question: "What good is it? What is it for?"

And I've always wrestled with the question of my life's work. What am I put on earth to do?

My friend and his wife are down from Jacksonville, and we've been talking about the trend of community colleges across the state to want to transform themselves into 4 year schools. Part of me understands. Part of me mourns what will be lost.

So many community colleges have moved away from teaching people a trade and moved towards being a place where you can complete the first two years of college cheaply. I understand. I spent 6 years as full-time English faculty at a community college in South Carolina, and before that, I adjuncted for several years at a different community college in South Carolina. There's a need for places where people can get those classes at a reduced rate. There's a need for people to go to a school where they can get lots of extra help. I got a lot of job satisfaction from helping people move towards lives they never thought possible--and they could do it because the community college was there.

But I also miss the aspect of the community college that taught people how to repair refrigerators. My Jacksonville friend said, "Yeah, but now we've got places like ITT Tech to do that."

Well, not exactly. Those places cost SIGNIFICANTLY more than community colleges. If I was a state legislator, I'd see a crying public need for state-funded schools (and with our current models, the community college seems one of the best places to house these programs) to educate people as electricians, plumbers, and auto mechanics--that mission would serve as much of a common good as educating people about how to write an essay and how to do the math that they never learned along the way.

I'm also finding these discussions interesting as I think about my own future. I'm good at administration, I think. I'm efficient, I can multitask, and so far, I think I've done a good job at balancing the needs of the institution with the needs of individuals. But do I want to do this forever? I don't know. Some days, I get a similar rush as I did in my community college days, when I solve a variety of problems for a variety of people. Some days, I wonder how much damage I'm doing to the best parts of myself. To be fair, I've always had that worry, no matter what kind of work I've been doing.

I wrote about these job issues here at my theology blog, so if these kinds of thoughts interest you, feel free to wander over there. I've been thinking about alternative career paths, including possibilities that include land in the country--again, that's not a slam against my current job. I've always contemplated other possibilities, no matter how happy I've been in any given job (is it a personality flaw or strength? I don't know). Yesterday's The Washington Post carried Carolyn See's book review of Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting, another book I should read probably. I need a book that tells about the real life headaches of a subsistence farm. When I think about land in the country, I think about Barbara Kingsolver's beautiful Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and I'm ready to move tomorrow.

But I really must wait for the housing market to perk up before I can do anything like that. And to see what becomes of Obama's health insurance ideas. I've always thought that if Obama did provide some kind of national health insurance, it would free up many people to live more creatively. How many of us are working for our health insurance?

And at the same time, I hear my farming forbears laughing at me--those people who spent so much time and energy escaping the farm. Still, they weathered the Great Depression in better shape than most. When you own a farm, you'll always have food. You may wear holes in the souls of your shoes, but you'll have something to eat and a roof, even if it leaks, over your head.


jeannine said...

Have you read "The Egg & I?" It's a classic about chicken farming in an area about ten miles out from where I used to live in Port Townsend, Washington. Despite the fact that it was written many years ago, many observations about farming - and the weather - are still true...

Kristin said...

I'll put this book on my list--thanks for the recommendation!