Sometimes an idea, a “theme” if you will, persists in popping up so persistently that even if one is not inclined to the mystical, it seems that the universe is sending some kind of message. In my case, the message is about work, about kinds of work, the value we as a society place on education, and on the kinds of work one tends to do if one is educated versus the work one does if one is not. I am not claiming to know anything, I am not reporting, I am just exploring – apparently at the pleasure of the universe.
First I made a change that meant that I no longer identified myself as “a lawyer” but as “a cook.” I have made a shift from doing work that requires years of education to a kind of work that requires none. I can tell that some people are a little baffled; a woman I met recently mulled over my career choice before blurting “but you seem so smart!” I then felt that I had to reveal to her that I had a law degree, that I really was what she thought I was, a Person Too Smart for Manual Labor. After I did that, I was really angry with myself.
There are also people I’ve known for years who can’t imagine giving up More Money for any reason at all, even if you really hate your more lucrative work. Why, they ask, did you go to school for all those years if you’re just going to make macaroni and scrub pots?! The message is clear: education is about making money, and “good” money is the rightful prize of those who have slogged away in the classroom. (Barring incredible athletic skill or the propensity to wear outrageous costumes and sing about bad romance).
Around the time I made the job change, I listened to a pod cast featuring UCLA Professor Mike Rose, who has written extensively on different kinds of intelligence, and the fact that certain types of work that seem “mindless,” and unskilled are actually very difficult. He spoke of his mother working as a waitress, and the skills she used to excel at her job. He addressed the daily decisions and judgments made by laborers performing jobs that we as a society dismiss as “unskilled” at worst, or as “trade” at best; work that is not valued as highly as, say, practicing law. I thought about really good waitresses, and the things they remember, the ease and fluidity with which they take orders, pick up orders, handle diners and sail through crises and rushes. I thought about the head of maintenance at my job, who can come into the kitchen and fix both the stand mixer and the electric can opener in three minutes because he knows what he’s doing. I thought a lot.
Last night, I watched “Undercover Boss,” which is manipulative and commercial, but contains a kernel of something important. The CEO of a large motel chain went out to work in the field,” and struggled to do the jobs done on a daily basis by his employees. He was exhausted by cleaning the pool. He was slow and clumsy as he tried to stock a housekeeping cart in the requisite five minutes, and clean rooms thoroughly and rapidly. He could barely keep up with the front desk clerk who, in slow moments, did the motel’s laundry, re-stocked the breakfast area and responded to maintenance complaints. A man with at least a bachelor’s degree, and probably an MBA, with a six-figure salary and a gigantic Tudoresque house could not do the “manual” work performed with grace and efficiency by his uneducated employees.
Again, I wondered about the absolute value of degrees and titles as the gateway to the best of everything. I value education, I was raised by educators, but does my understanding of the pathetic fallacy or my ability to distinguish Doric from Ionic columns make me worth more than a waitress who can juggle six full tables without making a mistake? How is it that education has become not simply a way to understand our world, develop critical thinking skills and illuminate options, but a mountaintop of respect, economic worth and snobbery? Why was I better, more important, and paid nearly ten times more as an attorney than I am as a cook? I work much harder now; I make much more use of all of my moving parts – my body, my imagination and my senses – than I ever did when I practiced law. I wasn’t a lazy lawyer; I was working hard, but with very few exceptions I was doing things I had done before, writing briefs about the same set of issues, explaining the same things to clients, and dealing with only the occasional oddity or crisis (which, to be honest, threw me into a total panic and ruined my day).
I am pleased to be so well educated, and wish that every child could have what I had – a good public school system, loving and disciplined support at home, and parents willing to sacrifice to send me to a good college. I am not pleased that an education like mine is used like the key card to a private lounge with cushy furniture, and that people doing difficult, honest work involving a different kind of intelligence are left to hang out in the crowded lobby with hard plastic chairs. I’ve looked at work from both sides, now, and I don’t like what I see.