Welding and the Meaning of Life

Ego” by Aftab Uzzaman; CC BY-NC 2.0

I find myself angry a lot lately, frequently at the charges of irrelevance leveled against my discipline of philosophy and liberal arts in general.

These charges argue not just that philosophy is irrelevant. They argue that it’s worthless. It’s worthless because worth is measured in terms of gross salary. This is the apex of neo-liberal, consumer-capitalist thinking about higher education. The assumption underlying remarks that claim welders make more than philosophers; that the government should not subsidize your art history degree; or that the liberal arts are a waste of time is that, because they do not meet some unspecified salary threshold, they are not valuable.

Value is not simply about money.

There are many reasons to be angry and frightened by this rhetoric, just as there are many possible replies to it. I might point out that the math is wrong, that philosophy majors do, in fact, make more than welders. I could argue that the core skills of the liberal arts — creativity, critical thinking, metacognition, self-awareness — are widely applicable to many careers. I could point out that we are not just workers, but citizens, and that liberal arts education helps make us better citizens. Liberal arts cultivate citizenship through exposure to divergent points of view and cultivating broad perspectives that, when coupled with those skills of critical thinking, enable us to better participate in the apparatus of self-governance.

These are all true, of course. I believe them and will articulate them to the best of my ability as an educator.

But I also believe we have a moral duty as educators to help people find the sort of lives they find valuable, regardless of how that life might benefit me. As an educator, I ought to support any learner as a fellow human being. I may not care about art history. But it ought to be enough that YOU care about art history enough to want to devote four years or so to learning about it.

The most damning thing about the recent rhetoric against philosophy is not just the denigration of the role of the liberal arts and the reduction of everything to economic utility. It’s the underlying motivation for such denigration — a refusal to support others. Why is it so difficult to believe we ought to help others as they develop themselves and their talents in a way that allows them to craft a life that has value in a way that they themselves define?

This idea — that we ought to help others pursue activities which they find valuable — is not new. It’s rooted in Aristotle’s ideas of leisure and labor. Labor is work we do for others, for the extrinsic benefits that such work produces. It’s the exchange of time and skill for something else. Leisure is not idleness. It is being engaged in activity that is valuable in and of itself. This activity might, in fact, be hard work. Think of the runner who trains for the marathon, or the writer who simply gets lost in the act of putting pen to paper, or the cook who puts in the time to make beautiful meals for his friends. These individuals may or may not earn money from these activities, but money is not why they do them. They do them because those activities are valuable over and above (or perhaps despite) any monetary value they generate.

As a philosophical idea, the pursuit of leisure is a thread that runs through thousands of years of thought, from Aristotle to the present day. It’s all but lost in the present political language on education. The idea that we ought to educate for anything other than simple economic productivity seems quaint somehow. John Dewey anticipated this, arguing in Democracy and Education that industrial work, and the education that had been built to support it, threatened to eliminate the idea of leisure for all but the elite, with industrial schools built to train people for industrial jobs. Work, Dewey argued, ought to have value for the worker, who sees within the work a larger social and personal value.

In a similar vein, Matthew Crawford argues that manual work, often regulated to the “uneducated,” often contains deep intellectual value. In his paean to this sort of work, “The Case for Working With Your Hands,” expanded into a book length memoir/argument called Shop Class as Soulcraft, he says “A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world.” For some, this is tradecraft. For others, philosophy.

What is education if not helping others develop their best capacities? What is teaching if not showing how those capacities might have an effect in the world?

I think one of the great challenges teachers face in today’s higher education climate is promoting the goal of valuable work while responding to the deep economic insecurity of our students. Students want to find — they need to find — work that allows them to pay their bills and support their families. We cannot deny and should not ignore this. I don’t think most of my fellow faculty ignore it. But we have to work hard to not let this real and felt need of our students combine with the external pressures to commoditize education dominate what happens in our classrooms and our curriculums. We can help students find work they value because it speaks to them, rather than because it merely produces profit for some corporation.

How can we respond to this student need?

I don’t have major suggestions — no throw-the-hammer-through-the-screen style modes of revolution here — but I think as educators we can work with our students to help them realize that work is more than money. Their value and worth extends beyond the salary they may earn once they graduate. One way to do this is to make sure our students have opportunities in class to engage in authentic work that uses their authentic voice.

“Authentic” is a loaded term. I don’t have the space here to debate problem versus project based learning or whether or not “experiential learning” is really experiential or learning. My point is simply that, in an effort to help our students see that work ought to have value beyond a salary, we can show that academic work has value beyond a grade. We can work harder to allow students to engage in work they already have interest in and express their learning in public ways. There are few things more demoralizing and commoditizing of education then when the students do work that they know is relatively meaningless beyond the confines of a course. Public display of work, through student blogs or other means, extends the conversation beyond the classroom, allowing for public interaction and enhanced learning. Value is framed not just in progress toward degree (and, eventually, job), but through contribution to the learning of their peers and the public. Giving students choices in how they express their learning through the use of something like an assignment bank is also a possibility. This allows students to find ways to more authentically express what they have learned, but it also pushes them to figure out how to create something that they, themselves, value.

We need to let our students become themselves in the classroom.

I want to share two anecdotes that illustrate the value of choice and voice in the classroom. Several years ago, I stumbled upon a syllabus online. Regrettably, I cannot remember who made it or what course it was for, but I still remember the grading scale. A “C” was defined as “I [the student] impressed my grandmother with my work.” The idea being grandmothers are easily impressed by their grandchildren, so this was a minimal amount of work done. The “A” was “I impressed myself with my work,” indicating that the student had pushed herself further than she thought she could go. What a wonderful way to frame high achievement — “I impressed myself.”

The second story comes from my own undergraduate experience. As a philosophy major, I was taking a required Philosophy of Science course. As a huge geek, I was busy playing role-playing games in my limited spare time. When it came time to write my final paper, I approached my professor and asked if I could write about magic as an alternate form of scientific inquiry. He looked skeptical, but said go ahead. This lead to lots of external research, including some interviews with a practicing stage magician. I won’t claim the final product was the best philosophy work I ever produced, but I did go well beyond the usual amount of research I put into a term paper. I followed a variety of intellectual strands into some odd places. Was this “wasted”? Certainly not. I learned things, particularly about myself, through the trust that this professor had put into me. This work was all due to the freedom and encouragement to pursue an interest, however odd it seemed, within the scope of a course. All of our students ought to have the same opportunities.

Particular pedagogies can be acts of resistance, especially within the confines of universities that are have adopted consumer-capitalist ways of dealing with students, faculty, staff, and curriculum. The pressure to only produce workers, not thinkers, or citizens, or to cultivate humanity is immense. Consider also that part of this pressure is a legitimate response on the part of students to their own economic needs. Yet we cannot lose the fact that good work is work that has value to the individual, value that goes beyond salary. I would argue that we can, and must, resist the external pressure while being attentive to the students in our classrooms. As I write this, the story that unfolded at Mount St. Mary’s shows us a number of things. First, that this corporatization continues with alarming speed, seemingly heedless of the damage that is being done to students, faculty, and institutions. Second, despite my line of reasoning in this article, it shows that pedagogical resistance is likely insufficient in and of itself and perhaps even dangerous. Changing pedagogies can help our students, but it is only one part of a larger fight. But, even if it is potentially dangerous and, by itself, insufficient, it is important. What we need to do is reconnect with the idea of leisure, of finding value beyond salary. One step toward this is assuring our students have voice within the classroom, of demonstrating that their own interests aren’t simply tertiary to whatever goals, objectives, or plans we might have for them.

Hybrid Pedagogy uses an open collaborative peer review process. This piece was reviewed by Sarah Honeychurch and Greg Zobel.

[Photo, “Ego” by Aftab Uzzaman, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.]

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