Monday, August 1, 2011

On Work And School

Examining work or the type of city certain types of work produce seems to be a major blogosphere meme today.

At the Madville Times, Cory writes about the Perm, Russia and that city's change from a manufacturing center to an artistic mecca.  Cory concludes that one need not "be a paint-spattered dreamer to recognize the value of the arts in revitalizing a city."

Meanwhile big boy blogger Andrew Sullivan points to an Allison Arieff column that examines how employers have changed the spaces employees work in and policies about infants at the workplace along with other work practices.  Arieff concludes,
Time. It’s no less important than space. Workers are more and more productive, but they’re becoming so at a harder-to-measure but easy-to-observe cost. We shouldn’t be rethinking the cubicle or corner office but rather rethinking all aspects of work: What careers are viable (and how should we train people for them?) Might companies and their employees be able to re-envision what loyalty looks like in an era where the average time spent in a job is hovering in the range of one to four years? If a post-consumer economy is truly coming, as many from Larry Summers to the collaborative consumption evangelist Rachel Botsman predict, what might it look like? And how will it affect our relationship to earning a paycheck? In other words, how can the workplace evolve to respond to the contemporary realities of work culture?
Sullivan also directs readers to a David Roberts column about "medium chillers" who would be willing to work fewer hours if they didn't need a full time job to afford health insurance.  He also writes about "killers," those who want want to start the next great American corporation.  Roberts concludes,
I suspect there are many, many medium chillers who would be happy working 30-hour weeks and trading the extra income for leisure time. Or perhaps they'd like to share a job. Or maybe they'd like to work more when they need money and less when they don't -- just "work and get paid for it" when they need to. Those options aren't workable for most people today because of the specter of health insurance. To deviate from the 40-hour employee model is to take on risk beyond what all but a few brave souls are willing to bear.
Similarly, there are all sorts of people who might like to be "killers" and start their own business or invent something new but are inhibited from taking the leap by the fear of losing or not being able to afford health insurance. Plenty of people take that chance, of course, but how many more would there be if that risk were taken out of the equation?
Roberts also points to a Wil Wilkinson post.  Wilkinson writes,
David Ellerman, one of my favourite challenging thinkers,  argues that the employer-employee relationship is more like the master-slave relationship than we are inclined to believe. I know this sounds a little crazy, and I don't entirely buy his argument. But take a look; he's on to something. Philosophical questions of self-ownership and the alienability of labour aside, I am convinced that autonomy is profoundly important to most of us, and that the sort of self-rental involved in the employment relation is regularly experienced as a lamentable loss of autonomy, if not humiliating subjection. I think a lot of us would rather not work for somebody else. It's not necessarily that we're burgeoning entrepreneurs eager to start small businesses. It just sucks to have a boss. And I think many young people are staying in college or heading to grad school not so much to improve their job prospects later, but to postpone entering into an arrangement in which "enough money is made out of you to buy an automobile for some other fellow's son", in F. Scott Fitzgerald's words.
I'll be back in the classroom soon.  Nearly everyone except Diane Ravitch and me believes that schools exist to prepare people to do a job.  I have tried to help people prepare for work, but I have been something of an abject failure.  In 2000, I know that I didn't explain to any of my students how to properly use a laptop at Starbucks and tweet responses to one's employer.  Now that I think about it, I didn't meet that objective in 2005 either.  Most importantly, I've never done anything to help people get on with the primary purpose of work: playing Angry Birds.

I know I agree with Cory; communities should emphasize the arts and recruit artistic types. I also agree with Arieff; we need to rethink "all aspects of work."  I tend to agree with Roberts and Wilkinson as well; we might be better off if workers changed their view of work and put in fewer hours.  I'm certain those workers would be healthier working 32 hours a week.  If I were a betting man, I'd bet that economic conditions will force Americans to change their view of the 40 hour week and full-time employment, but that's a subject for a different post.

If I act on Arieff's, Roberts's, and Wilkinson's insights in the classroom, however, I am setting myself up for unpleasantness.  Wilkinson quotes Fitzgerald; I'll turn to Tolstoy.
The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already; without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him.
There's not a parent, administrator, or local employer who is not convinced that she knows "beyond a shadow of a doubt" what the workplace and the real world is all about.  Right now, few will agree that Arieff, Roberts, or Wilkinson are making correct assessments.  I have no idea what those same people will believe 2021.

The best any teacher can do is to promote curiosity, flexibility, and independent thinking.  Students who possess those qualities should be able to adapt and thrive in any workplace enviornment.  They'll even be able to dodge those employers who believe that workers who "think too much" are "dangerous."

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