Education, Intelligence, and the Value of Work

by on November 28th, 2010
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I recently became a member of my community’s member-owned food co-op. Financial constraints have always kept me from buying many locally produced and healthier sustainably-produced foods. My brain has just always made the connection that I can’t afford to eat the healthier food produced outside the corn-syrupy heaven of big-agra. Still, my more noble understanding of food production in the US has finally begun to catch up with my purchasing practices. I made the jump and have begun to make much of my grocery purchases at the co-op. Since cost always is first and foremost in my brain, buying food, I took on working at the co-op for the additional discount. Last night I went in and worked my first shift.

Last night I spent a few hours at the co-op, “fronting” the grocery department (i.e.: fronting is the practice of moving product forward to the front of the shelves, to increase sales as well as give an orderly uniform appearance to products and make them easily accessible) and in the back, sorting stored product before it goes out front. Needless to say, I was sort of bemused by the experience.

You see, I am through and through, an academic. Guilty as charged. Jonathan Swift could very well be pointing his finger at me, when he scourges a fictional society, Laputa, which devotes itself to arts and sciences. A society whose members are kept perpetually distracted from reality by only ever thinking in the abstract. A person I consider to have been a mentor and friend, Dr. Hollis Seamon, once quite aptly described my personality by bluntly stating I was “the archetypal absent-minded professor.”

You can imagine my reaction when I spent a few hours working in a grocery store. There’s nothing more true than the fact that I would probably be screwed in life if I had to support my self by gathering shopping carts out of a parking lot and corralling them at the front of a store. I remember reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s very similar reaction in “Nickel and Dimed.” In the book, Ehrenreich, who makes her living publishing best-seller books and writing for The Nation, New Republic and others, describes her experience –having first created a fake resumé of a middle-aged mother with no work history and few marketable skills– as she attempts to support herself working jobs that society usually disregards as the providence of people with low intelligence. Her book is often funny, insightful, and full of a warm humanity for the actual women she meets and profiles that make their living, eat and feed their families on $8 an-hour jobs at the bottom of the employment food-chain.

What I like to consider, why is it we place such a such a premium on certain skills, and not on others. Let’s say a person works a cash register, and does it well. I know about myself that’s something I don’t do well, in fact, any job I have had to (there’s only ever been one or two) I have hated doing it. I am not suggesting a sort of radical equality that ensures everyone equal results, but rather, why doesn’t a cashier typically make a comfortable living, and why shouldn’t they? They’re just as necessary in our culture as teachers and writers –or financiers and CEO’s for that matter.

To me, an instructive example remains a good friend that died somewhat recently in a motorcycle accident. We were close friends in high school, and I remember I was mystified when we once compared our SAT scores. I couldn’t understand how his was so much lower. I spent hours and hours talking to this friend on every topic imaginable, he had a well-informed opinion for everything, and was among the more engaging conversationalists I have known. Dave went on to an unsuccessful stint in the army, while I enrolled in community college. Eventually he went to a trade school, joined a welder’s union, and after a number of years was making much better money working in a ship-yard than I made my first year teaching.

In education classes, the young, aspiring “thinking class” is taught to consider the idea of “multiple intelligences.” In order to teach a student, you have aware of their learning styles, and consider that the methods teachers often use to assess their students’ learning are imperfect and only really test intelligence of one kind or limited types.

Whatever jobs I have worked, and where, I very often be-friend janitors more often than I befriend people who hold the same position I do. This curiosity is something I have often found striking. It does make me aware of how people like me: college educated, middle-class and white, are often pretty blind to how their status confers privilege.

I grew up in a home where I had two college educated parents. I myself was able to go to college, largely on merit, but mostly because our government pretty generously subsidies the educations of middle-class kids. Without Pell Grants and Stafford Loans, I’d probably be still pushing a broom myself –rather than aspiring to a writing career and a career in the arts. In 2002, that was exactly what I was doing: pushing a broom, and riding around on a pallet-jack in a grocery ware-house.

Needless to say, I am very glad I don’t have to make my living moving canned goods around on a store shelf. I get to be the person that rents a hotel room in an unfamiliar city I have traveled to to work research a project. I am not the person who’ll be stripping the sheets off the bed the next morning when I have checked out.

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