What's the problem with work?


Newt Gingrich, post-debates, has had a hard time catching a break. His mouth has become a hazard, prompting cries of outrage every week, if not every day. While he could do a better job of keeping a lid on it, his proposal that children (especially low-income and at-risk children) should be entrusted with janitorial jobs at school made a lot of sense. Yet it was treated like a suggestion that we reinstitute slavery. He explained himself clearly and concisely in an opinion piece for Human Events, but the idea is probably a non-starter. And more's the pity.

He's right to be concerned about an erosion of the work ethic, especially in regard to physical labor. As one who had to be nagged to clean the family bathroom, and pushed out the door to find a job to help pay for my college education, I can say that an appreciation of work doesn't come naturally to everybody. But work is a divine prerogative (see Genesis 2:1-2), an echo of God's image, a responsibility, a calling, a gift, a burden, a challenge, a source equally of satisfaction and frustration, and an absolute necessity. The day has not come when machines will do all our work for us, and even if it does, the work imperative is built in. As Matthew Crawford demonstrated in Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, those who try to divorce head from hands are missing something vital to the mind's development.

A strong work ethic is not just important to the individual or family; American industry has been suffering a skilled-labor gap that may soon become crucial-at the very time, according to this article in City Journal, when the United States could be on the brink of an industrial renaissance. Meanwhile, colleges and universities are pushing law, business, and communications degrees as though the future will be entirely virtual, a failure to grapple with reality that will have to be addressed.

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Several years ago one of my nephews, age 9, told me that when he grew up he wanted to be an architect because that was a "smart job." He knew, even at that early age, that he didn't want to be laying shingles or fitting pipes. But physical labor isn't what it used to be; machines do relieve us of much of the back-breaking part, and the rest takes a lot of "smart." Our dads and granddads, who could solve problems on the factory floor and change out parts on the fly and determine which techniques produced the best results, were smarter, in significant ways, than their degree-holding kids.

We need that grounding, that connection to real objects, even if it's only spending an hour after school pushing a broom. Training kids to work is one of Gingrich's better ideas; the outrage is that we might need a federal program to reinstitute something so basic.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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