Monday, November 09, 2009

Real Work

John Holt often spoke to high school assemblies mostly in rich suburbs of big cities. He talked about the difference between jobs, careers, and work. In the Growing Without School issue #3 1978 he writes the following:
A job as I defined it was something you did for money, something that someone else told you to do and paid you to do. Probably not something you would have done otherwise, but you need the money so you did it.
A career was a kind of step ladder of jobs. If you did your first job for a while, did what you were told and didn't cause any trouble, whoever gave you that job might give you a new job. This job might be slightly more interesting, or at least no so hard-dirty-dangerous. You might not have to take orders from so many people, might even be able to give orders to a few, You might be able to make a few more choices. Then if you did that job OK for a while your boss might then give you a still better job until you had gone up the job ladder. This adds up to a career.
By 'work' I meant (and mean) something altogether different, what people used to call a 'vocation' or 'calling'-something which seemed so worth doing for its own sake that they would have gladly chosen to do it even if they don't need money and the work didn't pay.
I went on to say that to find our work , in this sense, is one of the most difficult tasks that we have in life, that unless we are very lucky we cannot expect to find it quickly, and indeed, that we may never find it once and for all, since work that is right for us at one stage of our life many not be right for use at the next..I added that the vital question, "What do I really want to do?"

What do I think is most worth doing?" is not one that the schools will often urge us or help us to ask of ourselves; on the whole, they feel it is their business only to prepare us for employment-jobs or careers, high or low. So we are going to have to find out for ourselves what work needs to be done and is being done out there and which of that work we most want to take part in.

As I said these things, I looked closely the faces of my listeners...What I saw and what I usually heard in the question periods that followed, made me feel that most of those students were thinking "this guy must have just stepped off the space ship from Mars."

Work for nothing? For most of them it was not just impossible, but unimaginable. They did not know, hardly even knew of any people who felt that way about their work. Work was something you did for external rewards-..
I found myself thinking often about something Paul Goodman had written: Ours is the first civilization in history that has imposed on the elite of its younger generation a morale fit for slaves."
To which I would add soemthing that Hannah Arendt once wrote about slaves in ancient Greece. Slaves could earn money, own property,even get rich. What they could not do was work for anything but themselves;in other words, they could not fight, or vote,or hold office. They were only allowed to be what in our time most people choose to be-what economists call Economic Man, people who work only for their own personal gain.
Of course, in saying this about the young people I talked to, I am to some degree guessing (and therefore perhaps projecting). Of one thing I am certain. There was never, anywhere, a hopeful, positive, enthusiastic response to what I said. I cannot remember even one among all those students, the most favoured young people of the most favoured nation in the world , who said "Mr Holt, here's what I am interested in care about, how can I find a way to work at it?"

To be continued in the next post.


Anonymous said...

Indeed, the magnificent John Holt. We are so blind to the truth we may as well be 'living' in the Matrix.

There is something which you do; something which you would be miserable and bereft not to do. That is your soul purpose, not work, not make-jobs, not slaving to put pounds in an already rich man's pocket. It may be singing songs. Or building walls or carving stonework or knitting or writing... But, it will be there, and, unless you do it. you will never find happiness.

That's my view anyway.


rfs said...

Great observation. We need to make time for the work we really are called to do. I call it 'mental health.' Again, as Holt says,"to find our work, in this sense, is one of the most difficult tasks that we have in life." I think it is because we are deviated from our paths be it by schooling and the focus on being 'well-rounded' (which often translates to being mediocre of average at best at most things)or other societal pressures. Imagine the diversity that could happen if people truly followed their hearts.

Anonymous said...

school ruined me. "I could have been somebody a contender,instead of a bum."
It takes courage to start again.

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