Like many of my students, I was the first person in my family to go to college. One of my grandfathers worked in an iron mine, the other in a foundry. My father painted houses. My mother kept the books for an oil delivery company. For people who suffered through the Great Depression and World War II, they were happy to have honest work. They did their jobs with enormous pride and a sense of accomplishment. Labor Day was a big day in my house. Management my family joked, got the other 364. (As Dean, I live by this.)
Sometimes I think that my industry goes out of its way to disparage honest work. We don’t do it directly of course. We are far too civilized for that. Instead we portray a college education as the gateway to a “better future,” earning the degree holder higher wages and fewer bouts of unemployment than people without the degree. Although it’s never really said, the inference is that honest work is inferior. Life without college is by definition a lesser future.
I beg to differ. Honest work done with your hands and heart, isn’t inferior work, its different work. For some people, it’s the right work. Even today, the U.S. has about 30 million jobs that pay an average of $55,000 or more per year and don’t require a bachelor’s degree. People in certain vocational fields are also slightly more likely to be employed than college degree holders. There is a lot of variance around all of these means mind you, but honest work isn’t dead and the people who hold these jobs aren’t lesser folks–they are my parents. They put me where I am today.
Don’t misunderstand me: I am a big believer in the transformative power of higher education. I’ve seen it change many lives for the better and it’s what made me what I am today. But while we take a break from classes this Labor Day let’s not deceive ourselves into believing we hold the only key to people’s chance at a better future. In today’s world, it’s monopolists who are the dying breed, not honest work.