Thursday, May 31, 2012

A 'Menial' Conservative Argument

Occasionally, when I have cited what some consider to be 'liberal' or progressive intellectuals, I'll be referred to 'conservative' academics and scholars as some sort of counterbalance. If the progressive intellectual I reference happens to be black, then of course, the effort to show me that a conservative point of view has 'intellectual' credence - the 'see, there's even a black man who agrees with us - and he's smart' syndrome.

One such reference will be to Thomas Sowell. Now Sowell can indeed make some rather prescient points. But in the main he tends to sound like an angry uncle using multi-syllabic words, or highly conceptual, loosely related illustrations. To be more frank, he sounds like a number of black conservatives with chips on their shoulders because they're not as popular as their progressive counterparts.

This particular column responding to another intellectual's point that teens need 'meaningful work' is a case in point...


"The dangers that a lack of realism can bring to many educated people are completely overshadowed by the dangers to a whole society created by the unrealistic views of the world promoted in many educational institutions."


"It was painful, for example, to see an internationally renowned scholar say that what low-income young people needed was “meaningful work.” But this is a notion common among educated elites, regardless of how counterproductive its consequences may be for society at large, and for low-income youngsters especially."


"What is “meaningful work”?"


"The underlying notion seems to be that it is work whose performance is satisfying or enjoyable in itself. But if that is the only kind of work that people should have to do, how is garbage to be collected, bed pans emptied in hospitals or jobs with life-threatening dangers to be performed?"


"Does anyone imagine that firemen enjoy going into burning homes and buildings to rescue people trapped by the flames? That soldiers going into combat think it is fun?"


"In the real world, many things are done simply because they have to be done, not because doing them brings immediate pleasure to those who do them. Some people take justifiable pride in working to take care of their families, whether or not the work itself is great."


"Some of our more Utopian intellectuals lament that many people work “just for the money.” They do not like a society where A produces what B wants, simply in order that B will produce what A wants, with money being an intermediary device facilitating such exchanges."


"At the very least, many intellectuals do not want the poor or the young to have to take “menial” jobs. But people who are paying their own money, as distinguished from the taxpayers’ money, for someone to do a job are unlikely to part with hard cash unless that job actually needs doing, whether or not that job is called “menial” by others."


Sowell's point is relevant in this way - for the most part, teenagers need to work. Whether it is 'meaningful' or not. They need the experience, the discipline and the opportunity to learn accountability. 'Meaningful' can mean that they learn that they learn - as I told my youngest daughter - if you don't want to flip burgers at McDonald's, you need to get an education!


As a teenager I worked in the kitchen of a hospital. It was meaningful because I learned that I don't want to wash dishes for a living!

But Sowell's categorizing of firefighters, soldiers or 'menial' health care jobs that people do out of a sense of maturity and are in some way not 'meaningful' is a pretty specious argument. He misses the point that many of us make when we talk about teens having work that gives them an experience that helps them understand the meaning of work and leads to opportunity.

My brother, for instance, wanted to be a doctor, but for reasons only he can answer, never got past pre-med. He never lost the desire to work in the medical field. He took one of those 'meaningless' jobs as a hospital operating room orderly. It actually opened up a door to becoming a firefighter and then a paramedic. He's been a Dallas firefighter and paramedic now for more than 30 years! The 'meaningfulness' in that hospital operating room orderly job? It kept him connected to his dream. He had doctors, nurses and someone to help point him to opportunities beyond that menial job, to another job that 'needs doing'. And he has rushed into burning buildings and treated sick and elderly because it is 'meaningful' work.

What teenagers need is work, for the experience, for the discipline and for the accountability - and for the paycheck, definitely. But they also need work that is 'meaningful' in that they need to learn that even 'menial' jobs can open doors to work that can feed their souls, their families and help others. They need to be shown and taught pathways  that can lead them out of menial jobs and  poverty.

I don't know of anyone who suggests that the poor or the young ought not have to do 'menial' work. What some of us do argue is that the poor or the young shouldn't have to be consigned to dead end work if they don't want to be. The jobs in which people take pride as they care for their families are not always 'great' jobs; but they ought to be jobs that really do enable them to earn enough to care for their families. Which means 'menial' work needs to pay more (which requires a progressive minimum wage) or it means education and training that takes people beyond low-wage work.

Sowell may be a conservative intellectual. But at least on this point his reasoning is off. All work should be respected and encouraged. What we should eliminate, in every way we can, is the oxymoronic category of 'the working poor'. Any reasoning that suggests that there is something wrong with that, is itself, intellectually deficient.

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