On Ditch Diggers and Dreamers
As I prepare the feast of meats (featuring some vegetables) for today’s over-indulgence in grilling, I briefly ponder the significance of today’s holiday. It’s Labor Day – a day for celebrating…yeah, a lot of people don’t really get that either.
Truthfully, most American holidays – especially the ones that give us the bounty of a three-day weekend – are occasions that barely resemble the reason they exist. We grill. We swim. We boat. We work around the house. We take short trips with the family.
I still see patriotism surrounding Memorial Day. There are flags set out by the American Legion and other civic groups. There are parades. Independence Day is another great holiday (albeit a noisy one) for celebrating all that we love about our country. Still, with each of these, most of our planning centers around food, family, and recreation.
According to the US Department of Labor, today’s holiday is one we began celebrating as a nation over 120 years ago.
Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.
Through the years the nation gave increasing emphasis to Labor Day. The first governmental recognition came through municipal ordinances passed during 1885 and 1886. From these, a movement developed to secure state legislation. The first state bill was introduced into the New York legislature, but the first to become law was passed by Oregon on February 21, 1887. During the year four more states — Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York — created the Labor Day holiday by legislative enactment. By the end of the decade Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania had followed suit. By 1894, 23 other states had adopted the holiday in honor of workers, and on June 28 of that year, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.
Our country and our way of life were built on hard work. Our founders were a combination of farmers, tradesmen, and intellectuals. Even the college boys of the group got their hands dirty, though – something that we all need to do from time to time.
As a society, and even within the education community, we perpetuate this strange dichotomy that places intellect at one end and labor at the other. I ask every group of graduate students I teach to explain what the phrase college and career ready means to them. Invariably, the conversation drifts to someone saying that not all kids need to go to college.
This is true, but then I remind them that all of us in the room did go to college. Someone then reminds me that plumbers make more than teachers. Then I remind them that some do and some don’t, eventually admitting that it’s an important point to understand.
I don’t know which students should and shouldn’t go to college. You would think the kid with a high grade point average and high ACT score would want to go, and usually, you’d be right. You also might not expect much of the student who barely made it through high school, underachieving all the way. I always conclude with the reminder that it’s not our job to choose our students’ path after high school. Our job is to prepare them for the path they choose.
Some students decide on a career early. By ninth grade, they know they want to be doctors, architects, or teachers engineers. If these are their goals, then our job is to prepare them for college. On the other hand, some students decide late that they want to pursue a career that will require a college degree. That doesn’t excuse us from preparing them to be successful there.
Along the way, most students in Oklahoma will have the option of taking classes at a career tech center. If this is what our students choose to do, we should encourage them. Nothing there will keep them from also going to college if they decide to do both. Again, our job as educators is to give them every opportunity to make all the choices they can – and then to change directions if they want or need to.
One thing on which Governor Fallin and I agree is that the end goal of our labor is to produce an educated workforce. I sometimes see those on the tin foil fringe call this the very definition of communism. It’s not. It’s the very definition of investing in the future. We want our children to grow up and be productive adults. Students entering college, completing a career tech certification, or joining the military right out of high school meet this definition. We don’t want students waking up the day after high school graduation wondering what’s next?
All of us who work perform labor. Some of it is manual labor. Two of my favorite comedies – Caddyshack and Real Genius have quotes by the villains of the film that show contempt for people who labor in the traditional sense. In Caddyshack, a caddy tries to curry favor for a scholarship with the president of the country club:
[Danny Noonan] I planned to go to college after I graduated, but it looks like my folks won’t have enough money to put me through college.
[Judge Elihu Smails] Well, the world needs ditch diggers too!
In Real Genius, a snooty professor scoffs at construction workers after being threatened by a defense contractor:
[Professor Jerry Hathaway] What are you looking at? You’re laborers. You’re supposed to be laboring. That’s what you get for not having an education.
Again, we have the false dichotomy. Get an education or you’ll be working with your hands out in the heat of the sun all your life. Never mind the level of technical skill required to perform these tasks. The mindset is, I have a college degree so I must be superior. And that’s simply not true. Having a college degree means you finished college. It doesn’t make you smarter than those without, and it certainly doesn’t make you superior.
In the end, we all (well, most of us) go to work. Some get paid to type for a living, and then they offer up thoughts on public policy regarding worker’s compensation laws. Still, technically, it’s labor.
Our state motto, Labor omnia vincit, translates to Labor conquers all things. In other words, if you work hard, then I guess you’ll conquer all things.
It’s a nice thought, but some people work and work and work and never get ahead. Education is what keeps you from simply running in place on a hamster wheel.
Not only are we all laborers, we are almost all employees too. Nearly everyone who works, works for somebody. Occasionally, that means that even though you know a better way to do your job, you have someone telling you to do it differently.
This takes me to another one of my favorite comedies: Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In this scene, a lost King Arthur approaches a peasant (Dennis).
[Dennis] What I object to is you automatically treating me like an inferior.
[Arthur] Well I am king.
[Dennis] Oh, king, ay, very nice. How’d you get that, ay? By exploiting the workers, by hanging onto outdated emperiest dogma, we perpetuate the economic and social differences in our society.
[Wife] Dennis, there’s some lovely filth down here. [surprised] Oh, how do you do?
[Arthur] How do you do, good lady? I am Arthur, King of the Britons. Whose castle is that?
[Wife] King of the who?
[Arthur] The Britons.
[Wife] Who are the Britons?
[Arthur] Well, we all are. We are all Britons. And I am your king.
[Wife] I didn’t know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.
[Dennis] You’re fooling yourself. We’re living in a dictatorship – a self-perpetuating autocracy in which the working class is –
[Wife] Oh, there you go bringing class into it again.”
[Dennis] That’s what it’s all about. If only people would –
[Arthur] Please, please, good people. I am in haste. Who lives in that castle?
[Wife] No one lives there.
[Arthur] Then who is your lord?
[Wife] We don’t have a lord.
[Dennis] I told you. We are an anarcho-syndicalist commune.
[Arthur] I order you to be quiet.
[Wife] Order, eh? Who does he think he is?
[Arthur] I am your king!
[Wife] Well, I didn’t vote for you!
[Arthur] You don’t vote for kings.
[Wife] Well how’d you become king then?
Hold on. I just got distracted and now want to watch all the Monty Python clips on YouTube.
Unless you too are in an anarcho-syndicalist commune, you probably work for somebody – probably not a king, although some bosses do prance around as if they were. If you’re fortunate, when you labor, you love your work. Even then, you probably look forward to being away from work sometimes.
My thoughts today – my Labor Day-specific thoughts – are for all who work. You drive the nation’s (and state’s) economy. You build a better future. You support your families. You innovate. You do the fun jobs and the thankless ones. Yes, the world truly needs ditch diggers and laborers. It also needs dreamers.
[Veruca Salt] Snozzberries? Who ever heard of snozzberries?
[Willy Wonka] We are the music makers. And we are the dreamers of dreams.
Working and dreaming are not mutually exclusive endeavors. Our nation was not built by those who are content with the world they saw around them. Innovation has never been left to the conformists.
We work so we can play. And so we can dream. But first, we work.