Finding work starts with finding our gift.
Brandon walked the halls of Ronald Reagan Senior High School on his way to the counselor’s office. It was the start of his junior year, which meant he had to start figuring-out what life after high school would look like. Brandon didn’t have a clue. But this is the counselor’s job: help Brandon figure-out how to become a productive member of society – whatever that meant.
Brandon sat down in the administration office and after a short wait was greeted by his assigned counselor. Reagan had a student population of almost 3,000 and a counseling staff of just three; this meant Brandon’s counselor had a caseload of just under 1,000 students. It’s hard to imagine how the counselors could do their jobs, but with budget cuts, the staff simply made do.
The counselor asked Brandon what sort of plans he had for after graduation. Brandon didn’t know where to begin: His family really couldn’t afford college and he wasn’t even sure he wanted to go. The counselor asked Brandon what sorts of things interested him. He said he liked playing hockey and he really enjoyed working on his car. Diagnosing problems and then fixing them gave Brandon a great sense of satisfaction.
Several years before Brandon even began high school, the vocational technical programs were eliminated from Reagan’s curriculum. This was, again, because of budget cuts, but also because the administration decided it best to focus on a college preparatory curriculum, rather than vocational training. So, preparing Brandon for work as an automotive technician wasn’t in the cards, at least not at Reagan.
Because their twenty-minute appointment was drawing to a close, the counselor advised Brandon to become a mechanical engineer. Depending on his family’s financial situation, there were all sorts of ways Brandon could finance his college education, so he ought not worry about that.
Fast forward to some eight years later, Brandon is now working as a mechanical engineer. He managed to get through college with average grades, but it was a struggle. He really wasn’t all that big on “book learning”. He’s also strapped with nearly $50,000 in student loan debt, which makes things particularly difficult.
Since starting his career, Brandon has been laid-off twice. His present job is as a contract engineer for an automotive supplier and there’s little prospect for advancement – at least not with the supplier. The project on which he’s working is due to end soon and it’s likely he’ll be laid-off again. While the work pays the bills (sort of) he’d rather be doing something else.
Brandon’s story is based in fact; it’s an embellishment of one I heard while working in the collision repair business. Based on what I hear and read, this story is one that continues to play out. The focus on getting a college education as the pathway to gainful and meaningful employment is part of the American narrative; it’s part and partial to the American dream. Yet, when we look at Brandon, do we see the realization of a dream, or the quagmire of a nightmare?
What Brandon told his counselor, many years ago, is that he liked working with his hands; he didn’t say he liked studying books. Had he said he liked both, perhaps the story may have had a happier ending. Is Brandon’s story the result of a system that is bent in a certain direction? I think it is. Brandon’s story speaks to the way in which the system of higher education has evolved over the years. With so many of us living-out a story not unlike Brandon’s, what are we to make of the system? How did it get this way and what ought to be done to make things better?
To give us perspective, we’re going to go way back in history and look at Plato’s notions of the academy, which are supposed to be the foundations of higher education. Historians tend to agree that Plato’s Academy is the seed or “spirit” behind the modern-day university.
The key to understanding Plato’s sense of the academy lies in his desire to entertain all sorts of ideas. Plato’s Academy “encouraged doctrinal diversity and multiple perspectives within it.” So, if this is the seed – the diversity of ideas – for the university, then an education should illuminate ideas and perspectives. Of course, not just any ideas and perspectives will do, otherwise we wind-up with what we have today: ungrounded conspiracy theories. This is where the learned come-in: those so gifted as to have the ability to seek out valid perspectives that lead to a better understanding of the world around us. Unlike in Plato’s day, we have the scientific method to help us, this means our thinking – our justification for arguments – ought to be grounded in what can be verified.
Throughout the ages, the notion of the university as a place for understanding and knowledge remained largely intact. During the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, however, the conception of the university began to radically change. This change was brought about by the factory system, the growth of the corporation and the need for competent knowledge workers to fill increasingly complex roles. Of course, the spirit of the university remained: One could study the arts, and upon graduation, find meaningful work that would put a roof over the head, food on the table and clothes on the back. This is still somewhat true today; however, it’s not absurd to suggest studying history or philosophy won’t lead to earning the sort of income necessary for a middle-class lifestyle. In our age, many of us consider “getting a good paying job” the purpose of higher education.
What’s Happened to the Academy?
Answering this question is complex. I will, however, present an argument that points to a single event that has had a profound effect on our system of higher education and our perceptions of it. Other factors include the way in which university research is financed. What I’ll cover reflects a mindset that became pervasive and was motivated by the mid-sixties radicalism that was born, primarily, on college and university campuses.
During the height of the VietNam war, many of our young – those privileged to go to college and thereby avoid the draft – became increasingly disturbed by the nature of the military industrial complex. A pivotal moment in this unrest was the University of Wisconsin’s 1967 sit-in strike, which was sparked by a Dow Chemical recruiting event.
The growing awareness that something was ridiculously wrong with our system of “free enterprise”, the corporate state and the grotesque ways in which it behaved (i.e., making and selling the machines of war as a means to profit) was taking root among university students. Should it be a surprise those who had come to universities to better understand the world found good reason for their unrest? Could it be that they, by being exposed to “doctrinal diversity and multiple perspectives” drew a not invalid conclusion? Perhaps their unrest was also motivated by the fact that their friends – those who could not afford a college education – were being sent to Viet Nam to kill people they did not know and for reasons no one could explain.
All of this unrest did not go unnoticed. The perception that universities had become hotbeds for socialist, and worse, communist thinking, was of growing concern. A backlash against the university system, among what the young called “the establishment”, began to spill over and take shape. There are few documents that represent this backlash better than the Powell Memorandum.
Written in 1971, by soon to be Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Lewis F. Powell, the so-called Powell Memorandum reads like a manifesto for the corporate state. One can only imagine what was going through the minds of folks like Powell, those who represented the establishment. Powell’s memorandum, which was addressed to the then Chairman of the Education Committee, US Chamber of Commerce, is filled with fear and loathing for those who harbored ideas that didn’t line-up with capitalism’s tenets.
Powel starts-out by framing the nature of the situation: “No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack.” Powell notes that the American economic system is “Variously called: the ‘free enterprise system’, ‘capitalism’, and the ‘profit system’”. The idea of “broad attack” is an interesting one. Powell didn’t view the ideas of others – especially those that came-out of the nation’s universities – as simply different and perhaps valid, but rather as “attacks”. The question I have is whether the “attacks” were at least justifiable in a philosophical sense. In other words, was there evidence – facts – that could lead one to conclude these perspectives were valid?
Powel sees in this “battle” attacks that are met with “appeasement” or apathy on the part of America’s business leadership. “American business ‘plainly is in troubled’; the response to the wide range of critics has been ineffective, and has included appeasement; the time has come – indeed, it is long overdue – for the wisdom, ingenuity and resources of American business to be marshaled against those who would destroy it.” The key word here is, “resources”, which I’ll come to in a moment.
Nowhere is Powell’s scorn for the attackers more evident than in what he had to say about the university, or as he referred to it, “The Campus”. Powell wrote, “…there is reason to believe that the campus is the single most dynamic source. The social science faculties usually include members who are unsympathetic to the enterprise system.” Why would the learned, those who’ve studied the system, as scholars, find reason to be “unsympathetic to the enterprise system”? Is it because they just didn’t like folks like Powell, or did they use their gifts – their intellect, the love of knowledge and so forth – to draw valid conclusions? It’s hard to imagine that a cabal of university professors gathered together, wrote-up a manifesto and decided to go after the “American system”. A more reasonable explanation is that the learned had found evidence and had drawn certain conclusions about the failings of the system. Perhaps they may even have thought, “we can do better”.
Much of the memorandum is dedicated to lining out what must be done, by the American enterprise establishment to fend off those who would destroy the system. While the memorandum is not a blueprint, it does articulate a set of beliefs and perceptions, as well as actionable steps. To suggest these actionable steps constituted a plan, one followed by those to whom it was directed, is over the top. What I am suggesting, however, is that the memorandum represents a way of thinking that was shared and adopted by those in power. And in this system, those in power are the ones who direct capital flows. In other words, those who sit on the boards of large corporations, and in many cases, they are one in the same as those who sit on the boards of colleges and universities.
Capital is another word for resources – at least that’s how we look at it. Capital is necessary to buy stuff, to build buildings and all the rest. And the captains of the American enterprise system did, and continue to hold the reins on capital. The age-old adage, “follow the money trail” is applicable here. It would be a mistake to underestimate what the memorandum represents and how, over the last fifty years, it has shaped the university system and our perception of it.
The university is now a business. It’s been infected by the idea that churning out graduates who will go to work in the American enterprise system is its purpose. We have deemphasized the arts, and the study of what it means to be human, in favor of cranking out uniform persons who believe capitalism is the only way to organize work. We’ve also made it difficult for anyone who holds a contrarian view to be heard on college campuses. For a host of reasons, not the least of which is being called a “socialist”, university educators are made to follow a uniform way of thinking.
This is, of course, an exaggeration. Within the university system there remain dedicated souls who believe leading students to understand the world is the university’s purpose. Yet, as a system, the effect of the Powell Memorandum can be seen all around us. It’s one of the reason’s Brandon couldn’t attend vocational school; it’s also the reason he and many of his fellow students were led to believe the “only way” to meaningful work is to go to college.
What Can be Done?
There is certainly no simple answer to this question; yet, we have to start somewhere. To do so, we must look to the antithetical: a perspective not grounded in the seemingly singular purpose of human existence, which, in this system, is to make money. In this case, we’ll look to a thinker of a different sort, one who represents the American Indigenous people’s way of seeing the world.
Author Robin Wall Kimmerer, who “is a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation” writes about the intersection between Indigenous thinking and that of the Western scientific world. In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer relates the model given to us by the Three Sisters, which are actually three plants: corn, beans and squash.
The Native Americans, who have lived on this land for thousands of years and have a deep veneration for Earth, evolved a certain way of gardening that appeared strange to the colonists who first arrived here. European farming was based around segmenting plant species and planting them in straight rows, whereas the Native Americans had nurtured a different approach: They planted corn, beans and squash together. What native Americans had found was a synergy that existed between these three plants. Kimmerer, who is a botanist, explains the science behind the synergy, which has to do with the rate at which the plants grow, the way they take-up light and the behavior of their root systems. Each plant contributes something to the other, and as a “community”, they grow and thrive together.
Kimmerer’s insights about the relationship between the Three Sisters, as she writes, is applicable to us. “The way of the Three Sisters reminds me of one of the basic teachings of our people. The most important thing each of us can know is our unique gift and how to use it in the world. Individuality is cherished and nurtured, because, in order for the whole to flourish, each of us has to be strong in who we are and carry our gifts with conviction so they can be shared with others. Being among the sisters provides a visible manifestation of what a community can become when its members understand and share their gifts.”
Our gifts are grounded in our DNA. Coming to know our gifts is our responsibility and that of the community. This takes nurturing and time; it cannot be rushed, and it won’t come out of a twenty-minute meeting with a high school counselor. We need the wisdom of the community, the wise and learned among us – which includes our family, friends, educators and others – to find our way, to discern what we are meant to do with our gifts. We also need the courage to not be afraid to be with ourselves and listen to what our hearts are telling us. In an age filled with external pressures to conform, through advertising, social media and all the rest, it is particularly difficult to find the courage to listen to one’s own thoughts and feelings. Yet, this is precisely what’s meant by entering into the interconnectedness of life: listening with one’s heart, mind and spirit and responding in a way that’s true to what one believes. And when we find the things we’re called to do, we’ll have found our gift, and it is in putting our gifts to work that we will find meaning in life.
The first step in overcoming the difficulty in finding what we are to do is recognizing that we are part of nature, we are integral with the Earth and the whole of the universe. We are made of the same stuff as the stars and planets and all that surrounds us. For too long, we have seen ourselves as somehow “above” nature, smarter than nature and put here to “subdue” nature. This is a co-opted narrative, one that suits an extractive economy, an economy that is exploiting nature rather than venerating it. This economy exploits us and the whole of the Earth, of which we are part.
We need to trust the wisdom of the Indigenous peoples and what Earth is telling us. Life is intimately interconnected. To understand what we are to do –where and how we are to find meaningful work – we must see ourselves as intimately connected with nature. We need to trust that our inner voices – that spirit of life that binds us all – is where we will find the answers to what we are to do. This includes seeing the dignity of every human being and the incredible gifts with which each of us is endowed. This takes a deep appreciation for the mystery of life and the need to nurture life to its fullest. It necessitates seeing the world from a different perspective. What we are to do is not found by fitting a part into a machine, or succumbing to serving an exploitive economy that tells us the only things worth doing will make us rich. This means allowing life to grow and flourish – in its own way and time.
Humans are, of course, creatures endowed with an incredibly evolved central nervous system. Our brains give us the power to literally alter the Earth system. Among all living creatures on Earth, this gift sets us apart. Because we have the capacity to hand down knowledge from generation to generation, we’ve managed to discover things folks years ago could not even have imagined. And yet, there are many among us who, for all sorts of reasons, are not able to apply their gifts of intellect in ways that bring them joy and meaning.
What if the academy was transformed into an institution dedicated to nurturing knowledge in a truly democratic way? In other words, what if the best and brightest among us, those who have the gift of “book learning”, debating the “big ideas” and researching the solutions we so desperately need, attended colleges and universities and were allowed to put their gifts in service of the common good?
What if, rather than telling folks who like to work with their hands the only way to earn a living is to go to college, we could give them the opportunity to earn a just wage building the things we need to live, using locally sourced materials? What if we spent more time helping young folks figure out “what makes time fly” for them, rather than getting uptight about making sure they do everything they can to get into college? What if we found our gifts, put them to good use, and let nature take care of the rest? Oh, and by the way, what if we got involved and worked together to change the system so these things might become real some day?