COLUMN: The Value In Manual Labor
Published: Thursday, September 26, 2013
Updated: Thursday, September 26, 2013 00:09
T-minus seven months and counting until it happens: I am kicked out of the Boston College bubble for good. I could easily argue I voluntarily exiled myself from this safe haven in Chestnut Hill a year or two ago—my junior year was spent abroad and this year I am commuting from the Davis Square area. I, unlike many in my year, am looking forward to graduating and entering the “real world,” yet, at the same time, I cannot help but notice how badly the idealistic strain emphasized at BC clashes with my perception of the job market.
For the last four years, and arguably before I even came to BC, I have been inundated with iterations of “set the world aflame” or “follow your dreams,” etc. The cynic that is moi, of course, rolls my eyes every time one of these cheesy mantras leaves someone’s lips, because they contain a hidden subtext. The fact is, there are certain dreams BC wants you to follow, and certain dreams that would best be haunting someone else’s sleep. This is where my personal experience comes into play.
Since the beginning of September, I’ve been working a part-time gig at a local floral company. Basically, my job entails traipsing through smelly service entrances to set up floral arrangements for some corporate event, or worse, a wedding (bridezillas, anyone?). I have to say, I quite enjoy this job. For me, the manual labor it demands is a bit of a relief. It’s straightforward and it’s practical—there’s not a lot of abstract thought required to accomplish a task. It’s problem solving at its core, and I relish it. This may seem strange coming from someone who a) is a girl … ahem, young lady and b) is pretty enamored with the intellectual world. I enjoy writing research papers, I love to read, and I’m taking a seminar on psychoanalysis, for crying out loud. It doesn’t get more intellectual than that. Still, I find myself drawn more to the physical aspect of the floral job than to the abstract nature of the content writing internship I’m also participating in this fall. What does BC, and more importantly, the external world, have to say about that?
If you look at the employers who registered for the BC Career Fair earlier this month, the vast majority of them were in the finance industry, whether they were consulting firms, accounting firms, etc. There were no employers (that I know of, at least) that represented automobile factories, or construction companies. The implication is obvious: kids with college degrees don’t assemble cars, they don’t mix concrete—they fill positions in white-collar jobs. The ultimate goal for most college students is to get internships in the corporate world—you don’t hear of many undergrad seniors working at Pino’s Pizza, for instance.
Even if you read articles about struggling college grads, journalists describe with horror how a history major from a $50,000 a year university had to take up a job waitressing to pay off her student loans. Um … sorry, why is that anything abnormal? Practically every adult I know has been a waiter/waitress or worked in the service industry at some point, and yet, there seems to be an almighty aversion to it among our generation. It’s as if just because we have a college degree, we expect an $80k-a-year job to fall into our laps. My high school teacher used to regale us with tales of how he dressed up as a genie and went to kids’ birthday parties to help pay off student debts. Working embarrassing and menial jobs is a fact of life, people, and as they say, no job is too small.
While I certainly don’t endorse making a career out of bussing tables, I ask if we should condemn jobs heavy on manual labor and light on abstract thought. Somehow I get the impression that any given university would rather I run the floral arrangement company, or at least arrange the bouquets, than merely place vases on tables. It all comes down to (big surprise) money. You see, as the cost of education gets bigger, universities tell us to dream bigger, so we can earn bigger, and then donate bigger. More and more jobs that used to be acceptable for college graduates are being dismissed as “beneath them,” because evidently the only reason why anyone would spend nearly $250,000 on an undergraduate degree is to become the next CEO of some Fortune 500 company.
BC is known for espousing the value of a liberal arts education, claiming it teaches one how to think, not what to think. This philosophy implies that education is, to a large extent, an end in and of itself. The culture at BC implies just the opposite, however: that education is a means to an end, an end that preferably sees you working in a white-collar environment, changing the world using your mind, not your hands. Maybe it’s time for BC and its students to consider that BC has duped us into thinking an intellectually stimulating job and manual labor are mutually exclusive options.