Recently, I had some very attractive hardwood floors installed in my bedroom, and as always I took the opportunity to talk to the gentlemen performing such tasks. For a long time now, I have been convinced that our perceptions about education have gotten us on the wrong track in the way we view those who work with their hands.
It seems that whenever we engage in discussions about the value of learning, we rarely give time in reverence to those who have become so important to our societal existence. To many of us who have degrees, it seems to go to the notion that we are more intelligent than the people who do not have degrees; or who simply have chosen to work in occupations that require the wearing of jeans in the outdoors, instead of the wearing of slacks in the office. How often society looks down upon those working in what might be considered the least attractive of occupations.
What brought this to mind was a conversation I overheard in an elevator just before the holiday break. It occurred between two students, both seniors, who were discussing their possibilities for employment after graduation.
The female said she was willing to work anywhere, do anything, as long as she could make some money. The male, a bit strident, said he was not willing to work just “any ole where,” because he was getting his degree, and he expected to make a lot of money sitting behind a desk, and certainly not in an occupation that required him to work with his hands. She wanted to know what was so wrong with engaging in physical labor. “That’s for peasants,” was his reply.
Now, I am not naive by any stretch, but I was taken aback by the quite insensitive and indelicate response by one so young and generally thought to be well-educated. How pleased I would have been to tap him on the shoulder and to ask if he was comfortable or even a little thankful for the clothes he was wearing, or even enjoyed the elevator that was taking him to the ground floor – both, by the way, having been made by strangers of many, many pairs of hands.
I wondered if he had been to a bakery lately, or had his car repaired, or his clothes cleaned, or savored a meal in a fine restaurant? Somewhere, somehow, someone was using those “uneducated” little hands to render him a bearable existence.
I would never have thought to mention such a discussion to Chris and his brother, Allen, who are following in the flooring business that was established by their father some 35 years ago. But speak we must of Chris, who one might say is going against the grain. He has a bachelor’s degree in engineering, a master’s in science and he worked in a professional field for 12 years before deciding to return home and to work in the family business. He gave up his shirt and tie to become a professional at laying those marvelous floors. So good are these men that there seems no end to demands for their services.
How fortunate for us that we have yet to discover a means for outsourcing the plumber, the electrician, the garbage collector and the man who cleans the septic. Because of their perceived occupational indignity, there are jobs that people will refuse to do, making our class structure an intricate part of our educational problems.
Character, then, lies not so much in the job to be done but rather in one who has chosen to do it.
Wes Carter, a retired UB professor who lives in Clarence, thinks our perceptions about education are misguided.