As I was pondering my Labor Day post, I originally assumed I would do business as usual and just post one of the recipes I have made and photographed recently, and then I started thinking about the meaning of Labor Day and why we get a Monday off every September. This then made me think about some research I have been doing for a consulting job I have right now, and then the words just started forming in my head. I did not realize how passionate I am about this topic.
What is Labor Day?
I wonder if most of us even know what Labor Day is? It signifies the unofficial end of summer for many. Retail stores offer big extended weekend sales. Traditionally, in many parts of the country, it signals the beginning of the new school year the next day. In my hometown, it was and still is the weekend of the town festival, Red Rooster Days. Typically, the long weekend is filled with picnics, camping, barbecues, and final trips to the amusement park or beach.
According to the Department of Labor website, “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.”
According to the first proposal for the holiday, it should be observed and celebrated with “a street parade to exhibit to the public ‘the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations’ of the community, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families.”
There is a lot more history than this brief summary provides, but basically the holiday is meant to celebrate the American worker and the achievements of unions and other organized laborers.
Labor Day Anthem
Thinking about the original intent of Labor Day immediately reminded me of this poem we always studied when I taught American Literature:
“I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the
deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing
as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the
morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at
work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young
fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
This seems like the perfect anthem for Labor Day. The poem celebrates the unique contributions of various laborers—mechanics, carpenters, shoemakers, mothers. The America of the poem is humming with the rhythm of all of these people working to keep the country moving forward. It is full of positive connotations and a celebratory tone. This poem was written in the late 1800s, about the same time as the beginning of the Labor Day holiday.
What about now?
Do we still value workers or labor? Do we stop and give tribute to the contributions of workers?
Last week I was doing some research and writing a lesson for a non-profit educational organization. The objective of the lesson is for students to ponder and determine whether or not college or other post-high school training is worth it. Some of the considerations include the high cost and accrual of debt that often comes with education on the one hand versus the lower lifetime earnings and standard of living of those with only a high school education. Is the upfront and long-term cost of the education worth the potential payout?
One of the issues that arose for me as I was researching this question is that when most people talk about post-high school education, they often only mean college. As a high school teacher, I saw more and more emphasis on getting students ready for college over the years. Our graduation requirements increased over time—everyone had to have 4 years of more and more advanced subjects. We were offering more “college prep” classes and fewer electives. If something was going to be cut, it was going to be art, music, or vocational type classes. And the longer I taught, the more I disagreed with the idea.
It has been about five years now since I was in the classroom, but I still see evidence of this pressure towards college. When I brought my oldest daughter to her first day of kindergarten, I saw a poster on the wall outside her classroom that read, “College starts here” with a picture of a small child in a cap and gown. When my other two kids went to preschool, the year started with a home visit and one of the questions asked by the teacher was what my long-term aspirations were for my kids. They wanted to know if I had hopes for them to go to college. My response to the teacher was that I hoped my kids would have the opportunity to discover their strengths, gifts, and talents over the next many years and that they would be encouraged to pursue those things. If that means college for any of them, great. I hope I can give them that opportunity. If that means trade school or the military or being an apprentice for a plumber, great. I want them to seek to be who they were made to be, whatever that is. I don’t want to pin my hopes on college today if that is not the direction meant for them and then spend the next fifteen years frustrated and feeling as though we are failing because it is not working out that way.
Not everyone is cut out for college. (Some are not cut out for college ever and some are not cut out for college right now.) Not everyone is gifted with academic inclinations. Not everyone can sit still and read and write and take notes or think abstractly. Not everyone is made this way, but it seems like many of our educational institutions and government officials are trying to make everyone be this way, and if you cannot cut it, you are made out to be a failure. Raise the standards! Give more tests! If you are not on the path to college, you are on the path to nowhere. So it seems.
My question was and still is, if everyone goes to college and gets an academic degree, who is going to build our roads or fix my car or pick up the trash or care for the sick or elderly or weak? What about the kid who can pick up an instrument and almost instinctively make beauty with it but can’t construct a proper paragraph? What about the person who can tear apart a machine and put it back together again, without an instruction manual, in such a way that it actually works better than it did before? What about the person who cannot solve a math problem to save his or her soul but has infinite patience and gentleness with a child or with a mentally or physically disabled person? Not everyone can do these things either, but these things seem to be undervalued compared to academic skills. Schools do not seem to value skills or trades or giftedness that falls outside of academia. Unfortunately, many of the students who are gifted in these ways fall through the cracks and drop-out feeling worthless, or they disconnect in other ways.
Through church and my own observations and experiences in life, I have learned that we have all been uniquely gifted by God, and that all of those gifts are valuable and necessary. In 1 Corinthians 12, you can read a whole chapter about how there are many different spiritual gifts and that all are needed to make up the whole. The passage is specifically speaking of the church body and its members and uses a great metaphor of a human body and its parts to convey its meaning, but I think it can also apply to people and their gifts in general. If we think of the sum of our population as a body, the individual people make up its parts. Some of us are hands, some of us are eyes, some of us are feet. As the Bible passage suggests, we cannot all be only one of the parts. It takes all of the various parts, doing their jobs, to make the whole. We need people with a variety of skills and talents. If we valued individuality and encouraged people to be who they are gifted to be, we would all be so much better off. Let the mechanical genius work on engines. Let the abstract thinker who can grasp advanced math do what she does best. This is not to suggest that we are all either one or the other. Some people are gifted in many areas and some of us may be gifted in some areas and lacking-but still capable or able to function-in the other areas. As adults, most of us have to be able to function at a basic level in many different areas. I agree that all students should have a basic level of competency across skills. I do not consider chemistry, calculus, and English literature to be basic levels of competency, however.
I am not bashing college or academic degrees at all. I think it is absolutely the right choice for some people. We need people who can study science and make advancements in medicine and technology and people who can write eloquently or solve the mysteries of numbers, but we don’t all need to, nor can we. We need people who can make buildings that don’t fall down and people who drive trucks and people who plant and harvest crops just as much.
As I was doing my research for the lesson I was writing, I came across an advocate for more skills based training and a proponent of trades and labor. Many of you may already know who Mike Rowe is. I very seldom watch any TV and have never had cable, so his name meant nothing to me. He was the host of a popular TV show called Dirty Jobs. For each episode of the show, he went out and worked alongside various laborers all over the country. During that time, he developed a new appreciation for the common laborer and the valuable contribution he or she makes to our lives. He also discovered that the supply of workers in these careers is extremely low. In response, he has started an organization and a movement to encourage people to go into the skilled trades. I am pleased that someone is beginning to champion the cause of the students who are not college-bound. He makes some excellent points about so-called “alternative education.” I have included a couple of short videos that give you a glimpse of his ideas. You can learn more about his foundation and mission at mikerowe.com or at profoundlydisconnected.com.
Is post-high school training worth it? Absolutely. The person with only a high school diploma or less will have a very difficult time at this point in history. We just need to be open to ALL of the post-high school options that are out there—college, vocational schools, apprenticeships, military, on-the-job training, trade schools, certificate programs, etc.
As I think back on my growing up years, I realize that most of the people in my life were workers. My parents both worked for factories. Many of my family members farmed or drove trucks or did carpentry or worked in various canning factories or other manufacturing companies. I have to admit that at times, in certain company, I was embarrassed by this. I too bought into the idea that college-educated meant superior. However, I can look at my parents with pride that they were hard workers, and they provided well for their family. They bought their own home, paid cash for all of their cars, have a solid retirement, and have no debt. Work ethic and financial responsibility are certainly not things to be ashamed of. Unfortunately, those traits are all too rare.
In one of my last years of teaching, I came across a short speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., that I had never read or heard before. We all know his “I Have a Dream Speech” but usually little or nothing else. I was excited to share it with my students because it touches on so many important ideas. “What is your Life’s Blueprint?” was delivered to a junior high school class shortly before his assassination.
You can click here http://old.seattletimes.com/special/mlk/king/words/blueprint.html to read the whole speech or here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZmtOGXreTOU to listen and watch it, but I think the conclusion is particularly powerful:
“And when you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.
If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well. If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. Be the best little shrub on the side of the hill.
Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.”
As a parent and a teacher, I will strive to encourage young people to be the best of whatever they are. I encourage you to do the same.
I am also thinking it may not be a bad idea for me to take a minute to show appreciation for all of the benefits and luxuries I enjoy this Labor Day because of the hard labor of so many.
Happy Labor Day!