This piece is a contribution to the STSC Symposium, a monthly set-theme collaboration between STSC writers. The topic for this upcoming issue is “Work”.
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Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.
The internet offers us Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Steve Jobs, John D. Rockefeller and William Morris as the origin of this particular quote.
But to my mind this quote comes, not from these disputed sources, but from my father, dropped like an LP from an eighth floor window. A primary school teacher all his life, he truly did love the job he had, and in that regard, I guess can feel comfortable in making the claim that he never worked a day in his life.
The above quote seems like a banal platitude, which it most certainly is at face value, however, if we pick it apart I think it can illuminate certain things about contemporary understandings regarding work.
Firstly, “choose a job” implies some kind of agency in this. Which I guess is a good thing, but it also places the onus on us, the individual to go out and get that job; by implication society is not going to provide that for us. We must work, pardon the pun, that one out for ourselves.
However, that this phrase is considered worthy enough to be filed under pithy aphorism, indicates to us that this is not an easy search that will end in universal joy and meaning for all. Scarcity is implied.
Therefore, most work is not going to fit this aspiration and most people will not be lucky enough to be a teacher loving their Monday to Friday grind (apart from those long summer holidays).
So the system is scarce and yet we should not attempt to undo that scarcity, not attempt to reorient society to provide more meaningful work for more people, at least not under this quote’s watch. No, you libertarian wanderer of the job market. Strike out on your own and find that job that you love and hope that you are one of the lucky ones.
In this analysis I see little of the Axial Age Chinese thought of Confucius or Lao Tzu embedded in the subtext of the quote. It seems more Steve Jobs, than William Morris, more capitalist than socialist, more modern market orientated than built on notions of Confucian feudal reciprocity and filial piety.
Modern understandings of markets equate them to free choice and here is a direct instruction to go out and make a choice in the job market, and if it is a good one, or a lucky one maybe, you will “never have to work a day in your life.”
In some sense that above exposition of the quote is also banal, telling us all nothing in particular that we didn’t know already, but I think it is good to lay out the frames that we are working within before we start. This is what work really means to most of us today.
Indeed if David Graeber were to have rewritten it: find a job you love, or work a bullshit job.
It is also what work is likely to mean to most young people growing up now. It is after all easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. And so pondering on this question is important work for educators, especially for those working in self-directed settings. It seems apparent that education can not be untangled from capitalism, cultural critic Henry Giroux claims you can’t have one without the other, and so as educators we need to consider, what does it mean to prepare self-directed young people for the world of work in late capitalism?
Perhaps by looking around and taking stock we can find some answers. But maybe it might be more useful to return, to look back into our past and think about where we might have come from, where we might have gone wrong and how we can either get back to that or seriously update the software of society and hack ourselves into a future that is more meaningful for many.
In Schooling as Ritual Performance, Peter McLaren argues that classroom rituals prepare the ground for entering the capitalist workforce. On the street corner students are intensely physical and emotional, sometimes violent, as they engage in a fantasy where they own their own time and control their own space, the ethos of the street is play. The ethos of the student at school, however, is not just work, but hard work.
Fierce critic of mainstream education and New York state teacher of the year John Taylor Gatto maintains that this observation is not only true, but was baked into the system at its conception. Modern schools are ‘factories of childishness’ which are designed ‘to keep children as children so they can be controlled as adults later on in life.’ The modern education system is based on the Prussian model, the factory model that explicitly designed the system this way. Schools were designed to be a scientific management tool for managing a mass population, introducing conformity to society.
Our schools are…factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned… And it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to specifications laid down.
Edward P. Cubberly Public School Administration (1922).
At out learning community we reject this notion that children should be moulded into a product for capitalism. Self-directed education is a political act, an anti-capitalist political sphere in which children are encultured in direct democracy, transformative justice and allowed expressions of intense physicality and emotion that run counter to not just the current of mainstream education system but contemporary capitalist life.
This is a prefigurative politics enculturing a constantly negotiated balance of autonomy and mutual aid. We exist to provide autonomy to the children we serve, but also to model what an education system based on autonomy and consent can be.
Unschooling, however, is not a white invention. Indigenous cultures have been raising children this way for years, and therefore studying indigenous pedagogies can educate us about ways in which learning in children has evolved to be, and how children move from child to adult and take on the competency to be active cultural agents in their societies undertaking that thing we call work.
If you look at the anthropological literature on children and learning one thing is clear: adults teaching children is very much the exception rather than the norm. Apart from young children taught social etiquette, where often ‘limited and very strategic intervention’ is used, and adolescents guided through either formal apprenticeships, which are rare compared to informal ones, or adult led initiation rites, very little of the ethnography records didactic teaching.
What the research does indicate is that children learn almost exclusively through observation and imitation. Play is imitation without real world consequences, and the way children are primed for making sense of the cultural milieu they exist within.
Hopi children follow adults around learning to work through play, copying what the adults do; a five year old Mayan girl observes mum making tortillas and then moves into a different room to practice the technique herself with a piece of plastic she finds; Bantu farmers in Botswana start learning how to process grain by pretending to pound grain as children.
First children observe and then they imitate.
Children can do this because in nonindustrial societies there is an open book approach to learning. Nothing that is part of the culture is hidden away from children. In pre-industrial societies the "chore curriculum", the work required to maintain the household, is always on show and children are surrounded by working adults; it is the ongoing presence and integration in adult activities means that inevitably they will pick up this curriculum simply through observation and imitation.
The Bantu farmers may start playing at grain processing as young girls but this is the first step towards reaching adult competency and the path from novice is punctuated by moving through various zones of proximal development. In essence as they progress they can start to help pound grain supervised by elders, slowly being able to pound more and more of the grain until one day they reach adult competency. For these girls they often reach this stage at fourteen years old.
The line between work and play is blurred in societies where the economic mode of production is centred on the household. Four to five year olds in the Mexican higlands follow their father ploughing the field and break up the sods into smaller chunks, essential work before ploughing, playing with each other as they go, living, moving scarecrows; Conambo girls sit by their mother playing with pinches of clay making little animals as their mothers make vessels; Touareg camel herders start by caring for a goat that they treat like a playmate.
Yanonamo boys, from the age of five, play with miniature bows and arrows; Inuit boys similarly practice archery from a young age, but are also gifted miniature harpoons that they shoot at floating wood; Ache hunters from Paraguay start with bows and arrows that they shoot at birds on the edge of the village. The complex niche that foraging societies operate within means that these hunters will not reach the peak of their abilities until their thirties, however, they start by playing with miniature weapons at a very young age. As they progress in competency the line between where play turns into work is amorphous.
Children need opportunities to observe skilled work, and through trial and error and lots of practice, attempt to replicate it.
Modern education with its emphasis on teachers as experts, didactic teaching and the separation of children from society is an outlier. The ethnography indicates that children learn best when they can observe, imitate and play at becoming the adults they see all around them constantly. But this requires a society that has an ethnotheory of childhood learning that recognises the need for an open book approach to learning and structures society accordingly. Indeed most cultures that have indigenous pedagogies emphasising child led learning go further than this conclusion, this design is not just about how children learn best.
Common elements found in ethnotheories of child socialisation include that children learn best on their own, and that this initiative frees up adults from serving as teachers.
In conclusion adults are best utilised not as teachers but as productive members of society, and children learn best from observing and imitating and that imitation is what we call play. The line between play and work in societies with an open book approach to learning is blurred with competency progressing in stages but where that moves from play into work is hard to define.
The only places where that is not the case, is in the rare case where didactic teaching is employed, in craft apprenticeships and initiation rituals, but these are the exception not the norm. Cross-cultural studies indicates that roughly half of all societies have initiation rites for adolescence and in the other half children progress through the “teenage years” quickly and with very little fanfare. And most apprenticeships are informal rather than formal, relying not on teaching but mostly on the tried and trusted model of learning through observation and imitation.
The fundamental learning situation is one in which a person learns by helping someone who really knows what he is doing.
Children learn best through play and where a society occupies a complex niche adolescence is stretched out over a longer time period to allow children the opportunity to play more at the complicated skills required to become a competent adult. As a rule agrarian societies occupy simpler niches than foraging and industrial societies, and, as the case of the fourteen year old Bantu farmer demonstrates, they reach “adulthood” much earlier.
But is there something different about the complexity of a foraging society and an industrial society? Something that requires us to abandon the evolutionary tried and tested methods of seeing children as culture seeking and resort to didactic methods in single age cohorts in hour long blocks sitting in rows? Or in other words is the Prussian model necessary for the complexity of industrial society or necessary for capitalism? Necessary for knowledge and understanding or maintaining class relations?
At the learning community I work at children self-direct their own learning. They are constantly in that ethos of play that brings about intense physicality, emotions, and sometimes violence as they interact with each other playing imaginative games, taking on the roles, mythic beings, personas, and animals that they see in society around them; observing and imitating.
But they are also creating and driving their own projects: building pizza ovens, running a geology club, doing a daily drawing challenge for days on end, baking cakes for the community, coding and creating their own computer games, learning to read on their own terms.
Sometimes the younger ones pause that ethos of play to undertake the ethos of work: whittling spears so that they can go back into the woods, get amongst the trees and back into that playful space and wage wars against each other. But these two are dynamically coupled. It is only an adult in our culture who sees them, as I sometimes still do, as separate and would write the sentence above. But to the child there is as much play in the creating of the stick as work, and as much play in the whittling as there is in the warring. Let us not forget that when we say the line between play and work is amorphous, that is to the outside observer, but to the child it is non-existent.
Take a three year old, mine to be specific, who one afternoon spent an hour with me playing with a tractor he recently got for his birthday. It came with a mini screwdriver and like an Inuit boy practicing with a miniature harpoon for becoming a seal hunter he set about the task of being a mechanic.
For children are always being and becoming.
They are always acting developmentally appropriately for their age, agents acting in the moment, whilst moving on a path towards adulthood.
He had found a spare screw and was swapping out one of the screws in the tractor. This left him with another spare screw and so we went round and round, the tractor slowly found itself being taken apart and put back together again, again and again. Later that afternoon he took on part of the chore curriculum of feeding himself by going into the fridge unaided and finding a kabanossi sausage, or two to be precise because he insists on having one in each hand. Here he is trying to bite them apart with a third already resting on the bookshelf behind him. Playing and working dynamically coupled.
The complex ecological niche that foraging societies operate within requires more play. Same for industrial society, which although complex, is complex in different ways.
Foraging, hunting and gathering is complex in one axis: the skills required for competency require long periods of development to hone and adults don’t peak until well into mid-life. We could say the same about aspects of modern society. A nuclear physicist would I imagine find that they would become proficient enough to be declared an expert around a similar age. This is a similar complexity of depth, but industrial society is also complex in terms of its breadth.
A San bushman male will become a proficient hunter, a San woman a proficient mongongo nut processor around the same time. A male in this culture will learn to process nuts but will never be as proficient as a female. The breadth of the culture is mostly accessible to all, the hunter-gatherer is an expert generalist. There are very few parts that are not accessible, often the only ones that are are because of ideas about what it is appropriate for specific genders to involve themselves in. A nuclear physicist, however, is unlikely to also know how to retune a piano, tile a roof, and prune a cider apple orchard.
Let us return to that Inuit five year old shooting a harpoon at floating wood. He is being an Inuit boy play hunting on the path to becoming an Inuit man, becoming a seal hunter. But my son is being a mechanic on the path to what? We might argue, if he became a mechanic that he was always fiddling with nuts and bolts and toy cars; it was his destiny. But stories in hindsight are easy to tell. I think instead, in the moment, we might argue that he is becoming more dexterous and increasing his fine motor skills, as these skills have broad applications later in life, a story that make sense in the moment as we appreciate the breadth of the economy laid out before him.
It is not known whether adults are training children in anticipation of psychological styles and economic patterns or whether they are inducting children into the economy at an early age.
This above quote is why we can’t untangle education and capitalism. Where production is centred around the household it is hard to define, but for us it most clearly is not. Children, teenagers even, are not inducted into the economy at an early age. In most countries that would be illegal. Education is preparation for capitalism because you are always being either prepared for or inducted into the economy. It is why the ethos of school it is an ethos of hard work; it is the anticipation of the psychological styles and economic patterns of capitalism.
Interestingly at my learning community last year when discussing with tweens what they wanted to do for work and how we could help prepare them for it, there was a great and universal disappointment that they were barred from entering the economy; and not just for monetary purposes (these kids are mostly middle class and have access to money), but for the purposes of their own personal growth.
When my brother was a child he would often proclaim, in his toddler babble, that he was doing “'aard verk”. That phrase has stuck in our family and we still use it. But when I think of that phrase I don’t think back to him as a toddler, but my mind is taken to a story when he was teenager that also has stuck around in our family as lore.
My father, needing to build a wall in the garden, and having some reclaimed bricks at the bottom of the garden, offered to pay us three children a penny a brick to carry them maybe hundred yards. My sister and I refused, but my brother, the youngest, decided for whatever reason that this was a fair deal. I am not that old. A penny is pittance now and it was a pittance then.
When we talk about it now my father knows that it was not a fair price, can’t really remember why he set such a low value on helping him, and we all laugh at the ludicrousness of the apparent serfdom.
But I think there were deliberate choices about enculturing in us the famous protestant work ethic, a preparation for psychological styles and economic patterns that in the future we would come across and the lesson that yes, 'aard verk, often for little monetary compensation, is indeed a virtue.
Be at leisure - and know that I am God.
- Psalm 45
Josef Pieper in his book Leisure: the basis of culture took umbrage with this idea of work as a virtue. He saw it as an altered perception of the human being and a new interpretation of the human existence: the rise of the worker as an identity. He lamented the culmination of the protestant work ethic reaching across the whole of society and the over emphasis of the servile arts, the art of working, and the falling away of the liberal arts, the art of the contemplative life and being at leisure.
While teaching at Yale William Deresiewicz noticed this happening at various elite educational institutions who were ‘slouching… toward a glorified form of vocational training.’
He believes education should focus, as Pieper stated, on the liberal arts, an endeavour that focuses on enculturing the whole human being.
This conclusion has been reformulated most recently and famously by David Foster Wallace in his viral commencement speech on how the liberal arts is not an education in how to think, but more in how to be. For Wallace, the liberal arts provide lessons in what to think about, or where to place your attention. For where you place your attention changes how you attend to the world, changes who you become.
Self-directed education is not just about the autonomy to pursue projects that are of interest to you, but also the autonomy to explore social dynamics to their extreme, playing intensely physically and emotionally, or sometimes violently. It is also the autonomy to investigate your personality to the full, wrestle with the gifts you have been given and the challenges that they present. Self-directed education is about the autonomy to enculture the whole human; being and becoming the whole human being you are.
To support that at our learning community as children get older they can opt into a program that askes them five questions that are explicitly designed to be answered holistically. We ask them not just what they want to do with their life, but how that might affect other facets of their being that they also consider important, and whether when considered together that would give them a life worth living.
Where have you come from?
Where are you right now?
Where would you like to go?
What are your goals to get there?
What does success look like to you?
Writing in the Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning Devon Almond notes three ways people orientate to their jobs. Taking jobs, picking careers, and calling vocations.
When work is viewed as you taking jobs it is also viewed unreflectively as a means to an end and work and play are seriously decoupled, work and life are fragmented. We live for the weekend.
When picking careers we return to the original quote at the top of the essay. There is free will and agency, work is more satisfying, and workers may view progress and self-improvement as professionally worthwhile. Here work and life is neatly balanced.
However, with calling vocations ‘work is held in service of the wider ecology of life’, weaving life and work together to create a whole human being.
Devon then leans on Wayne Muller’s How Then, Shall We Live? to come up with four questions that can help lead self-directed young people to work out what their calling vocation is, which have similar themes to the self-managed learning approach that we use.
Who am I?
What do I love?
How shall I live, knowing I shall die?
What is my gift to the family of the Earth?
Self-directed education can’t be untangled from capitalism because nothing can, least of all education. Learning communities can only be nodes of prefigurative politics precisely because we are relating to capitalism, albeit in a vastly different way to mainstream education.
Find a job you love is probably the best advice if you operate from a place of picking careers, but it is my belief that children are best served by acknowledging that they are always being and becoming. They are born whole and they have the right to become whole and as educators we must do nothing that can get in the way of that; our job is to provide the environment for wholeness to be explored and flourish. Capitalism and education as it is are not designed for human flourishing, not designed for human wholeness.
So how do we tie the past, present and the future all together in a pedagogy of wholeness?
David Graeber asserts, in the foreword to Stone Age Economics,that, under normal circumstances, it is observed that humans have a natural propensity to maximise their societies leisure time. It is extremely common for hunter-gatherers to spend long periods of time resting.
Marshall Sahlins’s Stone Age Economics is one of the most influential anthropological texts ever. It presented the hunter-gatherer life not as nasty and brutish, predominated by scarcity, but as one of abundance because wants are easily satisfied by maintaining modest means. It was found that humans of the past did work roughly fifteen hour work weeks, that number that Keynes had earlier predicted that those of living to do would be working due to technological advancements.
By looking back at the anthropological research we can orient ourselves in the present in different ways. Firstly, it gives us the courage of our convictions knowing that we are not the first to try relating to children or work differently, indigenous pedagogies and ontologies have focused on cultivating whole people responding to calling vocations many times before us.
By recognising that children are always being and becoming we can treat them now as we want them to expect to be treated in the future, however, we recognise that those who grow up in self-directed settings will be inhabiting a world that comprises mostly of peers who have gone through a different education system who will have different orientations to the world, life, leisure and work. We talk a lot about capitalism, about society, about power dynamics and how we can choose to relate to wider systems in conscious ways.
By allowing children to play freely we are following a pedagogy that is in line with how we as a species have evolved. By trying to offer an open book approach to democracy and conflict resolution and project planning we allow the line between play and work to remain amorphous and learning to progress naturally for all our young children at a natural pace.
London learning community Free We Grow have just started an artist in residency, with an artist coming in weekly.
Last season I designed and built a dog kennel and whilst lots of young people helped I was driving the project, they were helping me. I have also started a poetry writing workshop and over the coming months want to take children on a journey of getting something published. That might include bringing in poets, illustrators, people from publishing or self-published authors; the project of creating a poetry book the backdrop for engaging with experts. How much of it can be made open book is the question that I will be engaging with as it goes along.
As our young people get older they can opt in to a program that is more structured, that looks more like a formal apprenticeship in the craftsmanship of planning projects, but also in structuring their life’s aims and thinking holistically about who they are and who they want to become. There is little didactic teaching going on here, but there is the beginnings of a structure that takes young teens on to consider the implications of adulthood; an initiation if you will.
Within that structure they can start to explore what relationship to work they want. To try and deepen their understanding of what their calling vocation might be. See whether they recognise in Josef Pieper that there is truly a distinction between the servile and liberal arts and conclude that what they want to do is work a job that can support an artistic passion that is too sacred to them to consider for monetary gain.
If Marshall Sahlins is correct and humans have, under ordinary circumstances, the preference for increased leisure over increased production, and if David Graeber’s assertion that it therefore follows that maybe history is a ‘battle between those who wished to maximize production and those who wished to enjoy less ostentatious luxuries’, maybe they might want to lay down loafing in the trenches, orientating themselves not primarily to work but family, community, travel, or the environment.
We don’t know what jobs the people who leave us will end up doing. Most leave at fourteen, still four years away from adulthood, but all we hope is that they leave knowing more about who they are, for that is the first question you must answer before you can even start to answer the question of what should I do.
What about the future of education itself?
Does society still have a black box approach to the adult world? Yes.
Would we like to do more about that? Yes.
We exist to do as much as we can in the moment, by, for instance, bringing poets, artists, computer game designers, landscape gardeners, pizza oven builders onto site to demonstrate to young people what that work looks like for them, but we also think about how we can do more to bring the adult world into contact with the children we work with, more to open the book of the culture up to them.
The Prussian model is clearly not necessary for education anymore. The evidence seems clear that Henry Giroux, John Taylor Gattto and Peter McLaren were right, it exists primarily to prepare people for and support capitalist relations.
Just being at our learning community shows that on the basis of knowledge access the internet has provided anyone with the tools to access whatever information that they need almost instantaneously. What the internet and society more broadly needs to do now is work out a way to open up to children access to experts engaged in work. We need ways to induct children back into the economy not lock them away; and if the young people I work with are anything to go by they desperately want that to happen now.
We need to take the black box that is modern society, reach inside it, take out the book and open it up and let children observe it, imitate us and play. The question that we have in front of us is how to do that best. Schools are finished. They were an experiment in how to make instruction scalable to a large population not backed by an understanding of how children learn best. As schools expanded, children’s access to real work contracted. As didactic teaching contracts because we realise children learn best when they self-direct their learning, the question is how can we make work work for all?
This will be ‘aard verk for sure. It is the urgent pedagogical question of our time. It will radically transform education, children’s lives, work and society but it will take time.
But as educators we must work out how we can build this future brick by brick for children to come. This isn’t a choice, but a calling, and we need people who are called to the future to help us build it, and sometime in the future, maybe we can look at back at what we have built together, like my brother did sat by my father all those years ago, and realise that the pennies we got paid for it were never the point of it anyway.
An interesting perk of the job, especially in light of some of the later reflections on leisure.
Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber
The role of adults in children’s learning by David Lancy and Annette Grove in The Anthropology of Learning in Childhood.
All these stories come from The Anthropology of Learning in Childhood.
All these stories come from The Anthropology of Learning in Childhood.
The Anthropology of Learning in Childhood.
The role of adults in children’s learning by David Lancy and Annette Grove in The Anthropology of Learning in Childhood.
A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander
The Anthropology of Learning in Childhood
A friend of ours who also unschools their children told me a story about their father being glad that they are homeschooling because they can place greater emphasis on each child than the would have got in school and therefore they will progress towards the dream outlined in the article and a greater career. Our friend tried to explain that that is not the point. Unschooling is not about being a “hack for capitalism”, but about relating to children in different ways so as to provide them with the emotional tools required to do whatever it is that they want to do in life successfully, and about giving the time and space to explore those interests and find their niche on their own temporal terms.
Taken from the self-managed learning program developed by Dr Ian Cunningham
Stone Age Economics by Marshall Sahlins
It is argued that during the pandemic my generation (millenials), a generation that has been taken on the journey of being told that success comes not from enculturing the whole human being but striving to achieve the path laid out by William Deresiewicz of education solely for career progression, finally had a break from the treadmill. In that space evaluating their life they saw that it was severely lacking and having the space and time to consider other options found that there may be better things to orientate themselves towards. And the outcome was the Great Resignation, when people realised that the system can be changed by not engaging in it in the way that you previously thought that you had no choice. The pandemic gave that ability to attend to the world in a different way the David Foster Wallace said a liberal arts education should give.
Nice work, Friend!
“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” — Socrates
“Public education has not produced an educated public.” ― G.K. Chesterton
“The object of education is not to fill a man's mind with facts; it is to teach him how to use his mind in thinking.” ― Henry Ford
“Loyalty, spirit of sacrifice, discretion are virtues that a great nation absolutely needs, and their cultivation and development in school are more important than some of the things which today fill up our curriculums.” — Mein Kampf