It’s 11:30 on a Thursday morning. I’m sitting at a worn, round table next to the stairs in the Santa Barbara Public Library. I just came from outside, where I was having an impromptu conversation with Kenny the hobo from Hell’s Kitchen, New York. You see, while I am employable as a finish carpenter, I am currently without work. That’s what affords me this supposed luxury of free time. What do I do with my increasingly familiar freedom? I hang out with friends who, intentionally or not, have made a career out of this.
Kenny’s been living on the street for a long time, 15 years plus. He’s an interesting character, to which his black Crocodile Dundee hat and creaking Manhattan accent by themselves attest. He’s got a rather original perspective on this American life as well.
Kenny never asks nothing from nobody. He doesn’t fly a sign, he doesn’t go to the Rescue Mission or the “Starvation” Army. He collects items for recycling, cans and bottles mostly. And by 11 a.m. he’s got a 50-pound bag going.
Kenny’s perspective comes largely out of an upbringing that taught him three rules: a man’s got to feed himself, clothe himself, and shelter himself. Everything else is optional.
But he doesn’t see too many people living by such rules in this country, and especially not in Santa Barbara. “Paradise for parasites,” he calls it. Parasites survive by attaching themselves to a host and sucking nearly all the life out of it, Kenny explains. From the homeless community to mainstream society, we do this too: In a legitimate realization of our seemingly hopeless situations, we attach ourselves to people and organizations that we hope will stay afloat as we are drowning. Like the Salvation Army and kind college students offering meals to the poor in the park. Like friends and family who are better off than us. Like the government. All exist in large part to bail us out.
This is not to say that such generous people and organizations should stop their actions and let people starve. Not at all. Everyone needs a hand from time to time.
But not as a way of life, Kenny says. The problem is that as a society and as individuals we have not learned to be responsible.
In Shopclass as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, Matthew Crawford observes the disconnect between individual responsibility and work. He sees an increasing stultification of “knowledge workers” (i.e. those who have gone to college and who fill the socially idealized jobs that are supposedly based on knowledge and education rather than tangible skills) in workplaces that are more concerned with personal characteristics than with accomplished goals. In such workplaces, people are more focused on maintaining their employment and moving up the social ladder through face-saving ambiguity than in getting real work done. ”One’s career depends entirely on these personal relationships [with hierarchical authority], in part because the criteria of evaluation are ambiguous,” Crawford writes. This given, much of these workers’ jobs consist of “constant interpretation and reinterpretation of events that constructs a reality in which it is difficult to pin blame on anyone, especially oneself,” according to sociologist Craig Calhoun, as quoted by Crawford. In ambiguous work with ambiguous standards, we dodge responsibility and the possibility of our careers being jeopardized. For a simpler and more comical example, watch any episode of The Office. It’s funny because it’s true.
Crawford’s argument comes out of a larger argument for the value of the manual trades, jobs often believed to be unworthy of college graduates. I know this well, as I have received plenty of disappointed and surprised looks, even laughs, when I tell people I work construction. (Slightly more interest and less pity is expressed if I say I’m a carpenter, but then all the Jesus jokes come out.) Crawford points to manual trades as a positive example of responsibility in the workplace because of objective standards that must be met, rather than social BS for the sake of upward mobility. People can check to see if the jamb I just set is plumb and square. You can’t BS crown-moulding like you can BS an academic essay.
School, unfortunately, trains us to be masters of the refined art of bullshitting. The dismaying reality is that students become more concerned with the grade than with knowledge, and with real accomplishment. The grade becomes the accomplishment. Ideally the grade is an objective symbol of competency, but anyone who has spent any time in academia knows this routinely breaks down.
We choose whether or not we learn. But the massive pressure to excel beyond our peers, to be competitive in college or graduate school, has far less to do with actual knowledge and skill than it does with grade point averages, honor society memberships, and letters of recommendation. This is how the system works, we believe; we have to play the game, we have to jump through these hoops to get to the ideal career. But graduate from college and you quickly realize that you’ve been deluded for a long time. Those ideal careers aren’t out here just waiting for grads racing across the finish line, degree in hand.
The same kind of learned irresponsibility exists in both the workplace and school. But there’s an awkward chasm between the two, which leaves us at a complete loss. And the insanity doesn’t end if we manage to bridge the gap, because we are still a society which spends and consumes way beyond its means without a thought to the systems and people we are sucking dry. Like parasites.