Blog - Doing Earthwork
Collar Color ConversationFriday, February 11, 2011
The conversation in the restaurant took an unexpected turn. My wife and I were enjoying a noon meal with some Christian friends we’ve known for years. I’ll call them Frank and Rose. Both of them grew up in church and have been heavily involved in church leadership. After the dialog had zigged and zagged through several subjects, Rose began telling us about her disappointment with their adult daughter. Living on some acreage, the daughter is spending her time farming! Her large garden helps feed the children. When she walks outside, goats follow her around.
Rose could not hide her disgust. "If she’s going to be just a farmer, why did she earn a doctorate?”
In the interest of full disclosure, I should add here that I spent most of my first 18 years as a farm boy, milking cows, feeding chickens, cutting asparagus, weeding carrots, and so on. I should also make it clear that my wife and I dearly love Frank and Rose.
But her contempt for farm work as something beneath her doctoral-degree daughter . . . well, it hurt. It hurt not just because of my personal history, but mainly because such contempt reflects a false value system held even by many Christians.
Religiously, we rank work by what our church circles consider its "spiritual” value. The front-runners here are those in "full-time Christian service,” pastors, missionaries, evangelists, and so on. The also-rans include believers in "secular” work who own grocery stores, program computers, and drive trucks. Culturally, we rank work by what our broader society considers its "prestige” value. Here the front-runners are those occupations that employ what we might call "knowledge workers,” those with college educations and advanced degrees. Here the bullet list of also-rans covers manual labor, those in "blue-collar” jobs like welding, carpentry, and farming.
The recently published book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, unmasks our culture’s bogus value system. Author Matthew B. Crawford earned a doctorate in political philosophy, then began working as executive director of a Washington, D.C. "think tank.” He recalls: "I was always tired, and honestly could not see the rationale for my being paid at all—what tangible goods or services was I providing to anyone?” So he quit and opened his own motorcycle repair shop. "I quickly realized,” he says, "there was more thinking going on in the bike shop than in my previous job at the think tank.”
The book points out some disturbing trends: "In California, three-quarters of high school shop programs have disappeared since the early 1980s. . . . Meanwhile, people in the trades are constantly howling about their inability to find workers.” While not "religious,” Crawford’s book oozes quotable gems. For example, ". . . productive labor is the foundation of all prosperity.” Hmmm. Can you hear an echo of Proverbs 14:23 here? "All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.”
Back again to the conversation with Frank and Rose about
their farmer-daughter. I pointed to Rose’s
lunch. "What are you eating?” I asked.
"Chicken,” she said, "and a biscuit.”
"You’ve also just finished a green salad,” I added.
Looking across to Frank’s plate, I asked her, "And who made it possible for him to order that broccoli?”
It seems to me we need to rethink the way we evaluate work and workers. Maybe it’s time to recall what God told Samuel shortly before David came in from the pasture still smelling like sheep: "Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (I Sam. 16:7).