I have been enjoying Booker T. Washington’s biography, Up from Slavery, and this week at Values & Capitalism, I unpack some of his ideas about the dignity of work, contemplating their application among today’s youth.
I start off by pointing to a moment that Washington viewed as crucial in his mobility from former slave to college president. After finally saving up enough money to travel to the Hampton Institute, Washington was given an unusual entry exam.
As Washington himself explained it:
After some hours had passed, the head teacher said to me: “The adjoining recitation-room needs sweeping. Take the broom and sweep it.”
It occurred to me at once that here was my chance. Never did I receive an order with more delight. I knew that I could sweep, for Mrs. Ruffner had thoroughly taught me how to do that when I lived with her.
I swept the recitation-room three times. Then I got a dusting-cloth and I dusted it four times…When I was through, I reported to the head teacher. She was a “Yankee” woman who knew just where to look for dirt. She went into the room and inspected the floor and closets; then she took her handkerchief and rubbed it on the woodwork about the walls, and over the table and benches. When she was unable to find one bit of dirt on the floor, or a particle of dust on any of the furniture, she quietly remarked, “I guess you will do to enter this institution.”
I was one of the happiest souls on earth. The sweeping of that room was my college examination, and never did any youth pass an examination for entrance into Harvard or Yale that gave him more genuine satisfaction. I have passed several examinations since then, but I have always felt that this was the best one I ever passed.
From there, I move to discuss Washington’s later experience in founding his own school, during which he required his students to build their campus with their own hands. His intent: “the students themselves would be taught to see not only utility in labour, but beauty and dignity; would be taught, in fact, how to lift labour up from mere drudgery and toil, and would learn to love work for its own sake.”
Here’s the modern-day takeaway, from my piece:
There is some kind of lesson here, some valuable takeaway for an entitled, lackadaisical society that has grown obsessed with a quick and artificial process of growth, one which is completely unsustainable, not to mention wholly debilitating at a deeper spiritual and cultural level.
There is also a lesson here for our leaders, one of whom recently promised to spur such artificiality faster and further, promoting things like “free” education while ignoring the “drudgery” and “toil” that Washington recognized as necessary for any kind of authentic success and genuine sense of self-worth. How, might I ask, are we to return to recognizing the “beauty” and “dignity” in our labor if the very people who have maximized their utility in these areas—CEOs or investors like Mitt Romney, for example—are demonized and ridiculed for their successes by both politicians and policies?
To be clear, we are not to hope for the same constraining and discriminatory circumstances that Washington faced when it came to racism and mistreatment, but neither should we pretend that true opportunity is realized by constructing some utopian college-bound cookie-cutter and applying it to everyone and everything in what Mark Steyn calls the “Brokest Nation in History.”
Real prosperity doesn’t come from the flip of a magic wand, and it seems that we’ve forgotten that it can and sometimes should come from the sweep of a simple broom.
Read the full post here