Do You Whistle While You Work? Does Labor Make You Grumpy, Happy, or Just Sleepy? Either Way, It Is Essential to Our Roles as Good Citizens and Good Christians

By McCormick, Patrick | U.S. Catholic, September 2008 | Go to article overview
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Do You Whistle While You Work? Does Labor Make You Grumpy, Happy, or Just Sleepy? Either Way, It Is Essential to Our Roles as Good Citizens and Good Christians


McCormick, Patrick, U.S. Catholic


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WORK CAN BE BACK-BREAKING TOIL THAT enslaves us or creative artistry that liberates and fulfills us. Three recent books explore labor's highs and lows by looking at work as a craft, a trap, and a calling. Thomas Jefferson believed democracy required a large middle class composed of hard-working, independent farmers. In The Craftsman (Yale University Press), New York University sociology professor Richard Sennett argues that "learning to work well enables people to govern themselves and so become good citizens." In particular Sennett believes that it is the work of craftsmen and women that makes good citizens. For labor that employs and educates both head and hand allows us to become masters of ourselves and builders of a better society.

For Sennett "making is thinking," and in the conversation between head and hand taking place in the ten thousand hours of practice required to apprentice a craft, workers learn to identify and resolve a wide range of tasks and problems, select the right tools for a job, and collaborate with others on a project.

As a result the flexible and tenacious intelligence craftsmen employ in addressing the myriad tasks of their trade (or hobby) allows them to develop a similar mastery and competence in their personal and political lives. Craftsmen's ability to judge for themselves when a work is well done encourages these same citizens to cast a critical eye on political and economic proposals put forward by our leaders.

The good news elevating The Craftsman from a delightful to an encouraging read is Sennett's conviction that "nearly anyone can become a good craftsman." The intelligence, mastery, and happiness learned through a craft is available to almost anyone willing to try. If such mastery can make us better citizens and leave our children a better world, we should do so.

WHILE SENNETT EXPLORES THE VIRTUES OF work that educates and liberates, Ruth Brandon's Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres (Walker & Company) takes a long hard look at a 19th-century occupation that was little better than indentured servitude. While Queen Victoria presided over the Empire, an army of young, single, and impoverished gentlewomen governed the nurseries of England's rising middle class. Most of these women were forced into the role of governess by financial setbacks in their own families and by a society denying women adequate educational and professional opportunities.

For the vast majority of these often well-mannered and fairly well-educated (for their time) women, the job of governess was a form of genteel imprisonment in which they were forced to labor for meager wages, provide services to resentful children and jealous parents, and surrender any opportunity to have families of their own, only to be cast off into poverty upon reaching middle age. No wonder governesses in 18th- and 19th-century novels were so often cast as frustrated, bitter women forced onto life's sidelines. In Emma Jane Austen compared the position to a sort of slavery--if not of the flesh, then certainly of the mind.

Since Brandon tells her story by relying on the journals and diaries of six women who worked as governesses between 1750 and 1860, the sampling includes several extraordinarily gifted and resolute voices like the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and her sisters.

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