There is an unspoken understanding that students leaving Yale will find employment that requires them to work with their minds. Manual labor is not something that we came to this university to train for. But all my experiences—in the field, in the construction site, and even in the classroom—suggest that physical work can teach a depth of mental strength that we do not acquire in our academic studies.
I’ve spent my summers at farms and summer camps; I’ve cleaned toilets, washed dishes, herded goats, stayed up all night with vomiting eleven-year-olds, picked green beans, braided garlic, and unloaded milk trucks. I’ve never held an unpaid internship or spent a summer at a desk. And a month after graduation, I boarded a plane to Sitka, Alaska, to join a group of Yale students doing construction work at Sheldon Jackson Campus, the new home of Alaska Arts Southeast.
The Sheldon Jackson College on Baranof Island, in the Alaska panhandle, first experienced financial setbacks in the 1980s. In 2007 it closed its doors, leaving the town of Sitka with a beautiful, empty, and quickly deteriorating college campus. In 2011, the campus’s twenty buildings and over twenty acres were given to Alaska Arts Southeast, with the hope that the shuttered classrooms and dormitories would grow into a thriving center for arts and humanities. Hundreds of volunteers donated thousands of work hours and half a million dollars to restore the school, which is now a National Historic Landmark. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins ’12, who grew up in Sitka, invited Yalies to join in the effort for the summer through a program called Bulldogs on Baranof Island.
This summer, as I watched many of my friends begin their working lives—as teachers, analysts, activists, journalists, law students—I couldn’t help but compare my own form of work to theirs. What was manual labor teaching me? What was I accomplishing? And what did it mean for an Ivy League graduate to choose to install insulation all day?
Two years ago, after a series of jobs on farms, I was certain that I wanted to be a farmer. I loved the work and thought it held important value for society. I knew that I preferred working actively with my body, hands, and mind (even as a summer camp dishwasher) to writing emails, making spreadsheets, and spending the entire day behind a computer screen. But as I begin the process of building a career and working life, I’ve begun to worry that to choose to farm would be to shirk the responsibilities of my degree in some crucial way.
Though I have long held physical work to be an important part of education, I have come to distrust the rhetoric of “fulfillment,” “satisfaction,” and “good work” that dominates many conversations about the value of elite students engaging in manual labor. In an attempt to clarify my own thoughts, I decided to ask these questions to other Yalies who had chosen to join the Sheldon Jackson work crew or had spent time doing manual work elsewhere. Their answers were thoughtful, varied, surprising, and illuminating, and resonated deeply with my own attempts to define education and ethical work over the past four years.
Alaska is a place that people run away to. In Into the Wild, John Krakauer writes, “Alaska has long been a magnet for dreamers and misfits, people who think the unsullied enormity of the Last Frontier will patch all the holes in their lives.” Though my six-week sojourn to the city of Sitka in the mild, misty southeast isn’t comparable to Chris McCandless’s fatal journey into the Alaska bush, I share some of the idealism and escapism that made McCandless such a controversial figure. I like doing manual work because I lose myself in it. These humble tasks have their own unsullied enormity. Call it therapeutic, call it lazy, but I enjoy pulling up weeds for hours or sanding beams all day. There is an element of escapism in conducting hard physical labor—but it also cultivates its own life of the mind. We discovered that the mind and body aren’t so separate after all.
In May 2009 when I read Michael B. Crawford’s New York Times Magazine article “The Case for Working With Your Hands,” it electrified me. Crawford traces his journey from political philosophy Ph.D. to motorcycle repairman and, along the way, makes the argument that concrete work has an intellectual and ethical dimension sorely lacking in our information-age economy. Concrete work, he writes, “answers to a basic human need of the one who does it.” Meanwhile, country’s relentless focus on “mind work” and higher education (at an increasingly astronomical cost to students, I might add) is not serving its citizens’ minds or morals. Working with one’s hands cultivates “individual responsibility” in a way that abstract work never can. He wrote of “an ethic of paying attention that develops in the trades through hard experience.” According to Crawford, not only was my individual integrity at stake, but the fate of my community as well: “Work forms us, and deforms us,” he warned, “with broad public consequences.”
After a freshman year spent shuttling between the library, where I scrambled to keep up with my Directed Studies workload, and dorm rooms on Old Campus, where I scrambled to keep up with my classmates’ drinking habits, Crawford’s essay articulated much of the dissatisfaction I felt with my education and my lifestyle. I’d always been most comfortable when making things, whether it was a knit hat, a clean room, or a wooden box. Yet I struggled to find a way to connect that tactile form of thinking and production to the work that Yale assigned and valued. That summer I interned at the Yale Sustainable Food Project, and spent seven hours a day seeding, weeding, planting and harvesting. I had never been happier.
Many students’ reflections on the work crew echo Crawford’s reasoning. Again and again they returned to words like “concrete,” “tangible,” and “satisfying.” Manual work like painting, sanding or taking off a roof felt real in a way that schoolwork often didn’t. Omar Dairanieh ’13 spent two months in SJC’s central auditorium, Richard H. Allen Memorial Hall, before the rest of the work crew arrived, leveling floors for dance studios and painting brackets. The work, he said, “was exhausting and backbreaking, but it was extremely rewarding. I actually got to see a huge differences in the building; there was noticeable, concrete proof of the work I was doing.” This stood in stark contrast to his experience as a history major. “I spent the last three years at Yale taking theory-heavy courses that all came to similar conclusions: nothing is real or stable or relevant,” Dairanieh said. “As challenging and as interesting as that critical approach may be, it was also really disenchanting.” His experience in Alaska was therapeutic, he said, and allowed him to re-engage in the material world. Manual labor reminded him that “things exist. It seems simple, but it was extremely reassuring.”
The reality of repetitive manual work forced me to slow down, to be patient in a way I rarely had to be at Yale. Roger Schmidt, director of Alaska Arts Southeast and organizer of this summer’s volunteer work, said that one of the main differences between concrete and abstract work is the amount of time it takes, with the former more time-consuming than the latter. Some students had a hard time getting used to the difference. Ira Slomski-Pritz ’14 found the repetitive motions of painting and sanding were not enjoyable. “I felt useful because I knew these things had to be done and this was helpful to the campus, but I don’t think that given a choice and if I had more skills I would see much value in going back and doing those jobs.”
I was the kind of child who, when asked to name her favorite activity, answered, “unloading the dishwasher.” I have always found focus and enjoyment in repetitive work. One of the projects I worked on in Allen was sanding tall, laminated cedar beams that stretched from the floor to the rafters. When I flipped the sander switch, I felt vibrations quiver up my arm, from fingertips to shoulder. I pressed it to the wood and swept the machine in circles. Slowly, the blackened surface of the beam wore away to reveal an amber cedar grain. I worked across the beam horizontally, then up vertically, circling and circling, making my way up the ladder rung by rung. Little piles of sawdust gathered on the floor and stacks of worn sandpaper grew on the worktable. After about half an hour my arm was sore, but as I worked either the muscles adapted themselves to the motion, or I got used to the slight ache. The satisfaction came from the repetition, from the mere fact of continuing, from the action of going over every piece of the beam with equal attention. A cut corner would manifest itself as a visible blot. To do a good job, I just needed to be patient, to stick with it. Part of me feels proud of that patience and stamina. That part agrees with Schmidt when he said of repetition, “To me that’s kind of the essence of hard work. If you want to do something well, you have to do it for a long time, and repetitively.” But an equally strong part argues back that just because something is satisfying doesn’t make it worthwhile. Abstract work is often unsatisfying because it’s harder to reach a definite conclusion in a specific time frame.
Members of the crew were quick to point out that manual work often required sophisticated, abstract problem solving. We spent two days in mid-July clearing a roof of stones, moss and gravel, then removing waterlogged foam insulation so that the roof could be re-waterproofed and insulated in the coming weeks. A group of volunteers including Slomski-Pritz devised a system for safely removing gravel from the roof. It took them three separate arrangements of tarp and cement blocks to create a functional system.
As I listened to Slomski-Pritz describe the process of building the ramp, two things became clear. The first is that it is ridiculous to describe manual work as mindless. The kind of problem solving he talked through is essentially the same as the kind I use when developing an idea for a paper or solving a problem set. Try one thing. See if it works. When it doesn’t, figure out why not. Try again until you get it right. In the process, you discover something about how a text or a concept or a ramp works. The second thing I observed is that, as totally unskilled amateurs, the crew had a lot to learn.
For some, construction work meant a chance to explore academic interests in a new setting. Anne Lovelace, a psychology major who plans to attend medical school, at first found her choice to join the work crew difficult to explain to others. “Construction in and of itself,” she said, “doesn’t really match with my academic interest or my career interest.” But to her surprise, the work crew offered a laboratory unlike any she had encountered at Yale. “A lot of my academic background comes from thinking about how people work and the way groups interact,” Lovelace said. “Working on the construction crew, I brought my psych perspective and was paying attention to how the group worked, what people needed, and how people played off each other.” The work crew provided Lovelace with a group dynamic to explore that was different than the seminar groups and athletic teams she was used to observing at Yale. She had the chance to observe a group figuring out how to use tools and resources to complete a concrete task.
Dairanieh specifically came to Sitka in large part to complement his work in the classroom, where he has been working with wood as a sculptor and artist for the past year. He was drawn to the renovations because he wanted to learn formal carpentry technique. Dairanieh said he gained not just woodworking skills, but a sense of responsibility and belonging to the community as well: “I was given a to-do list, a deadline and basic instructions and I, an untrained outsider, was trusted—by the foreman, by SFAC administration, by Sitka residents—to carry it out, to work on a project the entire community cared deeply about. It was beautiful and humbling.”
Indeed, proponents of manual work assert that one of its major benefits is that it teaches responsibility in an immediate way that abstract tasks cannot. When the product of your work is visible, and you are held directly accountable for it by people you know, you are more inclined—forced, even—to put in your best effort. The thought of embarrassment is powerful. It’s easier to dismiss a paper that you bullshitted and never have to read again than to ignore a sloppy painting job that you see every day. Manual work forces you to exercise integrity and care.
And these are qualities that we would hope for in our leaders, people in the positions that some Yalies, and other similarly-trained students, may hold one day. Crawford writes, “Why not encourage gifted students to learn a trade, if only in the summers, so that their fingers will be crushed once or twice before they go on to run the country?” Schmidt put the point more mildly, but the sentiment was the same: “People who are positioned to make large decisions about other people who aren’t grounded in the tangible activity of other humans often make really big mistakes.” Powerful people, he argues, need to be anchored in the material world.
The inherent value of working with one’s hands is complicated by the various situations in which people can execute that labor. I worry that writers like Crawford give too easy an answer to a complex question. In one of the letters responding to his article, Deborah Barnbaum and Gene Pendleton pointed out, “Matthew Crawford made it clear that his education and résumé afforded him a great deal of flexibility.” They also pointed out that he decides his own hours, rates, and pace: “Had he been clocking in and out on a factory floor, it is dubious whether he would have sung the praises of working with his hands,” they added.
Crawford comes out of a tradition of writers including Wendell Berry and Edward Abbey, who have advocated for the ethics and politics of working with one’s hands. Critics have condemned these kinds of arguments as removed from the reality of how manual labor gets accomplished today: namely, by machines or by factory workers in the developing world. And indeed two front page New York Times articles from the past week—“New Wave of Deft Robots is Changing Global Industry” and “Made in Bangladesh: Policing the Garment Industry”—support that argument. Crawford faults the “perversity” of the think tank where he once held a job, but he never engages seriously with the reality of most concrete production methods. At best, he is out of touch; at worst, he perpetuates a dangerous fiction that all manual labor is “good,” and good in the same way.
The politics of highly educated young people engaging in manual labor are complicated, especially where class and money are concerned. The work crew in Sitka was compensated in room and board. All other expenses (including, in my case, a $976.38 roundtrip plane ticket) were our own. I took a month-long job at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp to cover my expenses. Some work crew members spent part of their summer working to finance their trip, but others did not. Work crew jobs certainly could not cover the $2,700 annual student income contribution to financial aid. The economic facts of the project raise questions about whether it was limited to those Yalies who were most financially secure, a complicated twist given the class divide between most Yale graduates and most manual workers.
Is there a disingenuous kind of class voyeurism inherent in elite students engaging in manual labor? There is a host of damaging clichés about manual work—that it’s simple or pure or wholesome—that are important to contend with. I value tremendously the exposure my summers have given me to different viewpoints, lifestyles, and ways of thinking. I also can’t disown the fact that, as someone of enormous educational privilege, I get to choose to do manual work (and usually in beautiful landscapes and cushy circumstances) while many others do so from a lack of alternatives. A friend of mine once said to me, “Laura, people have been struggling to get their hands out of the dirt for hundreds of years. I can’t understand why you are going and putting yours back in.” My parents, a professor and a librarian, support my decisions. But were I from a different background, I imagine they might feel quite differently. Dairanieh, for example, whose family was uprooted from Kuwait during the first Gulf War, has felt pressure from his father to pursue a secure professional field. Working on Allen doesn’t fit neatly into that trajectory. “Why a history major at an Ivy League university would choose to do manual labor during the summer rather than, say, pursue a prestigious NYC internship or dedicate the time for thesis research, was incomprehensible to him,” Dairanieh said.
By looking at manual labor exclusively as “good work,” we fetishize labor in damaging ways. Ideally, one would come away from concrete work caring deeply not only about one’s own capacity for responsibility and patience, but also about issues like safety standards, unionization, and fair pay. Putting on a breathing mask and gloves before stripping lead paint made me think more about exposure to potentially dangerous chemicals than I ever had at Yale. Wearing a hard hat while balancing on a ladder to paint a hard-to-reach bit of window trim made me consider preparation, safety, and consequences. Given that many Yalies will go on to make policy decisions that affect the working lives of others, I think these are important experiences to have. Simply put, the more time people who will be in charge of others spend doing manual labor, the fewer accidents we will have like the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion or the BP oil spill.
Once I began asking around, I found that a surprising number of Yale students have spent time doing physical work, whether joining the custodial staff as movers at the end of the semester, volunteer farmers through WWOOF, or working on a construction crew. Though no one I spoke to planned to pursue a career in those fields, many felt that their experience would influence their professional lives. Ben Singleton ’13 spent the summer between his sophomore and junior years working on a construction crew that built high-end apartments in New York City. This past summer he held a job that may well allow him to occupy one of those apartments in the future, working at a boutique investment bank. Though the two jobs were so different as to be almost incomparable, he values both as forms of hard work. As well as spending “literally eight hours a day swinging a sledgehammer,” Singleton found a niche for himself as an impromptu translator on the crew. He speaks Spanish and Italian and so could talk easily with his Hispanic, Algerian, and Irish coworkers. The conversations were often eye-opening, as he learned how his co-workers had come to the U.S. and grew to respect how hard they worked. “I’ve sort of grown up in a bubble,” Singleton said. “I’m from the Upper East Side.”
It’s easy to imagine how Singleton could have stayed in that bubble, gliding from Manhattan to Yale to a job on Wall Street. He intends to pursue a career in finance after graduation, but his summer working construction was more than tourism. At the investment bank, he explained, he helped companies raise money and reach long-term goals like building factories and creating job opportunities. Part of why he felt invested in the outcome was that he had spent time with workers who would benefit from the companies’ growth. “Out of Yale a lot of students end up running companies, taking important roles in management,” Singleton said. “The perspective of the worker is hard to understand if you haven’t worked construction yourself. You don’t fully understand what the lifestyle is like and what are the rules that should govern their employment.” From Singleton’s words, it’s clear that he knows that his work inside “the bubble” will have real implications for real people he respects outside of it.
Perhaps the most substantive thing I’ve learned from my summers is that the divide between physical and mental work is a false one. Much manual labor is highly skilled and requires problem solving just as challenging as crafting a good thesis. Weeding taught me focus and patience that I drew on long nights in the library. I’ve also been lucky to spend my summers with many different kinds of people who ask different kinds of questions—about knowledge, about goodness, about life and work—than those I hear on campus. I’ve spent months with mechanics, farmers, and construction foremen. I have many friends now to whom the word Yale means little. I’ve been reminded that there are innumerable ways to be smart and to contribute, with or without a Yale education.
In theory, concrete work expands the mind rather than limiting it. It admits new perspectives, new habits, new ways of thinking about and solving problems. For me, it created a richer landscape of learning where once I saw only dichotomies: liberal arts versus technical school, mind work versus the trades. I feel committed to giving other people access to this landscape of learning, something that won’t be accomplished by my painting a building all day but which I hope I’ll be able to do with more empathy, intellect, perspective, creativity and dare I say, integrity, for spending hours with a roller, a wall, and a bucket of paint.
As Schmidt pointed out to me, the work at SJC embodies the cooperative collision of mental and physical work. He explained, “We are restoring the campus so that it can be used for pro-human reasons: education, inspiration, art, culture, and science.” The work of the crew and volunteers at the Sheldon Jackson Campus will eventually give more students access to the world of ideas, artists places to practice, the town of Sitka a more vibrant community art space, scholars a place to gather. Schmidt added, “We need simple, concrete metaphors like this to inspire us and remind us that we can make a difference.” At first I’m surprised to hear how he uses the word metaphor to refer to the physical plant of the campus, as though he has delicately switched the concrete and the abstract worlds. But the more I think about it, the more sense his phrasing makes. A restored campus can be a metaphor for a community coming together. The architecture of a building can be a metaphor for the structure of a poem or a symphony. And as work continues on Sheldon Jackson, as volunteers sand beams, scrape paint, and build roofs, more and more students and artists and writers and thinkers will have a place to build metaphors of their own.