The merits of honest work

A friend this week sent me a link to a TED talk by a very wise man. Michael Sandel is Professor of Government at Harvard University, where he teaches political philosophy. His TED talk focused on the increasing failure to recognise the worth of honest work. Here is a link to the talk:

It brought to mind a graduation address I gave at the Auckland University of Technology 15 years ago. It is on a similar theme, although not expressed with Sandel’s eloquence. Nonetheless, I thought I would dust it off and share it with you.

Here it is: 

We are building a house. Not a very large house. A house that I’m pleased to say has been designed with elegant simplicity. It is being built on a clifftop. It is being built below another house and the site has been described, in the understated way that contractors speak, as “difficult”. There has been a lot of earthwork and a considerable reconstruction of the drainage system.

Until the project started I had not regarded people who dig holes for a living as being particularly skilled. I mean, anyone can dig a hole, can’t they?

Well, yes they can…unless the hole has to finish at an exact height above sea level…unless the hole is within centimetres of a foundation that must not be undermined…unless the hole is a tunnel that passes under that foundation and has to intersect exactly with another hole 25 metres away.

Could I dig those holes? No, I could not dig those holes.

Did the earthmovers and drainlayers on the site of my new house do it? Yes…and to perfection. Not only did they get it right, they had real pride in what they did. Yet, when I commented on their skill and the quality of the job, they simply said “Yeah, not bad, eh” And grinned.

Building a house – no, let me rephrase that: having a house built – is a humbling experience and, to me, at least, a revelation.

The people who are building it would, in the words of an old song, describe themselves as just common old working chaps but the skills and knowledge they possess are remarkable. For all that, they would say they remain common men.

The common man … and, for convenience, let’s just acknowledge that the term embraces men and women because “common humankind” doesn’t roll easily off the tongue… “the common man” is something of an oxymorom because he embodies uncommon worth.

G.K. Chesterton perhaps summed up that value. He said:

You have weighed the stars in the balance

And grasped the skies in a span

Take, if you must have answers,

The word of a common man.

Aaron Copland, the American composer, paid his tribute to extraordinary ordinary people in his “Fanfare for the Common Man” and the idiom was invoked again after September 11 as tales of remarkable feats by ordinary folk came to light.

I think the workers toiling on our building site would cringe – or show their displeasure in a more physical way – if I suggested for one moment that they were heroes. They’re not, of course. They are tradesmen doing a job. I expect to be further impressed as I see blocklayers, carpenters, electricians and plumbers add their contribution. Yet all of them are examples of the common man and would have it no other way.

I asked your forbearance but now I should explain why I told you the tale of our slowly emerging castle.

It may seem incongruous to be talking about “the common man” when we are gathered to recognise and honour academic achievement.

I do so for a number of reasons.

First, as an illustration that we should never lose our sense of proportion no matter how high we may climb the academic tree. Astrophysicists should never forget that one day, maybe, they will have to have a 25 metre hole dug under a foundation to intersect, exactly, with another hole.

We each have our own set of skills and, like drainlaying, it intersects with the skills of others. And those intersections should keep us just a little humble.

Secondly, in our society, we should recognise that skill and knowledge come in many forms. Each is important, each has its own intrinsic value. The artisan should be celebrated as much as the philosopher. 

And, finally, I want to acknowledge that practical skill is underlaid by professional – call that academic – knowledge and skill. Our house could not be built without the architects, engineers and geologists who planned it and who are supervising its construction.

I apologise if I have yet to establish a clear enough connection with today’s ceremony. Let me explain…I believe the Auckland University of Technology embodies all of the principles I have spoken about.

Its students are drawn from the ranks of the common man.

It places as much weight on craft diplomas as it does on master’s degrees. 

It acknowledges and contributes to the skill and knowledge continuum that starts with a hole in the ground and ends on the top floor of a corporate high-rise.

It recognises work skill as it does academic theory.

You have heard in recent days about performance-based research funds and the ranking of universities by the number of research-led degrees they confer. In the coming weeks you will doubtless hear a lot more.

Research is important and, for some universities, will be a primary driver but research alone does not determine every university’s worth to its community or to its students.

Your university serves the skill and knowledge spectrum and serves it very well. It has a healthy emphasis on vocation.

And, as Shakespeare’s Falstaff said: “’Tis no sin for a man to labour in his vocation.”

We, in this country, need to be careful. This latest approach to university ranking and the rising cost to students of a tertiary education could place university beyond the reach of our common man. Beyond reach either in financial terms or because the perception of our institutions becomes too elite for him to contemplate.

Our common man is too important to our destiny for that ever to be allowed to happen. We need to have a broad-based appreciation of the roles of our respective universities and we need to find funding alternatives that keep their doors open to anyone who is capable of attaining tertiary qualification.

I place you who are graduating today in those ranks of the common man and I do so out of admiration. I can think of no higher accolade than being regarded as ordinary people who accomplish extraordinary things.

Now let me finish with another short story.

When I was younger, in the days when newspapers were produced using lines of hot metal type, I had the job of overseeing the composition of pages.

This task was undertaken by printers and there was a well-understood rule that journalists did not touch metal type. Quite literally, we were not supposed to lay a finger on it and I stood with my hands clasped behind my back to avoid involuntary action that would bring the wrath of the Father of the Printers’ Chapel down on my head.

It may have seemed arcane even then but it was a recognition of the training and skill of the compositor – another of those common old working chaps.

When one of them retired he gave me a small newspaper-wrapped parcel. Inside were two slugs of metal type. That I could touch. It was a reward for acknowledging his skills.

  • The photograph at the top of this post shows the staff of the Modern Terrazzo Company in Auckland, I would guess in the 1940s. The young man kneeling at left is my father, who spent his life working with his hands as a stonemason.

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