Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Plain English: Work Ethic in Schools

Labor, as in hard work, has lost its appeal for Americans in general. It’s okay if illegal immigrants work hard at manual labor, but we don’t want our own children to grow up to do manual labor. We spin a dream of college, then a soft office job that pays you well for doing as little work as possible. In fact, the cushy job has become the American dream. The less we work, the smarter we are, the cooler we are, and the more successful we are. Stress is good. Sweat is bad, unless it is produced in the spa, or by exercise or playing sports.

Somewhere along the way, we lost respect for hard work. We could learn a lot about the dignity of labor from a surprising source: Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington.

Washington was born a slave, but he rose to prominence as the founder of Tuskegee Institute, a college for African Americans. Washington’s short 150-page autobiography, Up From Slavery, is a handbook for teaching people how to work. In fact, his philosophy of education is based on the dignity and necessity of work, both physical and mental.

Washington believed that physical work enhances learning. His model for a college was one where students paid their way with work. Students built Tuskegee from the ground up and kept it running by operating the cafeteria, laundry, grounds-keeping, a sawmill, and a custodial service. Tuskegee Institute was not exactly a boot camp, but “No student, no matter how much money he may be able to command, is permitted to go through school without doing manual labor.”

Learning how to perform a task to a standard is what young recruits experience in the U.S. military. The military model promotes discipline, efficiency, and pride in excellence. Booker T. Washington takes the model a step further. He maintains that there is a definite connection between cleaning a room to perfection and learning a math, science, English, or history concept to perfection.

Who taught Washington to work? Mrs. Viola Ruffner, a demanding woman who hired Washington as a teenager to clean her house. “I soon began to learn,” recalls Washington, “that she, first of all, wanted everything kept clean about her, that she wanted things done promptly and systematically, and that at the bottom of everything she wanted absolute honesty and frankness. Nothing must be sloven or slipshod; every door, every fence, must be kept in repair.”

Washington’s philosophy of education was rooted in his one year of work experience in Mrs. Ruffner’s home. He says:

“The lessons that I learned in the home of Mrs. Ruffner were as valuable to me as any education I have ever gotten anywhere since. Even to this day I never see bits of paper scattered around a house or in the street that I do not want to pick them up at once. I never see a filthy yard that I do not want to clean it, a paling off of a fence that I do not want to put it on, an unpainted or unwhitewashed house that I do not want to paint or whitewash it, or a button off one’s clothes, or a grease
spot on them or on the floor, that I do not want to call attention to it.”

We desperately need a new model for public schools. Instilling students with work ethic, responsibility, respect for excellence, and a reverence for the dignity of labor is crucial to our future. Physical effort and mental effort are connected. We just need to figure out, as Washington did, how to make the connection in the school environment.


Mary Jane McKinney is the creator and owner of LLC, publisher of grammar, style, and proofreading exercises that use sentences from literature. She is a former high school English teacher and dedicated grammarian whose column Plain English appears in several Texas newspapers. LLC, P.O. Box 299, Christoval, TX 76935,, 325-896-2479,

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