Saturday, June 18, 2005

Mark Kleiman is concerned about what he calls the "TGIF problem": that people don't enjoy their jobs enough. "What does make me unhappy," he writes, "is that, in what is by some measures the richest nation in the history of the planet, most people don't really enjoy the activity that occupies about a third of their waking hours."

It's widely considered an ideal, of course, to be able to do for a living what one loves to do anyway. But let's face it--we can't all be prostitutes.

That may sound like a flip comment--okay, it is a flip comment--but I would argue that there's also an important truth behind it. The usual explanation for why most people don't hold jobs that involve doing what they love is that there's nothing that they love to do that they could actually get paid to do. But that's usually not true. In fact, almost every hobby has a corresponding job, and many of those jobs in fact employ millions of people. Lots of hobbyists, for example, enjoy gardening, or woodwork, or auto mechanics, or cooking--or, for that matter, sex.

But doing these things as a hobby is very, very different from doing them for a living. A hobbyist pleases him- or herself, makes his or her own hours, and works on the projects--and even the aspects of a given project--that he or she enjoys working on, skimping on the parts that are less enjoyable. A professional, on the other hand, must please employers or customers, by working on giving them what they want, when they want it, the way they want it. It's hardly surprising, then, that professionals often view their work as little better than an exhausting succession of unpleasant tasks.

Indeed, doing what one loves, but for a living instead of for fun, often drains all the joy out of doing it--my flip comment above being an obvious example. And to me, that's much worse than having to do a tolerable job one would not normally perform voluntarily. After all, in the latter case one is still free to enjoy one's unspoiled passions fully in one's spare time.

Kleiman points to professors--many of whom prefer to keep working through retirement age, as "emeriti"--as exemplars of the ideal of doing one's favorite activity for a living. But academia is something of a special case. There really aren't that many full research professors, as a fraction of the population. They are carefully selected by a rigorous process that requires them to demonstrate their willingness to obsess about their work for years on end. And then they are then given tenure, which allows them considerable freedom to tailor their work in just about any way that pleases them.

Society can afford one or two sparsely-populated vocations like that. But a world of tenured doctors or tenured middle managers or tenured electricians would look a lot like--well, the world of tenured public school teachers. And thank goodness most of North America functions better than its public schools.

Of course, there are people who are blessed with a love of a particular activity so intense that they even enjoy pursuing it professionally, despite all the drawbacks of doing so. Such people are very lucky--as are people with a particular talent so immense that they can exploit it on their own terms, as if it were a hobby, and still make a good living. But for the rest of us, the sensible course of action is to find a real job, and save our cherished pastimes for after hours.

So I say to the myriad editors who are no doubt ready to offer me untold riches, if only I'll agree to turn my blogging hobby into a career in professional opinion journalism: save your breath--this blogger's not for sale.


LTEC said...

I agree, except for your crack about public school teachers.

The problem with the public schools is with the System and the educational establishment that runs it, not with the teachers. The system creates terrible curricula, it doesn't create and hire teachers based on their knowledge and ability to teach in the subject area, and it evaluates teachers more according to politics than to quality. Of course there are many bad teachers as well as good ones, but this is mainly because of, rather than in spite of, the System.

Two anecdotes:
-- Where I come from, it is easier for a Psy. Ed. major with high grades who has taken almost no math to be come a math teacher, than it is for a math major with B grades.
-- Where I come from, a teacher who is qualified to teach math and computer science may be asked to teach history as well, even if he protests that he knows nothing about the subject.

Both of the above practices are common and are supported by the Union, which doesn't really believe that subjects have actual content. If the math teacher or the history teacher I mentioned winds up being crappy, is it fair to blame those individuals?

And by the way, I've met many school teachers, and ALL of them worship Fridays.

Dan Simon said...

I agree that most of the blame for the pitiful state of public education in North America can be placed directly at the feet of the educational "system"--primarily the educational bureaucracy and the teachers' unions. (Mind you, I place most of the indirect blame on the voting public, the majority of whom either don't know what a good education is, don't care, or know full well, and do their very best to prevent children from getting one.)

However, I think it's fair to say that one of the most powerful techniques by which bureaucrats, unions and voters ruin public schools is by ensuring that all teachers--including the manifestly incompetent among them--receive iron-clad job security. The result may not be careers marked by uninterrupted bliss, as you point out--after all, the public-school version of professorial tenure is not accompanied by academic freedom, nor by tenured professor-style feather-light teaching loads. But it does result in plenty of public-school versions of academic deadwood.

Of course, there are many teachers who soldier on as best they can, out of a sense of duty and dedication, and manage to teach their pupils quite well. They are a testament to human character at its best, and we should all admire them. But they are, I believe, a minority, and hence--and this was my only point, really--not a good argument for academic-style terms of employment in the public schools.

Dave Harmon said...

It's true that doing something "for a living" can take some of the natural joy out of a vocation, but I'd say that has as much (or more) to do with working conditions, than "having to satisfy the customer". I'm going to discuss teaching, because that's a profession I care, and know a bit, about. I'll let others discuss computer programming and prostitution. ;-)

Everything I've heard says that pretty much *all* new teachers go in there idealistic and gung-ho to help those kids. Here in New York City, the public school system is just chewing up those teachers and spitting them out as burn-out cases. Forget about having enough computers, the ghetto districts don't have enough *textbooks* for their kids. The buildings are falling apart, often literally (holes in the roof!).

Class sizes are insane, and teachers are expected to teach so many classes that they're lucky if they can grade the tests, let alone provide meaningful feedback, or have a chat with the parents. And yeah, out of their field too. If they try to discipline a disruptive student, they'll get flak from the parents, with little support from their own principal etc.

Academic standards? Here that means standardized-test scores, get those school averages up or else. Admittedly, a lot of the "failing" schools are allowed to pass students at lower grades, thus letting them inflate their diploma counts -- but this is a NYC diploma, not the statewide Regents diploma. Trust me, colleges know the difference. So do employers.

Physical security is hopeless -- metal detectors aren't too helpful when the kid who's knife you just confiscated will be facing guns on the way home. And with 30+ students per teacher, the students don't *need* weapons to threaten unarmed teachers. Some of those ghetto schools have armed cops in the halls. But given the local race/law dynamic, the students are more likely to see those cops as hostile guards, rather than protectors.

Every few years, there's some much ballyhooed "reform" scheme, the latest one being pushed by our billionaire control-freak mayor. But the politics of the scene are so conflicted that nobody has the political power (and determination) to push real changes down to "ground level". Without that, it doesn't matter how much money you pour in, because it's just dribbling through the cracks in the system.

Dan Simon said...

Dave, I said "customers or employers. Presumably the latter are the ones who would prefer, for economic and/or political reasons, that teachers teach a great many overcrowded classes each day in an unsafe environment, with no disciplinary power. Obviously, a "hobby teacher" would set things up differently.

And that's exactly my point. Doing something for a living means doing it the way the employer or customer wants it, putting economics and politics ahead of job satisfaction, and enduring working conditions imposed by the workplace, rather than chosen by the hobbyist. I have no doubt that teaching a few small classes a day of handpicked students, in a bright, cheery environment, according to a teacher-chosen curriculum, would be a joy for most teachers. But how much would anybody pay them to do that?

Dave Harmon said...

But who is properly the "employer" of a public-school teacher? Nominally it's the city government, but they are (supposed to be) responsible to the public at large, and the result of these lousy working conditions is that the school system is failing to achieve the purpose for which it was intended (and funded by taxpayer money).

*Private*-school teachers commonly have much better working conditions, and this is reflected in their ability to hire quality people. (Of course, they can still screw things up by mismanagement). But of course, they're available only to people who can pay for them -- and I don't think it's a coincidence that the private-school teachers know exactly who their employers are, and who their clients are, with no confusion between the two.

Much of the difference between the two situations reflects the different power balances. In the private school, the parents are paying up front, and they can demand certain things, but the school itself also has a coherent identity and (hopefully) clear leadership. If a parent throws their weight around too much, they can be told to take their child elsewhere, but if the school does that too much, they run out of students. In short, there is a well-defined power balance, and everybody knows where to look for authority and/or responsibility.
In the public schools, the "leadership" comes from the opaque and tangled mysteries of city politics, and the responsibilities are imposed on the teachers themselves, who lack the authority to fix the problems. I figure that produces a fairly abusive work environment right there.

I may seem to have wandered away from the original topic, but I do feel that much of the trouble we have with workplace morale *and productivity* in America, come from just this sort of disconnect between authority and responsibility. This has been spreading slowly through the corporate world until, like the slowly-boiled frog, many of us are ready to accept thoroughly abusive workplaces as "normal". And then the consequences of those conditions become "normal" -- remember when somebody "going postal" was front-page news, instead of "yet another one"?

Oh, and a "hobby" (== self-employed) teacher couldn't afford to provide a fraction of the supplies and infrastructure needed by a working school. But such people exist and work anyway... they're called "tutors".

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