Good Work or Good Money?

When people ask for education they normally mean something more than mere training, something more than mere knowledge of facts, and something more than mere diversion. . . . I think what they are really looking for is ideas that would make the world, and their own lives, intelligible to them. E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful

A report published in the Washington Post recently, confirmed that engineering graduates stand to earn the most over the course of a lifetime, and those in education, psychology, and social work will earn the least. Just in time for graduation, the article in the Post cannot be reassuring to those parents whose children find themselves, through temperament and proclivity, drawn to the social sciences and humanities, where, the study tells us, they will flounder in the shallow end of the monetary pool while their smarter and more ambitious colleagues frolic in the deep waters of financial gain.  This is not news, since full professors in the humanities on many research campuses make thousands of dollars less than engineering professors of a lower rank.

What may be of more interest to some is the underlying assumption, rarely questioned, that the sole value of an education is the “return on investment,” as one financial advisor to students puts it. Others state the case even more bluntly. The Post article quotes a poet and professor at Florida International University, Campbell McGrath, as saying “You are making a really weird decision if you decide to send your kids off to study philosophy. It would be a better world if we all studied the humanities. But it’s not a good dollars-and-cents decision.” The article quotes Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of, who says, “Even in 17-year-olds, we’re seeing emphasis on maximizing returns on investment—that is, getting trained in areas that pay better.”

In a recent public speaking course that I taught, the final project was a group panel discussion. One group chose to present their individual majors and why a college education was the best way to assure achieving one’s goals. Each one related with enthusiasm why they had chosen that profession—the reasons invariably began with the salary range possible—until the last student spoke. He was going into elementary education, he said, and mentioned as an aside that it wasn’t for the money. He had worked as a teaching aide in his mother’s 6th grade classroom for two years and he knew where his talents and interests lay. He could recall an influential teacher who had changed his life and he wanted to be that kind of teacher for other children. The others on the panel and those in the audience responded to the passion in his presentation much as dinner guests at a formal party would to someone who wondered what to do with all the cutlery at his place setting.

As someone who chose two fields of study—philosophy and communications—that apparently consign me to penury all the days of my life, I remain unrepentant. Given the choice I would do it all again, except I would study modern languages harder and I would take a minor in economics. Like Kurt Vonnegut, who admonished students in the 60s to keep the ROTC on their campuses so that they could understand the militaristic way of thinking, more of us who wallow in the humanities need to understand the monetary mindset. And there is no denying that American education, American politics, American culture, and to an alarming degree, American religion, is all about money. We speak in the metaphors of finance, we negotiate relationships through cost-benefit analyses, and we view our entertainments, our arts, and our sports through the narrowed eyes of the calculating investor. That’s probably not going to change, but what we could hope is that we come to see the importance of good work over lots of money.

Studs Terkel once wrote that of the hundreds of people he interviewed for his book, Working (1972), the majority of them hated what they did for a living. Not, “were uncomfortable” or “disliked” or “did not prefer” what they worked at, but “hated.” Many of these were people whose salaries were substantial, many of them barely made a living wage. The money is not really the issue, just as this study worked up by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce doesn’t mean much either. Here’s an endless loop: With the cost of education rising almost faster than any other marker on the index, it’s not hard to see that the ability to pay back school loans faster upon graduation is one of the main reasons to get an education for a profession that pays well. . . so that one can pay back the loans that provided the education for the well-paying job . . . ad infinitum.

“All traditional philosophy is an attempt to create an orderly system of ideas by which to live and to interpret the world,” said Fritz Schumacher in his groundbreaking book, Small is Beautiful(1973). But philosophy is too important to leave it up to the professional philosophers, which is why the humanities—and philosophy—are still needed in this barren and constricted world of profits and cost-effectiveness. The world of science, of engineering, of information technology, is professionally neutral on questions of value. Give them a problem that can be quantified, measured, and calculated and chances are it will be solved, profitably and responsibly. And if it can’t be solved today we know that it will be solved some day. There’s nothing that can’t be fixed with more of what we needed in the first place. Or so the conventional wisdom would have us believe. The essence of education, suggests Schumacher, “is the transmission of values, but values do not help us to pick our way through life unless they have become our own, a part, so to say, of our mental make-up.”

The point is not to create a wider mine-field between the Two Cultures, but to shift the whole focus away from the money to the meaning. ‘Know-how’, the stuff of science and engineering, is necessary, admits Schumacher. But ‘know-why’ is even more important, and that’s the area of the low-paying professions.  ” ‘Know-how’ is no more a culture than a piano is music,” says Schumacher. “Can education help us finish the sentence, to turn the potentiality into a reality to the benefit of man?”

Yes, it can, provided we, the American people, realize that our fortune lies not in constant consumption but in work that satisfies, restores, and renews. The question is raised, says Schumacher, “How do we prepare young people for the future world of work?” He is unequivocal: we have to teach them to distinguish between good work and bad work and “encourage them not to accept the latter. . . . They should be taught that work is the joy of life and is needed for our development, but that meaningless work is an abomination (Good Work, 1979).

We can have no quarrel at all with those who choose a profession that happens to pay well. But surely the main reason to spend most of your life at work is because it somehow fulfills your deepest sense of who you are and what you can do for good in this world. How many college grads realize about halfway through their first week on the job that this is their life now? If you come to hate your job, the soulless, bitter minutiae of it seeping into your pores every day, your bi-weekly check, docked for taxes, benefits, school loans, and the cost of living, is small recompense.

“The good that I would do, I do not,” says Paul in Romans. What we do should be the result of what we are, not the other way around.

One thought on “Good Work or Good Money?

  1. Barry, lovely reflections on that most primal of relationships between parent & child, Self & other.

    I suspect this process will move you & move thru you in ways of mystery as yet unknown, such that you will come to know yourself better as well as the man you call Father. We are offered the opportunity to be transformed by loss, both in the sense of grief, but also thru the loss of layers of projection & interpretation, and to stand naked in the essence of what remains, having been moved by the mysteries of the heart.

    Thank you for sharing a glimpse into your journey. May you continue to surrender to the process and experience an emergance of blessings along the way.
    xoxo Michalene


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