Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn,
Wire, briar, limber lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew East
One flew West
And one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
I visited my parents at their home in Bristol this past weekend. Whilst going through some paperwork I came across an old school report of mine from 1981 (I was 10 at that time). My mother and father made enormous personal sacrifices to send myself, my brother and my two sisters to private schools. Their heroics in this regard are perhaps the subject for another post on another day. However, it was a comment from my report that prompted me to write this post, discovering it as I did so soon after writing my previous one.
In my last post I laid out what I believe to be the sort of internal monologue that we all experience to a greater or lesser degree at some points throughout our working lives. It’s not a monologue that makes for comfortable reading but I think it is one we need to acknowledge if we are genuinely to concern ourselves with improving work and the experience of going to work. It is an aim that is seen as so important that the CIPD even has “Championing better work and working lives” as its tagline.
In 1981, my then Headmaster summarised the comments made by all of my other teachers thus: “There is some here that is very good, there is much that is good. However, he tends to switch off or become distracted if the work is dull or uninteresting. He must learn that, for adults, work is often dull or uninteresting.” I liked my Headmaster enormously and he was supportive of me and ensured that the school had a rich pastoral life beyond the confines of the curriculum. It was in these areas of school life that I excelled and found purpose and indeed, passion. But that comment, reflecting the need for 10 year-old children to recognise that work might be dull and uninteresting in adulthood, brought a memory sharply in to focus. I could not reconcile the two states in the one institution; an environment that simultaneously facilitated the development of a rich internal landscape whilst reinforcing the stark reality of the adult future ahead.
At the same school, 6 years later (with my Headmaster’s comment still holding true), I studied Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”. Kesey, a recreational experimenter with LSD, advocated for drug use as a path to individual freedom and the novel deals repeatedly with the subtle and coercive methods used by various authorities to control individuals. I found the central character, McMurphy, distasteful (acquitted of rape and convicted of battery) but the novel thematically inspiring. It did nothing to heal the disconnect I felt in the duality of the school system – the regimentation and simultaneous expansion of the mind, encouraging of critical thought but limiting routes and opportunities for free expression and challenge. Doubtless my shrill and immature attempts at both did nothing to further my cause.
As an adult, I remain unable to completely reconcile certain beliefs.
I believe that for a great many people, work is seen as a necessary evil to be got out of the way as painlessly as possible.
I believe that striving to make the experience of work a happier and more fulfilling one is not a futile ambition.
I believe that we will never entirely free ourselves of dull and uninteresting work.
I believe that we need to teach children moral and social responsibility.
I believe we should not reinforce in children any notion that work might be dull and uninteresting.
It was thought, and hoped, that technology would remove the need for humans to do dull and uninteresting work. The rise of knowledge work merely serving to reinforce that line of thought. Other, different, dull and uninteresting work has rushed in to fill the gaps that technology leaves behind. We struggle to break free. We’ll go email free to claw back time but take to instant messaging with alacrity in its place. We are a generation that was taught by people who were certain that dull and uninteresting work was a foregone conclusion. We did not, or could not, challenge that thinking as children and we have inherited and maintained working practices that ensure it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Might we not break the cycle through starting to help children to a belief that work can be dull and uninteresting if they let it be, but that it need never be, so long as they strive to reclaim work from the past?
Picture credit: Ronald Searle