We have class privilege in our country and not gender or race privilege. Many of the special opportunities available for upward mobility across classes and generations are not based on wealth or income, or skin color or ethnicity or gender, but rather on the “human capital” of parents and grandparents, and communities, who invest their time and wisdom in the education of future generations.
Those charged with the responsibility of educating our children—teachers and parents, today first look for our children’s educational strengths and try to develop them, but several generations ago those charged with the same responsibility first looked to our children and society’s moral weaknesses and tried to correct them. At only a few of our prestigious institutions of higher learning are students encouraged to take courses that are difficult. Instead, they are encouraged to take courses where they will get the best grades and many times these courses don’t provide them with a skill that is valued by society and will give them an opportunity to provide for a family. In the end, many of these students wisely decide not to take on this unique responsibility.
When I had the opportunity to recruit young surgeons to be on our trauma team I purposefully looked for people who had to overcome obstacles in their lives—maybe they were dyslexic, or had learning disabilities, or had to work full time in college and medical school. They might not have been immediately accepted into medical school. Maybe they graduated at the bottom of their class academically, but during their clinical rotations, they showed an ability to work hard and put up with the “scut work” that was 90% of what they did.
I once had the opportunity to tutor a student at our Parish grade school who had tremendous problems with math, but he wanted to be an engineer. His guidance counselors in high school and college both recommended that he major in non-STEM studies. He went to College in Idaho where he got almost straight A’s in English, Political Science, and History, but he struggled in the basic sciences barely able to keep his GPA at a 2.7 level. So he struggled with calculous, physics, and chemistry, but he was blessed to have a teacher who recognized that his tenacity and work ethic were unique. The idea was that if he was tough enough to major in his weakest subject, he would be tough enough to handle whatever life had to throw at him. Twenty years later this wise teacher has been proven correct. The student who struggled in his major has had an incredibly successful professional career, owned and sold several businesses, and has made incredible contributions to his own family, church and community.
Our parents and grandparents recognized that of all the virtues, the virtue of work was the most important. The ability to love, to serve, to sacrifice, to have poise and self-control—not to mention the ability to differentiate an equation or balance a chemical formula will ultimately at some time require the application of those virtues—if one chooses to push oneself to the limits. In addition to the tools and skills that education makes available to students, the development of character and the ability to fail, and we will all fail sometime, was considered part of the responsibility of education.
Another important lesson to be learned by young people is that one should never try to avoid struggle—run toward the trouble not away from it. A well-lived life is not a straight line but a sine wave. Many times we will be ridiculed, or our thoughts will be marginalized. How courageous is the scientist who struggles thousands of times over with an experiment that will make people’s lives better, or the social worker living in a ghetto with her clients, or a soldier in the field placing his own life on the line for our liberties? Don’t all these acts and a thousand more require both character and skill and the ability to work?
And in the end isn’t our ultimate calling a calling to serve others—first our families, then our churches and communities. My father’s Naval Academy Class of 1942 motto was “service before self”. That Class graduated 1 year early in anticipation of WWII. One year later a large number of them were fighting in the Pacific—many losing their lives Twenty eight years ago I asked the principal of our Catholic High School about strategies for character development. He answered by mentioning the number of “Community Service Hours” his senior class had logged. Not until I read “The Road to Character” by Peter Brooks last year was I finally able to identify my source of anxiety about that answer. You see the principal was talking about something external—character is internal. People who don’t understand this difference turn moral questions into allocation of resource questions and search for political solutions. The motives of those serving people at the margins and the way those being served look upon themselves and those serving them demand to be examined.
The great suffrage and humanitarian Elizabeth Perkins warned us to not only be suspicious of those “oozing compassion” to bring attention to themselves, but she also warned about “the taint of emotion that made rich people feel good about themselves because they were doing community service” that is itself a destructive force. Charity according to my Catholic Catechism is a covenant between the giver and receiver to which God is a party. Nowhere can I find that government should be the conduit for charity.
Nathaniel Hawthorne warned “Benevolence is the twin of pride” and David Brooks warns “to have no tolerance for any pose that puts the server above the person being served because this is destructive of both.” When the government is the means to a charitable end, it automatically creates such a relationship not to mention a state of dependency.
So what does this all have to do with education and upward mobility? The tool used for anyone to rise from their parent’s shoulders is education, but not only education that gives us skills, but an education that demands that when our inner characters are challenged, we have the moral and ethical tools to make ourselves available to the service of others.
A doctor, a nurse, a teacher, a farmer, a businessman or women—heck even a politician or lawyer, a wife, a husband anyone doing anything has a choice of making the task at hand a “job” or a “vocation”. The job itself does not make that choice. I know doctors who look at what they do as a job and I know a janitor at The YMCA who looks at what he does as a vocation. The person pursuing civil rights or Medicaid Expansion, or minimum wage, or an early retirement or a Championship, or the great novel is not living a vocation.
In the above cases, the job or a career becomes the end to which the means are applied. A vocation becomes the instrument by which we do our job. We surrender to our vocations because reasons deeper than utility, economics or politics or self-promotion motivate us.
Thomas Edison, Jonas Salk (polio), Walter Reid (Yellow Fever), Bill Gates, our Founding Fathers, all looked at their lives as a vocation. Some made lots of money some didn’t. But wealth was never the point of their motivation. They all looked at their life’s WORK as vocation. This is what education and upward mobility is all about. Talking about race and gender or privilege only takes our eye off the ball.
Our children and future generations deserve better from us.