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Mike Rowe on the dysfunctional relationship with labor

May 18, 2011

I’ve spent a lot of time writing posts on this blog that focus on the plummeting value of a college education – bemoaning the fact that people are sinking further and further into debt for an education that is increasingly worth less and less.  I often look back on the years and years I spent in academia, and wonder whether that time would have been better spent doing the kinds of work I grew up doing.  If I had become an electrician, or a plumber, would I be less stressed, less burdened by student loan debt, less angry that the academic system has built up this brilliant scheme for exploiting young people who just want to fit society’s ever-evolving description of the word ‘success’?

The more I think about it, I think the answer might just be ‘yes’.  I would venture a guess that I am somewhat unique amongst my peers in academia.  I hold a PhD in physics, have worked on amazing problems and gotten to learn incredible things, but I did not come from a long line of scientists.  I grew up in a blue collar family, in a blue collar town.  I learned to pour concrete slabs, shingle roofs, frame walls, and more, well before my 18th birthday.  And even amongst that environment, there was this sense of ‘moving on to something greater’, that by getting a college education, going off to school in the big city, I was somehow moving up in the world.

And I have questioned the certainty of those types of claims ever since.  For my PhD, I studied a tiny niche of a tiny field, that no one will likely ever care about.  My experience was far from atypical.  I know many others in the academic and white-collar world who deal with this sort of crisis – this lack of meaning to the work that they do.  Mike Rowe has a great tag line for his show Dirty Jobs on Discovery – he describes the work done by the folks on the show as the thing that “makes civilized life possible for the rest of us”.  I couldn’t agree with that sentiment any more.  Mike is absolutely right when he states that we have a dysfunctional relationship with labor in this country, that we look down on an honest day’s work, and it is going to come back to bite us in the ass sooner rather than later.

With that long-winded introduction, I strongly encourage you to watch Mike’s short CNN I-report summary of his thoughts on that dysfunctional relationship, and his thoughts on our need for a PR campaign for labor.  We need to stop glorifying an academic beast that is robbing students of their futures, forcing them to take jobs they hate for high salaries they won’t enjoy, solely to pay off their mountains of student loan debt.  There is much happiness to be found in a simple life, doing good, honest work that directly benefits the people around you, and we should never forget it.

Watch for yourself at


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