Acton Institute Powerblog

The Lost Dignity of Work

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From websites promoting help with Monday morning atheism, to an ever present ‘TGIF,’ a place of honor toward work seems to do nothing but diminish within our culture. The mere suggestion that work is not a curse of the fall is unfortunately quite foreign in many circles. Joseph Sunde at Remnant Culture has written a blog based on his reading of Booker T. Washington’s biography entitled Up From Slavery in which he highlights the high ethic and dignity Washington placed on work.

I can only imagine the impact that would be realized in our culture, if the majority of people embraced the principles of Washington’s work ethic and practiced them on a daily basis. If you are looking for further reading on this topic, beyond Washington’s biography I would recommend Work: The Meaning Of Your Life by Lester DeKoster.

There is also a lesson here for our leaders, one of whom recently promised to spur such artificiality faster and further, promoting things like “free” education while ignoring the “drudgery” and “toil” that Washington recognized as necessary for any kind of authentic success and genuine sense of self-worth. How, might I ask, are we to return to recognizing the “beauty” and “dignity” in our labor if the very people who have maximized their utility in these areas—CEOs or investors like Mitt Romney, for example—are demonized and ridiculed for their successes by both politicians and policies?

To be clear, we are not to hope for the same constraining and discriminatory circumstances that Washington faced when it came to racism and mistreatment, but neither should we pretend that true opportunity is realized by constructing some utopian college-bound cookie-cutter and applying it to everyone and everything in what Mark Steyn calls the “Brokest Nation in History.”

Real prosperity doesn’t come from the flip of a magic wand, and it seems that we’ve forgotten that it can and sometimes should come from the sweep of a simple broom.

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Chris Robertson Originally from the suburbs of Cleveland Ohio, Chris Robertson graduated from Cornerstone University with a Bachelor of Science in Bible with minors in Greek and Spanish. Chris is the Program Outreach Coordinator for the Acton Institute. He comes to the Acton Institute from The Salvation Army where his work focused on Social Media, eCommunications, Project Management, and Administration. Chris’ interests include spending time with his wife Rebecca and son Levi, international news, travel, social media, the web and technology. Chris and his family are members of City Hope Ministries in Grand Rapids.


  • arlocrescent

    Are you saying that Mitt and CEO’s are the “toilers”?  And the rest of us lack a work ethic?  Sorry to disagree, but I work my ass off.  So does the immigrant who washes dishes 6 hours a day then drives a cab for 10 hours a day.

    It’s positively insulting that you suggest the “work” ethic is in the hands of people who inherited their money and sit behind a desk and make phone calls all day telling other people which stocks to buy and sell for them and how many workers to lay off.

    • I’m not saying Mitt and the CEOs are *THE* “toilers,” but I’m saying they are examples of toilers who are demonized for their achievements. I wouldn’t disagree that you and the immigrant who washes 6 hours a day are likely just as hard of workers, if not more–I myself would probably fall in the same lower/middle-class category. I’m not sure where you get the notion that I think one type of work is better than the other. In the pice I am highlighting Washington’s energetic and diligent sweeping as a young boy as the beginnings of greatness. Is this not comparable to an immigrant washing dishes 6 hours a day?

      My point in bringing up Mitt and the CEOs has to do with how we view the purpose and value in our work, and how we view the productivity of others. You may think Mitt “inherited his money,” but from what I’ve read of his life story, he worked his way from the bottom up.

      All I’m noting is that we live in a society that elevates an artificial form of prosperity–one that (supposedly) comes from taxing the CEOs and Romneys of the world and funneling that money around to special interest group or social class X, Y, and Z rather than aiming to channel *all* of our behavior toward creating *more* wealth, and in turn, more wealthy individuals (in the life of a dishwashing immigrant, for example). Again, the Romney/CEO reference was used as one example of how we demonize other people’s successes rather than pursuing our own and recognizing the value Romney are producing. You clearly think investors like Romney don’t produce value, and if so, we will likely disagree on that.

      Again, I am suggesting that the work ethic is in all of our hands if we pursue it and find the beauty in it. Washington was no CEO or Romney in the beginning of his life, or in the end. That was not a blueprint, just an example of counterproductive attitudes.

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  • Phil Steiger

    The apparent move to something like an ‘entitlement economy’ will have larger repercussions than we imagine.  This post is onto a bigger issue than most people want to acknowledge.  There is value and dignity infused into the human through good work.  Value and dignity can be sucked out of the same life with a lack of this ethic.