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Booker T. Washington on the beauty and dignity of work

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“My plan was to have [my students]…taught to see not only utility in labour, but beauty and dignity.” –Booker T. Washington

We live in a time of unbounding prosperity. Opportunities are wider, work is easier, and innovation continues to accelerate at a break-neck pace. Yet standing amid such blessings, it can be easy to forget or neglect the basic freedoms and philosophy of life that got us here in the first place.

Alas, in a culture propelled by pleasure, materialism, and convenience, we’ve grown increasingly accustomed to shortcuts and quick-fix solutions. Caught up in the impatience of the age, we forget to simply behold, remembering the basic beauty and dignity that exists before and beyond the fruits of prosperity and efficiency.

In his famous autobiography, Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington reminds us of a different civilizational outlook: one that values work not only for its utility, but also for its transcendent and transformational potential for the human person.

After gaining his freedom from slavery as a young boy, Washington was eager to take whatever job he could find, whether at the salt furnace or the coal mine. The goal of such work was simple: to save up enough money for a proper education. “If I accomplished nothing else in life,” Washington writes, “I would in some way get enough education to enable me to read common books and newspapers.”

Soon enough, he had saved enough to pack his bags for the Hampton Institute. Arriving in dirty rags and with no guarantee of admission, Washington was quickly given an unusual entry exam. The head teacher instructed him to grab a broom and sweep a nearby classroom, to which Washington promptly responded with joy and grace.

“It occurred to me at once that here was my chance,” Washington writes. “Never did I receive an order with more delight.” And so he proceeded:

I swept the recitation-room three times. Then I got a dusting-cloth and I dusted it four times. All the woodwork around the walls, every bench, table, and desk, I went over four times with my dusting-cloth. Besides, every piece of furniture had been moved and every closet and corner in the room had been thoroughly cleaned.

I had the feeling that in a large measure my future depended upon the impression I made upon the teacher in the cleaning of that room. When I was through, I reported to the head teacher…When she was unable to find one bit of dirt on the floor, or a particle of dust on any of the furniture, she quietly remarked, “I guess you will do to enter this institution.”

Washington was admitted into the school, making him “one of the happiest souls on earth.” “Never did any youth pass an examination for entrance into Harvard or Yale that gave him more genuine satisfaction,” he writes.

That acute awareness of the “genuine satisfaction” of work done freely and joyfully would become ever-more vigorous throughout his life, leading to the eventual founding of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute.

One of his primary goals was education, but Washington focused heavily on vocational and skills training, as well as a focus on “practical subjects.” While much of this had to do with achieving a certain level of economic empowerment and independence among freed blacks, Washington routinely returns to the underlying value and meaning of the work itself, and the social and spiritual assets it brings.

Early on in the development of Tuskegee, for example, Washington decided to construct the entire campus through the hands of the students. In this, we not only see his prioritization of skills training as a practical tactic, but his philosophy about the “dignity and beauty” of the work itself:

From the very beginning, at Tuskegee, I was determined to have the students do not only the agricultural and domestic work, but to have them erect their own buildings. My plan was to have them, while performing this service, taught the latest and best methods of labour, so that the school would not only get the benefit of their efforts, but the students themselves would be taught to see not only utility in labour, but beauty and dignity; would be taught, in fact, how to lift labour up from mere drudgery and toil, and would learn to love work for its own sake. My plan was not to teach them to work in the old way, but to show them how to make the forces of nature—air, water, steam, electricity, horse-power—assist them in their labour. [emphasis added]

In today’s context, Washington’s methods would surely be decried as overly harsh or excessive, and to be sure, even in his day, Washington admits that far “easier” paths existed. In the end, however, he recognized that a certain struggle and risk and inconvenience would always be necessary if the goal was to produce enduring fruits.

For Washington, embracing a “slow and natural process of growth” would lead not only to prosperity and social status, but a strong civil and institutional foundation on which we can build:

As I look back now over that part of our struggle, I am glad that we had it. I am glad that we endured all those discomforts and inconveniences. I am glad that our students had to dig out the place for their kitchen and dining room. I am glad that our first boarding-place was in that dismal, ill-lighted, and damp basement. Had we started in a fine, attractive, convenient room, I fear we would have “lost our heads” and become “stuck up.” It means a great deal, I think, to start off on a foundation which one has made for one’s self.

When our old students return to Tuskegee now, as they often do, and go into our large, beautiful, well-ventilated, and well-lighted dining room, and see tempting, well-cooked food – largely grown by the students themselves – and see tables, neat tablecloths and napkins, and vases of flowers upon the tables, and hear singing birds, and note that each meal is served exactly upon the minute, with no disorder, and with almost no complaint coming from the hundreds that now fill our dining room, they, too, often say to me that they are glad that we started as we did, and built ourselves up year by year, by a slow and natural process of growth. [emphasis added]

There are lessons here for a time where we’ve grown fond of quick and artificial processes of economic growth and expansion. There are takeaways here for a society that praises the leaps and bounds of economic progress but forgets and neglects the necessary means and mechanisms at a social, spiritual, and cultural level.

Real and enduring prosperity won’t come from the flip of a government wand, nor will it come from the idols of immediate comfort and raw materialism. As we move forward freely and joyfully, creating and producing and serving across the economic order, let’s remember that it all begins with beauty and human dignity.

Sometimes, through the sweep of a simple broom.

Image: Public Domain

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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