The Protestant Work-Study Ethic

Recently, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has been getting a lot of attention—and a standing ovation at a recent debate in South Carolina—for his insistence that students in low-income schools be given jobs to encourage their work ethic and to discourage them from lives of crime. Here is part of the original quote:

 “You have a very poor neighborhood. You have students that are required to go to school. They have no money, no habit of work. What if you paid them in the afternoon to work in the clerical office or as the assistant librarian? And let me get into the janitor thing. What if they became assistant janitors, and their job was to mop the floor and clean the bathroom?”

Now, even though Gingrich’s most recent religious affiliation is Catholicism (he has changed denominations over the years), his proposal reflects the Protestant Work Ethic as originally set forth by the German socio-economist Max Weber in 1904. Yes, despite its later association with the Puritans who came to America, the idea is a relatively recent European import. Simply put, the Protestant Work Ethic connects hard work with earthly gains that reaffirm one’s spiritual salvation. It is also, in Weber’s understanding, the foundational core of capitalism.

Gingrich’s remarks led me to recall several experiences from my own past that shaped how I would subsequently perceive issues such as labor and class. Since many of these relate to the idea of work in school, or “work-study,” I thought they might be useful in exploring the topic from another angle. (Note that these are primarily anecdotal responses; they are not meant to be definitive studies of the sociological or economic theories at play here.)

The hard work paid off...

I was relatively naïve about issues of class (among other things) all the way into my late teens. The people in my neighborhood, a somewhat distant suburb of Boston, all seemed fairly equal in terms of family income and social status, as did most of the students in my public school. In my limited experience, “private school” meant “Catholic school,” and so seemed more of a religion-based option rather than something based on economic opportunity or educational ideology.

That all changed when I went off to college. I had worked hard in school, and my diligence paid off in the form of scholarships and financial aid awards. The prospects of having to work while I studied were nothing new; I had worked part-time as a dishwasher and record store sales clerk while attending high school. I understood the character-building significance—and financial reward—of earning my way, if only partially. After all, college wasn’t cheap, and I had my heart set on Middlebury College, one of the more expensive ones.

While at Middlebury, I held down various jobs: dining hall food-slinger (and later shift manager), professorial assistant, music librarian, data processing keypuncher, residential house director, janitorial helper, student tour guide, reunion host, and term paper typist (to pay for the typewriter I had purchased for school). As you might imagine, many of these were simultaneous, so my schedule was a patchwork of classes and work commitments. Thank God I wasn’t on a sports team, because there wasn’t much time left in the day or on weekends for practices and games. At the end of most days, while many of my peers headed downtown to drink or off to parties on campus, I finally had a chance to hit the books and do my homework. Around midnight, it was not uncommon for a last-minute “rush” typing job to come in, and so I could often be found at 2 or 3 in the morning, typing another student’s paper while they slept. We had no Red Bull back then, and I hadn’t yet begun my coffee addiction. For me, the work ethic boiled down to this: Work hard; then work some more.

Before you conclude that this is a “woe is me” tale, let me state this: I loved being so busy. Sure, I complained about some of the long hours and overcommitments, but I also met some of my best friends (both students and staff members) on the job, learned how to prioritize and multi-task, and got an insider’s education on how an American college operated. Many of these new friends were from backgrounds completely unlike my own, which broadened my perspectives in all directions. Plus, there was the pride of the paycheck at the end of each two-week period, even though most of it went right back to the college. (I guess this truly distinguished me from the “elites,” who, according to Gingrich the other day, are the only ones who “despise earning money.” Perhaps he meant that they prefer inheriting it? Like many others, I’m still scratching my head over that comment.)

At first, I was under the impression that everyone worked this hard at college. (Yes, Mr. Gingrich, the Protestant Work Ethic values had been instilled in me from an early age.) Then I learned what a “legacy” was: someone who got into college based, in no small part, on previous family ties. I learned what a “trust fund child” was: someone who had seemingly unlimited income from their parents, none of it earned through hard work. I came to understand more about private schools and how they functioned, to some extent, as a feeder system for the Ivy League and other top-quality colleges—if one’s family could afford private school tuition in the first place. This was all new to me, and so it took a while to adjust to the idea that friends of mine had multiple homes, routinely flew to exotic locations, or had jobs waiting for them the moment they stepped out of college.

That said, I often look back and wonder how much better I could have done in college if I hadn’t been scooping out mashed potatoes and ice cream for three to four shifts a week. I wonder how many more networking connections with influential people I could have made if I was hanging out at the local bar or fraternity at night rather than typing up those fellow Midd Kids’ term papers. Even though I managed a fair number of extracurricular activities, I wonder how many more I could have undertaken were my schedule not so riddled with the responsibilities of the jobs I held. I also wonder what post-graduation prospects a final, senior-year semester might have yielded. (I graduated a semester early to save some money on tuition.) And when Mr. Gingrich suggests that low-income students should be saddled with similar responsibilities while simultaneously trying to get an education, I wonder if he realizes what an unlevel playing field he is proposing, and the extent to which such a field favors the already-rich.

This was never more apparent to me than the day I was asked to sit down with Middlebury’s financial aid director to address a problem with my assistance package. Her reason for seeing me was short and sweet: I had to stop working. I had reached the upper cap for my work-study aid, and so could no longer receive any paychecks from the college. Slightly confused, I asked if I could continue working outside of the auspices of the financial aid office, as some other students did. The answer: No. Why? Because I was on financial aid.

“So let me get this straight,” I said to her, struggling to comprehend the conundrum. “Because I don’t have much money, I’m limited in the amount of money I can make. But if I did have money and didn’t need financial aid, I could make as much as I want.”

That was correct. But, of course, she pointed out, if I didn’t need financial aid, why would I work in the first place?

Hmmm. As Spock, the intergalactic king of logic, would say, “Fascinating.”

(As it turned out, the director’s paycheck was, in some ways, reliant on my own. Remember that job I had in data processing? Part of it was the computer entry of faculty and staff time sheets and salaries so that their checks could be printed on schedule. As my supervisor in the computer center pointed out to the financial aid director, I couldn’t be let go without jeopardizing the entire college payroll system. Somehow, over the course of the next few days, an “adjustment” was made to my financial aid work-study limit. Interesting side note: one of the other student keypunchers, likewise entrusted with some rather hefty responsibilities as part of her work-study award package, still works in that department to this day.)

Since that encounter, I remained keenly aware of how work-study programs affect the college community. It didn’t take long to witness a casualty of the program.

Based on how well my work-study experience had qualified me for post-college positions (another plus of the system), I was hired as something of an apprentice dean at Middlebury. I was mainly in charge of student housing, but my job description also required that I serve as an academic adviser to members of the incoming freshman class.

That was when I met Rachel (not her real name), a smart and vibrant first-year student with the instant likeability of a budding movie star. She was also a financial aid recipient and holding down a work-study job while meeting the demands of a rigorous academic schedule. Rachel had been incredibly nervous about starting out at Middlebury. She had also been accepted to a state school, and her family felt certain that they could afford four years there. Middlebury, however, with its higher prestige and much higher tuition, was a gamble, especially since financial aid at the time was awarded on a year-to-year basis. Who knew what assistance, if any, Rachel might receive in years two, three, and four? (I liken this, in some regard, to all those corporations demanding that tax rates and government regulations remain the same for years on end so that they can engage in long-term planning. Seen from this perspective, you can understand their point.)

Fast-forward three years from my one-year position at Middlebury. Back in Massachusetts, a friend and I had just seen a movie and were settling into a booth at a fast-food restaurant for post-film discussion. Who should come up to take our order but Rachel.

I was incredulous. This was the middle of the school year; why wasn’t she up in Vermont attending classes? As Rachel told me, she hadn’t received nearly enough financial aid assistance to afford a second year of Middlebury. Her grade-point average had slipped due to her work-study overload, which in turn made her ineligible for a merit-based scholarship. As a result, she had dropped out of school completely. Her family didn’t have enough money left over from the first year at Middlebury to cover the tuition at the state school. Now Rachel was living back home, working multiple jobs, and trying to make enough money as quickly as possible so that her Middlebury credits wouldn’t expire before they could be transferred to another college. Simply put, her earlier financial gamble hadn’t paid off.

As you might imagine, the entire college financial aid process has changed a great deal over the years. Some of it has no doubt improved upon the earlier models, while other changes (such as the relationship to need-blind admissions policies) have led to greater uncertainty and unpredictability.

Even so, Newt Gingrich’s comments reminded me of another, subsequent episode at Middlebury College. This time, I had returned to the campus to become administrative director of the Bread Loaf School of English, a graduate program of the school. Based on my earlier experience as a “baby dean,” I was invited to join the college’s Diversity Committee. At one of those meetings, I raised the matter of work-study and how it reinforced some rather negative stereotypes and expectations on campus in regards to minority students. One of my former colleagues from the Dean of Students office disagreed with my observations, and so I invited her to join me on a quick tour of the campus.

Together, we walked into the college snack bar and the main library. I asked her to look around and tell me what she saw. It took only a moment for the shock to appear on her face. Behind the counters and scrambling about the stacks, foreign and minority students were working hard, taking orders and reshelving books. Their “customers” were mostly white and affluent-looking students. There on campus, the intersection of diversity initiatives and work-study programs had created a microcosm of the American service industry. White, privileged students enjoyed the luxury of free time between academic and/or athletic commitments, while nonwhite students labored to meet those same demands in addition to burdensome economic challenges.

This, too, has probably changed over time, or at least I hope that it has. Mr. Gingrich’s recent comments, however, raised concerns that some of those lessons remain unlearned.

College costs continue to rise; student debt grows more difficult to manage. As our country’s income inequality expands, the very idea of a level playing field for all, at least in the educational context, remains at risk. With it, some of our nation’s best and brightest—perhaps those most capable of envisioning and implementing solutions—may never rise to their full potential. For them, despite what politicians like Gingrich believe, the selective application of the Protestant Work Ethic just compounds the problem—and in the end, doesn’t really work well at all.