HOW SMART DO WE HAVE TO BE, OR WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO SUCCEED ON THE JOB — AND IN LIFE?

By Paul

For decades, and probably even for centuries, people have been wondering what it means for someone to be intelligent.  In the early 20th century, the French psychologist, Alfred Binet, came up with a method to test for intelligence which, after a good deal of deliberation and discussion, came ultimately to be known as the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale.  In its various iterations and permutations, it has come down to us today as the most recognized Intelligence Quotient, or IQ Test, we have.

The test has been widely used in a whole host of areas, everything from a tool for school placement, to military aptitude, to how well a person will perform on the job.  The way most of us have probably heard about it relates to where an individual falls on the continuum of scores of the vast number of people who have taken the test over the years. If, for example, a person gets an IQ score of 115, let us say, we now know that this means that it represents that she or he is in the 84th percentile, meaning that this individual has outscored 83% of the people who have taken the test. Most of us would agree that such a person must be considered “smart,” or at least smarter than an awful lot of other people (specifically, 83% of the population).

All of this is relatively uncontroversial these days. What is more questionable, however, is what exactly does such a score mean for success in the world? In one sense, it is merely a number. Note, for example, that the word “quotient” itself is a term taken from mathematics, where it refers to the result obtained when we divide one quantity by another. In more general everyday parlance, a quotient refers to the amount of a specified quality, such as an emotional quotient.  Etymologically, it comes from the Latin word “quotus,” which means how much or how many.

Yet a number of businesses use IQ scores as one, although only one, measure of whether given individuals ought to be hired in the first place, and as a projection of how well they will do on the job.  The theory is that a person with a relatively high IQ will be good at abstract reasoning, problem solving, and learning new material. Conversely, the assumption is made that people with lower IQ scores will show themselves less apt in regard to these qualities, which many companies feel are useful skills for their workers to have.  And while this may well be true, if in fact abstract reasoning and problem solving are traits that have paramount usefulness in a given workplace, are we to assume that all jobs, or even most of them, require such qualities in those who work there? As for the other characteristic, that of an ability to learn new things, it’s probably safe to say that this is a fairly universal trait that most employers would value.

My own experience with all this comes from the point of view of someone who was the supervisor of a relatively large office, varying in size anywhere from 15 to 20 people, for almost 20 years.  Of course, I found that intelligence was a good thing. It is usually, although not always, a pleasure to work with someone who is highly intelligent. Such an individual “gets things” immediately. You don’t have to repeat and repeat, or to show someone endless times how to do something.  Additionally, such individuals frequently see things that need to be done before a supervisor ever has occasion to point them out. Smart people can usually figure out how to resolve problems without someone having to show them. All this is to the good, and allows a supervisor to do other things than to watch over people to be sure that a given task has been done correctly.

But are there other qualities, other quotients if you will, that are equally as helpful and valuable in the workplace, aside from what we might call “mere intelligence?”  I believe that there are.  A workplace is almost always a kind of small, enclosed society, and in such settings getting along with those in the group is of paramount importance. Such traits as openness, tolerance, a willingness to help others, and I might even go so far as to say empathy and compassion, go a very long way toward making for a work environment where everyone can contribute and do well.   Conversely, gossiping, backbiting, or even subtle but deliberate sabotaging of others can cause anger, hurt feelings, and an oppressive and negative environment wherein people find it hard to concentrate and do their job properly.

All this is easy to say, but it can be difficult to bring about. Whoever the supervisor may be, it is up to him or her to do everything possible to create an environment where people can thrive.  And where individuals thrive, and where there is an open and supportive work environment, the chances of people being happier and more productive are that much greater. None of this is a panacea, of course, and there are countless examples of good managers who still have difficult and recalcitrant workers, just as there are excellent workers who have unsupportive, clueless, micro-managing, or even mean-spirited bosses, and who nonetheless do excellent work in spite of all.  Nothing is perfect in this world, but that does not relieve any of us of the responsibility always to try to make things better for everyone involved.  As a supervisor, and in my case an academic administrator, my first assumption with everyone I worked with, whether those individuals reported to me or not (and until, and unless, otherwise proven wrong), was that each person wanted to do his or her best, and that everyone’s ultimate goal was to figure out the most useful way to serve students and to help them succeed.  Naturally, a concomitant goal at a university must also be the generation of knowledge and creative activity, the fostering of problem solving and critical thinking, as well as knowing and experiencing other cultures and other ways of seeing the world.  Such activities on the part of both faculty and staff obviously also promote and advance the basic goal of student learning.

Exactly how flawed and fallible human beings go about achieving such lofty goals is the question.  The most basic thing, the sine qua non, must always be to start with a staff that is treated fairly and paid equitably for their work, as well as for their training and experience. Beyond that, those in a managerial or supervisory role should make every effort to create an environment wherein people can succeed and thrive, and each individual whoever they may be, whether president or grounds keeper and everything in between, must do their utmost to advance the basic goals of student growth and learning.

Intelligence is more than the ability to calculate, to remember, to synthesize, or to reason.  True intelligence, what we might also call mature intelligence, is the ability to do these things in a way that also supports, nurtures, and cultivates the gifts and talents of others. I don’t know of any percentile number that can be given to this quality, but over the years I have been privileged to see it in operation.  And that, in its own right, is always an honor and a profound learning experience. Smart people are interesting to work with, if sometimes challenging, but it’s from those with a well-rounded and fully developed maturity that we learn grace, and even perhaps a bit of wisdom. And in the end, isn’t that really the intelligent life that each of us is reaching for?

A LABOR DAY’S WORK

By Paul

Most of us would probably reply in the negative if asked whether there is a difference between the words “work” and “labor.”  If pressed, we might remember that one word or the other gets used in specific circumstances.  A woman “in labor” is very different from a woman “at work,” for example, and a “workhouse,” at least as that term was used in the 19th century, was a place where the poor and petty criminals were lodged. Who does not recall Scrouge’s famous line from “A Christmas Carol”: “Are there no prisons?  Are there no workhouses?” 

To a certain extent, the two words have come down to us in modern English in accordance with the normal distinctions often seen between words of Latin and Anglo-Saxon origin.  Work is, of course, from the Germanic, or the Anglo-Saxon, weorc or worc.  At one time, in Old English, it referred to the act of fornication.  Later on, in Middle English, it widened its reference to mean any sort of deed or action done.  Labor, on the other hand, finds its original root in the Latin word labare, which meant to totter or to be unsteady on one’s feet, as may happen, for example, while tilling the soil.  In fact, even today the French word labourer maintains that part of the original denotation, and means to plow the fields.  

Looking at the word labor from another point of view, back in 6th century Italy St. Benedict took the original Latin meaning to heart when he founded his famous monastery at Montecassino, just south of Rome.  In so doing, he created the Benedictine order and gave them their famous motto, that of Ora et Labora, prayer and work, (or as it is stated in the Rule, Laborare est orare, “to work is to pray”).  And his monks, indeed, tilled the fields, just as some of their contemporary monastic descendants still do to this very day, the Trappists in particular.  

Still, most of us in a contemporary setting tend to think of the two words as being relatively interchangeable in meaning, if not in usage.  To work is the more common everyday term, whereas labor may sometimes carry something of a more high fluting feel.  People work in the factory, or in the office, or in the beauty parlor, or the grocery store, or on the farm, or in the classroom for that matter; they do not normally labor in any of these places.  And we call the holiday at the beginning of September that celebrates work “Labor Day,” not “Work Day,” for two reasons.  One is because we are speaking in a more formal register.  We are naming and identifying a special day set aside to celebrate the concept, the very idea of what it means to work.  The second is that the word labor can still carry its original connotation of hard physical work, of toiling in the factory or the fields.   We see this, too, in the use of the term “management and labor,” (i.e. those who oversee or direct, and those who actually do the work).    

In fact, if we recall for a moment the history of Labor Day, it is clear that it was originally set aside to celebrate “working men and women.”  Even today that very term, “working men and women,” has something about it that suggests the notion of laboring with one’s hands.  The first Labor Day took place actually on the first Tuesday of September in the year 1882.  It was only a few years later that the holiday became fixed on the first Monday of the month.  There is confusion, and some degree of disagreement as well, regarding who actually first came up with the idea for the celebration, but in the end many believe that a machinist by the name of Mathew McGuire proposed it to the Central Labor Union in New York City, as a day to celebrate “workingmen.”  The notion soon spread to other cities and states, but it didn’t become a national holiday until several years later, after the Pullman strike, when US marshals shot and killed a number of protesting workers.  The federal government, afraid of further wide-spread rioting, rushed to make Labor Day a nationally recognized holiday, in part to appease working men (and women), angry at how they were being treated by the barons of industry. 

I come from what is called a “working class” family myself.  Both my father and my mother worked in factories, as did my brother.  He was a proud member of the United Auto Workers’ Union, and labored (if you will) in a Ford Company plant, first in upstate New York, then in Michigan, for more than 30 years.  But I often wonder if he ever thought of what I wound up doing in my life in the field of education as “actual work.”  In that same vein, I will long remember an instance that took place many years ago now, when I happened to be eating lunch in a diner in the town where I grew up (a “working class” place if ever there was one).  I couldn’t help but overhear a loud conversation at a table nearby.  There, two “working men” were complaining, one to the other, about local teachers, and the fact that these teachers had the audacity to agitate for higher wages.  One particular phrase spoken that lunch hour still resounds in my ears to this day, when one of the disgusted men said to the other: “Why, goddamn, pretty soon them teachers are gonna be makin’ as much as workin’ people!” 

That implied question, asked probably some 45 years ago, still resonates today.  What do we, in fact, mean when we say “work,” and who are “working people?”  Are they only those who work with their hands?  Or can we expand the term to also mean those who work primarily with the mind, and less with the hands (surely no one works only with their hands).   Is it as simple as saying that some people get dirty while working, and some do not?  Indeed, it seems to me that to some extent at least Labor Day still holds on to that old-fashioned connotation of a day meant to honor those who do a “hard day’s labor,” and to celebrate those who work primarily with their hands.  When, for example, was the last time you saw a group of office workers, bankers, accountants, university professors, lawyers, doctors, or artists for that matter, marching in a Labor Day parade?  And if that is the case, does this mean that these people actually work, or not? 

The answer to the above question has to be a resounding “yes, of course they work!”  In fact, if we look back, it becomes obvious that, throughout this whole discussion, what we have mostly been talking about are notions of class.  And whoever thinks that the United States is not stratified through and through with multiple layers of class distinction had better think again.  The factory workers I overheard decades ago, my brother’s colleagues (even that term itself, “colleague,” I recognize as a kind of class-distinguishing word – my brother might simply have said: “those guys I work with”) believed in the class system.  In the 1960’s, factory workers could, and did, make more money than teachers, and they had better benefits, too, although that may no longer be the case today (that is, if either of the two can still find jobs).        

I think that most people, no matter what they do, no matter what job they perform, somehow feel as though they work hard.  To be frank, though, it has been my experience over the course of some 45 plus years of work that certain people do in fact work harder than others.  For many years, I oversaw an office of 15 to 16 people.  I noted that some worked very hard, and some did not.  Some carried the load for others, who for whatever reason did not shoulder the burden as readily.  Why one individual might have such a strong “work ethic,” while another appears to feel fine about surfing the web, coming in late and leaving early, or just generally not putting out much effort has always been something of a mystery to me.   

I think I will not arrive at answers to such questions today.  But these are some of the thoughts that occupy me, as we approach this Labor Day.  I may not march in parades, and during my time as a university administrator, I may not have gotten even particularly dirty. Still, I salute labor, I look upon work as a most honorable thing, and I applaud the celebration of a holiday that recognizes that work, at best, can and should be for each of us a great labor of love.

THE FUTURE OF WORK, OR HOW DO I GET A JOB WITHOUT A HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMA?

By Paul

We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt

 I’ve been thinking recently about a fascinating show I saw last week on PBS about the Amish.  There are many things about them to admire, including their insistence on living a simple life and their finding spiritual strength in the land, and then there are some things about them that both puzzle and disturb me.  One of the most puzzling things has to do with their take on education, which is that children are only allowed to go to school up to the 8th grade. 

At a real stretch, I guess that could possibly make some measure of sense, however dubious, if little Josiah or Esther are going to inherit the family farm and live like their great grandparents did.  But is that really feasible anymore?  Not only do the Amish tend to have lots of kids, and therefore dad’s farm is getting subdivided into lots of smaller and smaller parcels, but many already have no farm at all.  Instead, they work in local factories owned by “English” (i.e. non-Amish) people. 

This in turn got me thinking about lots of other kids, not just the Amish, who may be looking for factory jobs in the future.  When I was a teenager, back in the 50’s, there were plenty of these kinds of jobs around, and I could easily have gotten one myself after high school, if I’d chosen that route, just as my brother did, in fact.  He went on to make a decent living working at the Ford Company factory near where we grew up in upstate New York.  They produced springs and radiators there.  But even he eventually had to move to Detroit for a while, once the factory he worked in got shut down.  And both my father and my mother, too, worked in factories before him making sandpaper, even if they got a lot less money for it than he did.

The scene that sticks in my mind from the show is the shots of the Amish men running around as fast as they could, pretty much literally, from place to place in the factory, all the while piecing together what looked like small vacation trailers.  What kept going through my mind was one simple question:  how much longer would the owner of that factory even need these guys?  It’s hard for me to imagine that sooner or later robotic devices aren’t going to be cheap enough for the owner of that factory to say to himself, why am I doing this?  Why am I paying Josiah’s wages, and his healthcare (if he even gets that), all the while worrying about whether or not he might get injured, or discouraged, or come to work drunk some day (not that any Amish would do that!).  But why not instead bite the bullet, splurge up front for the robots, and then never have to think twice again about paying wages or benefits, or having to deal with somebody’s messy emotional life?  And I can work these things 24/7, if I’ve got the orders.  One thing is definitely for sure: robots do not complain about overwork, and they don’t demand double or triple time either! 

I don’t think that day may be so far off for this particular vacation trailer maker, or for thousands of other large and small manufacturers throughout the country, and the world, for that matter.  So the real question that this comes back to once again has to do with education.  How are we going to provide Josiah and Esther, and Jack and Jane, and Manuel and Maria, and millions like them with the needed education to get them ready for what’s coming round the bend?  How do we even convince them that something is coming?  Leave aside for the moment the Amish and the question of their life-style choices, and just think about those kids in Los Angeles, let’s say, or Dayton, or Dubuque, who don’t finish, or just barely finish high school.  What kind of a job can they expect to get, and I’m not just talking about next month, but 20 or 30 years from now? 

Sure, there will always be a need for plumbers and carpenters and other skilled craftsmen, but that takes training, too.  And not everyone is interested in college; neither does everybody get to go there, even if they are interested.  But what we’ve got to think through right now is how to help those young people who are about to be displaced by technology.  What are they going to do?  They want and deserve a good life too, but they need the skills that are going to be required for the jobs of the 21st century.  So, yes, let’s definitely support Pres. Obama’s call for more training after high school, and at the same time by the way, why not urge companies to take on young interns who, with a solid enough educational background, can be trained on the job for the way work is going to be done in the future?  The Germans do it already, and we can maybe learn some pretty good lessons from them about how to run an economy. 

My father and my mother, and my brother too, were all part of the old style factory model, but even they knew that the way it had been for them couldn’t last forever.  And if that time hasn’t already come, it’s not far off.  I just hope that Josiah and his friends, as well as others who for whatever reason don’t go to college, will see the handwriting on the wall, and see what it’s going to take to get ahead from this point on.  Every human being deserves a good life, and yet that good life is not guaranteed.  It’s up to us to guide young people and to provide them with opportunities, and then it’s up to them to take advantage of those opportunities.  Without both sides of that equation, farm and factory alike are going to be outside of their reach.