The Work Ethic of Booker T. Washington
I’ve been reading Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, Up from Slavery, which is about as inspiring a work as one will read. But of the many lessons one might draw from Washington’s attitudes and accomplishments, I wanted to take a moment to focus on his philosophy as it relates to work and the proper path to dignity and prosperity.
Upon gaining his freedom as a young boy, Washington took a variety of jobs, including stints at the salt furnace and coal mine—jobs that today’s average American teenager would surely label “exploitation.”
The goal: save enough money to attend the Hampton Institute:
From the time that I can remember having any thoughts about anything, I recall that I had an intense longing to learn to read. I determined, when quite a small child [as a slave], if I accomplished nothing else in life, I would in some way get enough education to enable me to read common books and newspapers.
And accomplish that he did. After plenty of blood, sweat and toil, Washington packed up his bags for Hampton without any guarantee of admission, stopping to work several additional odd jobs along the way to pay for food and travel.
After arriving in dirty rags, Washington was given an unusual entry exam:
After some hours had passed, the head teacher said to me: "The adjoining recitation-room needs sweeping. Take the broom and sweep it."
It occurred to me at once that here was my chance. Never did I receive an order with more delight. I knew that I could sweep, for Mrs. Ruffner had thoroughly taught me how to do that when I lived with her.
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. She was a "Yankee" woman who knew just where to look for dirt. She went into the room and inspected the floor and closets; then she took her handkerchief and rubbed it on the woodwork about the walls, and over the table and benches. 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."
I was one of the happiest souls on earth. The sweeping of that room was my college examination, and never did any youth pass an examination for entrance into Harvard or Yale that gave him more genuine satisfaction. I have passed several examinations since then, but I have always felt that this was the best one I ever passed. (emphasis added, here and throughout this article)
This struck me, particularly because one would be hard-pressed to find any 21st-century youngster so eager and happy to sweep a room, let alone do it well. Indeed, such a search would likely be no more fruitful even (or especially?) if one were to focus solely on today’s crop of pampered, debt-laden university students.
Likewise, from my experiences in both college and the private sector, I would be more apt to hire an uneducated person with Washington’s cheery, proactive disposition than someone with an artsy-fartsy degree from University X and little work experience—the common credentials of Generation Ambivalence.
This work ethic became ever-more vigorous throughout Washington’s life, leading to many successes, including the eventual founding of the now-famous Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. Early on in the school’s development, Washington decided to construct the campus through the hands of the students.
In this, his philosophy about the dignity and beauty of work and overall value creation is made clear:
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.
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.
There is some kind of lesson here, some valuable takeaway for our entitled, lackadaisical society that has grown obsessed with a quick and artificial process of growth, one which is completely unsustainable, not to mention wholly debilitating at a deeper spiritual and cultural level.
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 race 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.