Discussing “Good Work” With Students

Did you ever have the following conversation in high school or college while talking to an adviser or mentor?

Mentor: Someday soon, you’ll have to have a job.

Student:  Yes, I know, and I don’t know what I want to do!

Mentor:  Before worrying about the specifics of what you want to major, or how much money you hope to make, or where you might be working, let’s talk about purpose.  Let’s talk about impact.  Let’s talk about doing good.  Does this make sense?

Student:  No.  Please explain!

Mentor:  Have you thought about the impact of your job on others–both in your immediate community and the global village–and also how what you might pursue as a vocation will affect the environment?

Student:  What do you mean?

Mentor:  According to Wendell Berry, “…the industrialization of virtually all forms of production and service has filled the world with “jobs” that are meaningless, demeaning, and boring—as well as inherently destructive. I don’t think there is a good argument for the existence of such work.”  What Mr. Berry is lamenting is the surplus of jobs where people aren’t providing any tangible, positive service to their immediate community.   Instead, they are cogs in a machine, completely blind to the environmental and ethical impact of their work.

Student:  This is all a bit abstract to me.

Mentor:  Read about Monsanto, and hopefully you’ll start to understand a bit.

Student:  So you’re saying there are questions I should ask about work, beyond simply how much money I can earn?

Mentor:  Yes.  Are you going to begin a journey in which you try to align your intelligence, skill, and passion with your work?  Are you going to be content working for others, or be your own boss?  Do you think it matters whether or not you believe in the product or service that you are helping to sell or produce?  Will your job help the long-term health of your community and the earth?

Student:  Wow, you’ve given me a lot to think about.  I’ll be back to talk with you again in a few weeks.


The idea for this simulated conversation sprung from a TeachThought blog post, in which Terry Heick cites Wendell Berry and questions the role of public education in creating academic fluency versus preparing students for “good work.”   The idea of good work, of course, opens the door to ethical and philosophical discussions about our economy, the future, and the purpose of our lives during our short time on earth.   As far as I can tell, this type of discourse is absent in schools.  And that’s a shame.

It’s hard to make money at jobs that must be done, according to Berry, versus simply engaging in the economic engine: “…there is a lot of work needing to be done—ecosystem and watershed restoration, improved transportation networks, healthier and safer food production, soil conservation, etc.—that nobody yet is willing to pay for. Sooner or later, such work will have to be done.  We may end up working longer workdays in order not to “live,” but to survive.”

Did you experience ethical conversations about work in high school or college?  Is it the role of public education to provide a space where more meaningful conversations about work exist?  Do you agree or disagree with Berry that there are too many meaningless, boring, and destructive jobs out there?  Is this discussion too far-fetched/Utopian, given that millions of our future graduates are going to continue struggling to find any work to pay the bills?


  1. I was lucky enough to be aware of the issue early in life and thus take it for granted. I definitely agree that it’s a good conversation to have at school, where the idealism can be nurtured and becoming foundational.

    As for fulfillment, I think the two goals are intertwined. Fulfillment of completion can perhaps be seen as a smaller subset within fulfillment of purpose. You can’t find purpose if you don’t finish something, but you can be fulfilled completing a job. It’s just not as satisfying in the long run as doing something that satisfies your being and sustains your passion.

  2. Issac,
    If it’s not in the public consciousness, why would we expect it to happen at school?
    Even if it is an idealistic conversation for many students, it’s still one worth having.
    Fulfillment of completion and purpose is a great way of describing two goals–that hopefully don’t have to be exclusive–with work.

  3. I have to agree with this. Most of the time it’s not even in the public consciousness. I find discussions of meaningful work generally end up with blank states or dismissal as idealistic thinking. To a certain extent, I understand. Someone has to do the dirty menial job.

    Personally, it took me a while to distinguish between the fulfillment of completing a task (happy I completed a project on time, on budget etc.) and the fulfillment of purpose (does this thing I’m doing really satisfy my inner self and align with my values?)

  4. I am still at Bates – going on a decade now. (Middlebury is great; wish I’d thought to apply there myself!) My favorite part of my teaching job – bar none – is having conversations about meaningful and purposeful living with students…but those conversations are not what I’m “paid” to do and sometimes I get backlogged in my “real” work (prepping, grading, etc) because I make so much time for the conversations…when students are actually willing to have them! 🙂 RE: willingness to have the conversations, I’m taking the less direct approach in my blog & trying to use humor to diffuse an issue students (understandably) find very overwhelming! I totally agree with you that putting these conversations into practice at all levels of education. I look forward to reading your future posts.

  5. Thanks Rebecca!
    I checked out your blog–are you still at Bates College? I’m a Middlebury guy myself and, despite having many professors and mentors I looked up to there, I didn’t have these conversations.
    In general, your comment about the challenge of putting good/challenging ideas into practice is an issue at all levels of education.
    The best assessments aren’t reduced to numbers (high-stakes testing) but it’s much harder to try and come up with another type of qualitative measurement.
    The best forms of discipline are much harder to employ that simply sending a kid to in-school suspension.
    The list goes on and on…

  6. As a college educator, I fight to have conversations like this one with my students. Unfortunately all too often these “big questions” scare them away, I’ve found. The student says “wow, you’ve given me a lot to think about, I’ll be back to talk again in a few weeks” just as you said…but then never returns! It’s hard to put these ideas into practice, I think, which is something I constantly struggle with. Great post!

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