A poster in my daughter’s high school shows a teen-age boy, wearing a red apron, carrying an elderly lady’s groceries to her car. The caption reads: “You can have a career in marketing. Drop out of school.”
At first I’m puzzled. Of course I get the message; If you drop out of school, you’ll get hopelessly stuck in a low-paying, low-status job. However, I’m not expecting to see honest labor ridiculed. At least not in the form of a school poster.
I can see the value of staying in school for as long as possible. I can even imagine other inspirations besides a good-paying job. In school, for example, there’s the chance one might enlarge one’s mind, or overcome one’s inherited prejudices, or grasp the debates on important local and world issues. If a student is fortunate in assignment of teachers, one might even learn to think for oneself in school, instead of mindlessly adopting political and social views popular to the times.
But I can’t see any positive value of promoting school by putting down honest work. We already debase our labor and service professions by the relatively small earnings such vocations make. Now are we ready to add insult to injury by making jokes about “careers in marketing” which smirk superiorly at the labor end of the marketplace?
My father was a farmer. Why not a poster which laughs at farmers, too. It could show a kid shoveling out the barn gutters, captioned: “you can earn your B.S.; drop out of school.” Why not poke fun at the maintenance profession with a poster showing a young janitor pushing a broom down a hallway, saying: “You can really clean up; drop out of school.”
What messages are youth getting through such negative presentations of physical labor, sweat work, the work that actually produces something or serves the general public? First, the majority of them are being taught to be ashamed of the very jobs their parents hold, and, in time, to be ashamed of their parents for having these jobs. And second, they are belling taught that physical labor, service work, is beneath their dignity.
I hate monotonous work like the next guy. I would loathe to bag groceries all day, week after week, or stock shelves, or cut meat, or do anything consistently mechanical that didn’t require any more than my body and halfhearted concentration. I’ve had such jobs periodically throughout my life, starting with those endless rows of string beans back on the farm. I know how long a day of physical labor can be. But somebody has to process the beans, somebody has to stock the shelves, and somebody has to run the cash register.
Our country was built by hard work, most of it physical. If many of us have “graduated” to softer, less back-breaking jobs, that’s no reason to think that mental labor is intrinsically superior to physical labor. One should first ask what mental labor is creating.
Take marketing, for example, the high-status job for which the poster suggests staying in school. Learning the marketing business in modern society is little more than learning to be a “respectable” flimflam man. It has very little to do with presenting honestly and creatively the actual qualities of a product. That is secondary at best, in most cases irrelevant. Marketing is 90 percent advertising, which is, by current practice, the art of creating a need for a product (often a superfluous product) by associating it with unmet psychological needs in the consumer: prestige, sex appeal, security, etc.
I look forward to the day when the laborious work of society is parceled out evenly, when the long hours of drudgery are reduced for everyone by advanced technology and by everyone taking a short turn. But until that day comes, what is gained by shaming the people, and the children of the people, who do the lion’s share of this work. Part of the current “work” of marketing experts and advertisers is to create the illusion that we can be a nation of consumers, that we can all own fancy cars and expensive sunglasses without anybody having to · sweat in a factory, for relatively low pay, to produce these articles.
Most disturbing of all is that this poster hangs in a public school.