Digging Ditches

holes“Do you want to be digging ditches for the rest of your life?” That question/threat sums up my college counseling experience. Fear of that prospect (and football) rather than a love of learning got me to enroll in college. The love of learning would emerge. But, why is digging so denigrated in our culture? Why do we refer to this occupation whenever we want to motivate young people to go to college?

It does not make sense to me. Moving a pile of dirt from point A to point B is one of the first things we did as humans. There is something timeless about this occupation. It is something we have always done. And, it is something we will always have to do. Digging into the Earth is one of the first things we do as kids. It is instinctual. It is like the Earth calls to us to dig. I know that I cannot wait to grab a spade and dig into the Earth on the weekends. When I am close to the Earth, I feel more centered and at ease. I feel more human. And, when I dig, I imagine all the other hands that have dug before me. I also image all the other hands that are currently digging with me. We are connected.  Every single human being has had their hands in the Earth. It is where we start and it is where return.

I do not want to romanticize this occupation. I spent a summer digging ditches during college.  It has its drawbacks. It is grueling. Wielding a digging bar day-in and day-out takes its toll on the body. I only knew I could survive the blisters, pulled muscles, and aching joints because I knew I had an exit at the end of the summer. It is also dangerous. I once cut an unmarked electrical line running into a house with my spade. A pocket of white light enveloped most of my body. That is all I remember before waking up on a couch inside the house with a young woman and her mother staring at me. The hair on my arms, chest and head were singed.  But, it was not a bad wake up and my boss let me go home early that day. It is also low paying. Lots of us can do it. And, herein lays the foundation of the threat. Namely, if you dig ditches for a living, how will you provide for yourself and your family?

This is a valid question. But, it is also fair to ask, what do we mean when we say “to provide”? Are we talking spiritually, emotionally, or materially? Whose definition are we working with? Are we operating under our own definition? Or, are we making choices based upon a definition promulgated by our consumerist culture and peddled by its marketers? You know the people who tell us:

  • “She will always say “yes” if the rock you give her has enough carats.”
  • “You will only feel alive if you take that hairpin turn in a BMW 3-series”
  • “You will only earn our attention if you wear a push-up bra.”

And, just to make sure that we are all clear, these very same marketers who are telling us (telling our kids) these things are the same people who are selling us plastic surgery, psychiatric services, and pharmaceuticals when most of us fail to meet their manufactured standards.

So, instead of starting off our college counseling with a threat, maybe we should start off by asking young people how they define “to provide.” And, maybe we should remind them that they have the agency to define “to provide” the way they want to define it.  Who knows? Maybe their definition is not so heavily weighted on the material side. And, unless they love learning, maybe they do not need to go to college. In fact, maybe they could pick up a shovel and “provide” for themselves and their family they way they want “to provide” for themselves and their family.

Over the years, I have had a lot of students sit in my classrooms out of fear instead of love. College is not for everyone. Not because everyone cannot handle it. Anyone can handle it.  It is not for everyone because not everyone wants to take that path.  However, they are fed a narrative in which college is the only path. So, many of them harness debt to pay their way and chain themselves to the nearest white-collar cubicle upon graduation.  This narrative is built upon a materialistic definition of “to provide” and a cultural bias against manual labor. It is a narrative that devalues working with your hands to fix, build, and dig.

It is a narrative that needs to be questioned.

Shawn Humphrey, the Blue Collar Professor (@blucollarprof)

6 Responses to “Digging Ditches

  • You did it again, Shawn. And so to the point. You know, I translate your words to my Indian context and they’re still valid. Perhaps even more so! As the debt people are getting themselves into to send their boy or girl to (a third-rated rural) college (with no cubicle waiting at the end, I can assure you), has deeper or more tragic consequences when it comes to ‘paying back’, sometimes resulting in either suicide (of the parents or the student or both) or ‘bonded labor’, which in itself is a slow way of killing yourself.

    • shumphre
      4 years ago

      Thanks Camille for adding such valuable context and perspective to the thoughts in this blog. Please keep it up!

  • Like 🙂

  • Stephen Andrews
    4 years ago

    Have you read “Shop Class as Soulcraft” by Matthew Crawford (he has a shop in downtown Richmond near you)? His thesis gels nicely with what you’re writing and also what you’re leaving unwritten. In my opinion it should be required reading for all high school juniors (and their guidance counsellors). Prospective college students need to know that there isn’t just one path. http://www.matthewbcrawford.com/

    • shumphre
      4 years ago

      Hey Stephen. Yes. Incredible book. It has seeped into all my thoughts on this topic. And, he lives in Richmond, too.

  • Stephen Andrews
    4 years ago

    Shop Class as Soulcraft* that is.

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