Monday, December 19, 2011

In Praise of Newt Gingrich and Child Labor

Newt Gingrich stirred an almighty row recently with his controversial suggestion that poor kids could learn priceless life skills if we put them to work early. This comes as no surprise to anyone who knows Newt’s reputation, built on his tendency to make inflammatory statements, some of which he lived to regret. But let me say something you’d never expect from a registered Democrat and peace activist:

The man has a point.

I've written before that many of my best students did not come to college directly out of high school. I’ve had good luck with parents, veterans, late bloomers, and others who have some work and life experience between public school and my classroom. I believe work provides a sense of identity. Workers test their goals, explore their identities, and find out what they want from their education.

I myself didn’t start college until twenty-five years old. I bounced through several jobs for seven years before resuming my education. While I did not support myself in that time—minimum wage blows—I learned to support myself intellectually. Though work did not provide my liberal arts education, the school of hard knocks taught me what I wanted in life, what I was willing to do to get it, and what value I placed on my time.

Think how much further along my life might be if, instead of waiting until eighteen, I had to work for my money at, say, twelve. What if I’d had to sack groceries, wash cars, walk dogs, or otherwise hustle to fill my pockets? I suspect I’d have learned much earlier the difference between necessity and luxury. Work probably would have cured my middle class ambivalence toward school.

Before I proceed, let me emphasize what I’m not saying. First, I’m not endorsing Newt. He’s little more than a partisan bomb thrower who builds support by ginning the fringe. His phrasing uses longstanding extremist cant to conflate poverty and race, and when he talks about firing union workers and filling their jobs with poor children, he wears his loyalties on his sleeve.

Moreover, I’m not advocating the rollback of child labor laws. Kids’ lives would not be improved if we sent them into sweat shops and salt mines. Child labor laws were written on the fairly straightforward belief that children should not work dangerous, sophisticated jobs until they had the physical strength and mental judgment. In other words, they shouldn’t work jobs that never let them achieve sufficient maturity to work those jobs.

But not all labor is a Dickensian nightmare. We can protect kids from the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire without extending infantile dependency to the cusp of adulthood. If we want kids to build strength and wisdom, we could offer them a hem of responsibility, where they could test themselves, and stretch to meet their potential. We claim to do that by giving them household chores, but many might benefit from answering to someone other than Mommy and Daddy.

We could start by scaling work according to kids’ strength and maturity. No reasonable person would think a twelve-year-old could tote a hod at a construction site, but why couldn’t that kid sort screws? A teen should not drive a forklift in a warehouse, but why can’t that same kid stock shelves? Kids who have work consummate with their ability will develop ability consummate with their work.

Critics might respond that, in tight times, putting kids on the job market would drive wages through the floor. Yet our current lopsided economy is perfectly avoidable. We have seen skyrocketing productivity, coupled with stagnant wages and almost nonexistent hiring because of a crooked system. If we enforced adult labor laws fairly, we would created good-paying jobs for grown-ups and starting opportunities for kids.

Many kids already do work, especially lower class kids. Go to any city and watch. Poor kids mow lawns, run errands, carry groceries, wash cars, and do whatever they can to bring in a little money—under the table. Though childhood crime is far less common than Newt implies, hustling is already commonplace. Sadly, middle class kids are more likely to remain sedentary and passive.

Former schoolteacher John Taylor Gatto, in A Different Kind of Teacher, describes setting up professional apprenticeships for middle school students on the sly. These kids built networks they could tap later in life, but reportedly, they also got better grades in school as well. If it could be administered fairly, I’d like to see more kids have such opportunity.

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