Farewell to the work society?

6th June 1997 at 01:00
There are signs that the traditional work ethic is cracking, writes John White. So how should schools adapt to the new culture?

She has never stopped working 19 hours a day," says her friend Lord Archer. "She has nothing else in life. She can't stop, and she doesn't know how to. She starts at 6am and they have to drag her to bed at night." Mrs Thatcher's attachment to the traditional work ethic is well-known.

So is its effect on schools via the national curriculum and other changes. More work squeezed out of pupils and teachers alike, league tables of productiveness, less play in the primary school, more homework, less time for teachers to reflect, more clamour for early retirement.

Do we want more of the same? The new Government seems as enthusiastic as the old that schools should promote productivist ideals. But what if the work society is running out of work? Will our super-industrious schools become increasingly dysfunctional?

What will Britain be like in 2040 when our youngest pupils today are in their prime? Will the work ethic be even more entrenched, with people slaving for pittances in face of Pacific Rim competition? Or will advances in automation and ethical challenges combine to erode its dominance?

No one can know. But we are not wholly powerless vis-a-vis the future. At the very least the baselessness of the work ethic cries out for exposure. The idea that unremitting work, especially work which one is constrained to do, should be central to a worthwhile human life made sense in a theology in which industriousness in business or housework was taken as a sign of divine grace. Shorn of this background, it is groundless.

There is nothing to praise in constrained work on this scale. It goes against the liberal ideal animating so much of our social life that people should be equipped to lead lives of their own, based as far as practically possible on their autonomous choices among activities. Many of us would include work activities among these, especially personally fulfilling ones.

Many, too, would include elements of constrained and unfulfilling work, for financial or perhaps religious reasons. Work would still play a major part in our personal and social lives, but against a different background. The work society as we have known it would transmute into the activity society. Non-work activities - socialising, reading novels, playing games, walking in the country and other kinds of fun - would no longer be peripheralised into "leisure".

All this would require a cultural shift. The Protestant work ethic has been with us since the 17th century. Oddballs such as Bertrand Russell in his In Praise of Idleness apart, most socialists have taken it as read, as have most conservatives. The consensus across our major religious and political ideologies has been overwhelming.

There are signs that it is cracking. Decline in religious belief, the beneficial effects of enforced leisure among some of those retired or made redundant, doubts about consumerism, the erosion of the idea of a lifelong career, perplexities about the sanity of a society in which work shrinks but those in employment work harder than ever - all these could be heralding the end of the work culture.

If this is true, our schools are heading rapidly in the wrong direction. They are being made to mirror an adult world which is becoming obsolescent. Suppose the Britain of 2040 becomes more of an activity society and less of a work society; how might schools alter to mirror the new reality?

* Work aims would find their place within a wider picture. Teachers and parents would actively equip pupils for a life of autonomous choice-making. I take it as read that this is no egotistic ideal but one sensitive to civic, institutional and personal attachments and obligations.

All this requires pupils to be acquainted with a wide array of activities from which - within practical constraints, of course - they would make their own choices. Among these options, but not exhausting them, would be many examples of two forms of work: the autonomous, self-creative labours of artists, for example, or teachers, entrepreneurs, homemakers, and the other, less fulfilling work which one might have to do purely for money. Work activities would be less associated with the traditional, originally religious, notion of a lifelong vocation.

This does not mean scrapping the academic curriculum, since so much of it is necessary to understand what it would be to engage in civil engineering, writing poetry, computer programming, bringing up children. It means giving it the wider rationale that the national curriculum lacks and never had.

For older students there would also be more explicit discussion of the place of work in the good life and of the credentials of the traditional work culture.

* Working would be more clearly distinguished from learning. Not all school work leads to learning or is even always intended to do so. Not all learning involves activity directed to some end product.Think of what children as well as adults can pick up through social intercourse, reading novels or watching films.

Although their students would still be producing pieces of writing, answers to sums, maps, paintings and date charts, schools would also deliberately encourage non-work forms of learning, partly to loosen the grip of the work-culture. Reading books for pleasure and not always with a test or critical essay in mind might become part of a new core curriculum.

* The school day would be remodelled so as to mirror an adult world in which constrained labour was no longer so prominent. The present system of compulsory classes throughout a long school day reflects the central place of traditional work in our daily lives.

To loosen the power of this ideology, schools could split the day between compulsory classes devoted to essential learning and an option system where pupils could throw themselves wholeheartedly into activities of their own choosing. Time devoted to the latter could increase as students grew older. This would help to fit them for the more autonomous life they would lead as adults.

* There is no good reason why academic learning should be confined, as it has been for most, to the first 16 or 20 years of life. It is only our attachment to the centrality of work that makes us think this way: academic learning stops when work begins. Dropping this centrality would allow learning activities to spread beyond their juvenile frontiers.

* Teachers would work few hours. A tradition founded on a constant regression to the mean in drudgery needs rethinking. Present arrangements are bad for pupils in more than one way: not only do they have overworked teachers; they are presented day in day out with an ineluctable reminder of the centra place of work in the adult world.

If teachers' hours were reduced, this part of the hidden curriculum could project a quite different message. Their pupils would see at first hand what autonomous work could be like. After classes, teachers would have time to themselves to pursue their creative and other interests. This, too, could not fail to impress itself on children, helping to give them a picture of a society in which lives like this were the norm.

John White is professor of philosophy of education at the Institute of Education, University of London. His new book Education and the end of work: towards a new philosophy of work and learning was published this week by Cassell, Pounds 15.99 paperback

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