The Author’s Corner with Brian Luskey

men is cheapBrian Luskey is Associate Professor of History at West Virginia University. This interview is based on his new book, Men is Cheap: Exposing the Frauds of Free Labor in Civil War America (The University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Men is Cheap?

BL: My book illuminates three interests of mine–the importance of middlemen in the nineteenth-century American economy, the cultural conversation about bad businessmen in this era, and the economic history of ordinary people in the Civil War–and constitutes my attempt to show that these themes intersect with each other.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Men is Cheap?

BL: Fought to uphold the ideal of “free labor,” the war for Union encouraged Northern entrepreneurs, employers, and soldiers to envision their impending success through the accumulation of capital, and Yankees often sought the independence that capital purchased by employing laborers whom the war had made vulnerable. The war seemed to offer some Northerners opportunities to get rich because it clarified that other Americans were poor.

JF: Why do we need to read Men is Cheap?

BL: My book shows how the Civil War and the wage labor economy shaped each other. It is about labor brokers–failed businessmen, recruiters, officers, soldiers, and bounty men–who facilitated the movement of workers–Irish immigrants, former slaves, Confederate deserters, and Union soldiers and veterans–to work in the army and in northern households during the Civil War. The economic activities of these brokers and the cultural conflict about them reveal the nature and limits of free labor ideology as northern employers sought to benefit from the destruction of slavery and slavery’s capital during the war.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

BL: I’ve been interested in American History since a family trip to the Gettysburg battlefield when I was eight years old. My parents bought me Bruce Catton’s The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War and I was hooked. But it wasn’t until I was a student at Davidson College when mentors such as Vivien Dietz, John Wertheimer, and Sally McMillen taught me not only how to be a good historian but also that being an academic historian was a career option. I fell in love with historical research and writing under their tutelage, and the rest is history.

JF: What is your next project?

BL: Honestly, I don’t know what my next book will be about, but I’m preparing to write an article about the relationships Abraham and Mary Lincoln forged with laboring people and the ways the Lincolns served as labor brokers in the Civil War Era.

JF: Thanks, Brian!

Taking Care of Our Own

Corona Healthcare

I published this piece in 2012 when I was writing a column at Patheos.  I think it holds up pretty well. –JF

What is this experiment that we call the United States? What did Thomas Jefferson mean by the phrase “the pursuit of happiness?” What is the promise of America?

For many, the American creed is about individual liberty. Citizens of the United States are free to worship without government interference. They are able to consume freely to satisfy their material wants and desires. They climb the ladder of success with unrelenting ambition.

While this commitment to freedom and liberty has been an important part of our national history, it has often been balanced with the willingness of Americans to sacrifice their self-interested pursuits for their neighbors and fellow citizens in need. The Founding Fathers called this “republicanism.” Christians call it “living out the gospel.”

In popular culture there is no one who understands this tension between individualism and community better than Bruce Springsteen. As a young artist in the 1970s and 1980s, Springsteen’s music celebrated the American dream as defined by individualism. He encouraged us, in the wildly popular “Born to Run,” to break out of our “cages on Highway 9” in pursuit of a “runaway American dream.” And maybe, if we run hard enough, we will “get to that place where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun.”

On the same album as “Born to Run,” Springsteen urged us to get in our cars and drive “Thunder Road”—a two lane highway that “will take us anywhere.” The final words of the song are telling: “It’s a town for losers, I’m pulling out of here to win.”

Such a vision of the American dream, filled with cars and roads and freedom, is selfish. Springsteen understands the human condition. He also understands the American condition.

But as “The Boss” grows older, his music has taken a decided turn away from youthful individualism and toward community. For example, his 2007 album Magic included a song entitled “Long Walk Home,” a moving reflection on his figurative return to home after all those years of running away. There is a sense of new birth in the song, almost as if Springsteen has realized that the community in which he was raised offers much more than what Thunder Road had to offer. He reminds us that “everybody has a neighbor, everybody has a friend, everybody has a reason to begin again.” Perhaps those “losers” were not so bad after all. They at least need someone to love them.

At age 62, Bruce Springsteen is not done making music. In fact, he and the E-Street Band will be heading out on tour in a few months to promote their new album, Wrecking Ball. Those close to Springsteen are talking about the album’s pressing themes of economic justice, social concern, and spirituality. It is being produced by Ron Aniello, a Grammy-nominated producer known for his work with Christian artists Jars of Clay, Sixpence None the Richer, and Jeremy Camp.

Last week, the Springsteen camp released “We Take Care of Our Own,” the first single off of Wrecking Ball. Anyone who listens to this song will hear a Springsteen-like call for an inclusive American community that will only prosper if citizens care for one another. This is Springsteen’s republicanism at its best—a call to serve others that is compatible in every way with our Divine call to live out the gospel. There are echoes in the song of our current economic hardships, hurricane Katrina, and the search for meaning amidst life’s difficulties. Such meaning, Springsteen concludes, can only be found in tempering individualism and fulfilling the promise of America by loving our neighbors.

Springsteen asks:

“Where are the hearts that run over with mercy?

“Where is the love that has not forsaken me?”

“Where is the work that will set my hands, my soul free?

“Where is the promise from sea to shining sea?”

Mercy. Love. Work. These are the kinds of virtues that are central to a happy and flourishing life. As he so often does, Bruce Springsteen calls us to something higher than our own ambitions. Christians take heed.

The Academic Who Works 100 Hours a Week


It is Cambridge University classicist Mary Beard.  Here is a taste of an article about her workload at The Guardian:

Must be a tiring life. It evidently is. On Saturday night, she asked other academics to share how many hours a week they work, adding: “My current estimate is over 100. I am a mug. But what is the norm in real life?”

“Over 100” hours of work each week? Is she serious? She insists she is, yes.

Isn’t that quite close to the limit of what’s physically possible? Probably.

Or slightly above the limit of what’s believable, perhaps? Well, some of the many, many replies certainly took that view. There are only 168 hours in a week, after all. If Beard sleeps a bare minimum of six hours a night, and works through every single weekend, that leaves about three and a half hours a day for everything that isn’t work.

All washing, dressing, eating, Twitter, socialising, going to the toilet, tidying, watching TV, shopping, exercise and hobbies, in three and a half hours, while chronically underslept? I guess so. “I have calculated carefully for the last few weeks,” Beard says. “Start work at 6, basically work through till about 11, with dinner break (no lunch).” Altogether, she reckons she works 14-15 hours every single day.

Read the entire piece here.

Liberal Arts on the Farm


The teachers who attend the Gilder-Lehrman Princeton seminar on colonial America read The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  One teacher took the assignment very seriously.

Back in 2003 I coined the phrase “rural Enlightenment” in an article in The Journal of American History.  Five years later, I defined this phrase more fully in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (now available at Amazon at 68% off with free shipping). In this article and book I tried to show that “rural Enlightenment” was not an oxymoron in eighteenth-century America.  I traced Fithian’s attempt to pursue an intellectual life amid the rural confines of his southern New Jersey home.  Fithian managed to combine the pursuit of an educated life in the midst of harvesting grain, making apple cider, and building sluices along the Cohansey River.

Over at The Pietist Schoolman, Samford University history professor Anthony Minnema reflects on the relationship between Christian colleges, the liberal arts, and farm work.  He asks: “If perhaps we’ve too long looked at the liberal arts as coffee shops and quads, what about the farm?”  Here is a taste of his post:

Work colleges and programs come in many shapes and sizes, but all offer discounted or even no tuition in exchange for a commitment of 10-15 hours of work per week. The exchange of work for tuition would go a long way to address the perception of elitism. The need to create work opportunities for these students also led these colleges to create majors in agricultural science and sustainability before these programs became popular, which undermines the accusation that LACs are impractical and divorced from the working world. The more successful work colleges, such as Berea College and College of the Ozarks, emphasize their working environment as a recruitment tool and describe themselves as a place to learn and work. A quick perusal of statistics indicates that work colleges enjoy near-parity of men and women (45-55), likely because the rhetoric of a work program and the majors that sustain it have historically been more appealing to men. More speculatively, I suspect that the work-program creates a sense of ownership for students and alumni that most LACs’ advancement offices would envy, since it changes the narrative of the ask from “Please continue giving to the college on top of your debt” to “How much was this education worth to you?” The donor base of the Christian liberal arts college (to say nothing of the corporate world), which tends more toward conservative values, might donate gladly to an institution that requires some or all of its students to work.

How might a work program interact with the liberal arts and Christian mission of a college? The relationship to both is surprisingly close. All colleges within the Work College Consortium describe themselves as “liberal arts colleges” and many retain a Great Books program. (Indeed, students might be more apt to discuss virtue ethics if they’ve just come in from a morning of work.) All but one of the work colleges I found possess a Christian history or tradition and still use the language of Christian service in their mission statements. Several couch their sustainability efforts in terms of stewardship. Thus, the work program might help Christian LACs make good on their claims to be places that foster faith, learning, and service.

So how to create the Christian liberal arts work college from scratch? What I would like to see exists as a two-year program in California at Deep Springs College. It’s a very small program (20-30 students) that boasts an impressive track record for its graduates according to a 2017 Economist article. It emphasizes rigorous liberal arts with a work college component, and until recently was open only to men, but lacks the faith component.

Read the entire piece here.  Interesting.

My First Seven Jobs



This seems to be a thing on social media, so here goes:

  1.  Pileman (Picked up the pile of scrap materials on a construction site and put them in a dumpster)
  2. Day Camp Counselor
  3. Pre-Title Specialist: (Entered townhouses and condos before closing to caulk bathrooms and kitchens, install door knobs, touch-up paint, hang closet sliding doors, etc.)
  4. General contractor crew member
  5. Trim carpenter (mostly cutting and installing wood base trim in new homes)
  6. Campus mail-carrier
  7. Security guard

Why Do Professors Work So Much?

Philip Nel, who, by the way, wrote a great book on Dr. Seuss, explores this question at Inside Higher Ed. Here is a taste:

As I am writing this article, I should be writing something else: an email to an editor, an email to an author, a letter of recommendation, notes for tomorrow’s classes, comments on students’ papers, comments on manuscripts, an abstract for an upcoming conference, notes for one of the books I’m working on. I cannot remember the last time I ended a day having crossed everything off my to-do list.

Nel suggests a few reasons why we work too much.  Check out his piece to see how he develops these points:

1.  Habit
2.  Economics
3.  Busy-ness is built into academic work
4.  Academic work can be fun
5.  Technology is both a help and a hindrance
6.  There is a thin boundary between “work” and “not-work”

And here is Nel’s conclusion:

My other point is that we need time to think. I mean this quite literally: thought requires time. Ideas need some idle, nonproductive space in which to thrive. This kind of sustained thinking is an important part of being human, but it’s also vital for good academic work. Peter Higgs, who won the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the Higgs boson, recently said that the imperative to publish all the time would disqualify him from contemporary academe. “Today I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that. I don’t think I would be regarded as productive enough,” he observed. “It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964.”
Though university administrators may not want to hear me say it, we need to encourage people to become less productive. Make time to not work. Make time to think. Make time simply to be.

From the Archives: "Why September 11th is About Vocation"

I published this at The Way of Improvement Leads Home on September 10, 2011. I think it is still relevant.–JF

“Love and beauty called you some place higher, somewhere up the stairs, into the fire.”
-Springsteen, “Into the Fire”
“May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope.
May your love give us love.”
-Springsteen, “Into the Fire”
“Left the house this morning,
Bells ringing filled the air,
Wearin’ the cross of my calling,
On wheels of fire I come rollin’s down there.”
-Springsteen “The Rising.”
Ten years ago I was teaching American history at Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana.  I was a post-doctoral fellow in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts, a two-year program designed for “young scholars who wish to renew their sense of vocation within a Christian community of learning in order to prepare themselves for positions of teaching and leadership within church-related institutions.”
At some point during the first year of residence at Valpo, the fellows in the program were asked to write a short essay reflecting on how they understood their vocations as scholars and teachers.  The fellows and their senior scholar mentors met every Monday afternoon to talk about issues related to faith, vocation, and the academic life and it was decided that we would devote a few weeks to the discussion of our essays.
My essay was entitled “Confessions of a ‘Pile-man’: Work and the Scholarly Task of the Christian Historian.”  Here is a small taste of that essay, which eventually appeared in the Spring 2001 Lilly Fellows newsletter:
Anyone who has ever worked on a construction crew, especially one that specializes in home repairs and remodeling, knows about the “pile-men.”   These are the members of a crew assigned to remove the pile of garbage, unusable wood scraps, insulation remnants, broken shingles and cracked bricks that accumulate over the course of a given project.  As the sons of a general contractor, my brothers and I spent many summers during our teenage years as “pile-men” on different construction sites.  The scenario was always the same: arrive at the job early, get a cup of coffee, strap on our tool belts, and wait for the day’s assignments.  Dad would issue the important ones first–framing the walls, sheathing the roof, or spackling the drywall.  Then he would turn to us: “John, Mike, and Chris,” he would bark, “I want you guys to start getting all the junk on the pile into the dumpster.”  While we were never surprised by our assignment–after all, this is what we were there for–we were often overwhelmed by it.  The pile could stand as high as fifteen feet off the ground and cover much of an average front yard in terms of sprawl.  Since the pile grew in size as more and more refuse was heaped upon it during the course of the day, it seemed as if we were hardly making any headway toward the completion of our assigned task.
As I went off to college, I became farther and farther removed from the life of the “pile-man.”  My brothers pursued trades in the building industry, learned skills in carpentry and plumbing, and thus graduated from “pile-man” status as well.  Today, at family gatherings, we often reflect comically on those days.  Our reminiscences, much to the amusement of my father, are always heavily exxagerated.  In our collective memory the “pile” sometimes exceeds three stories in height and includes fifty-pound cinder blocks or rain soaked sheet-rock that required Herculean strength and three pairs of hands to move.  As I participate in these nostalgic recollections, I remember both the seeming impossibility of the task that faced us on those hot summer mornings and the deep feeling of accomplishment I had when the work was completed.  While my sense of satisfaction was probably partially guided by the fact that the workday was now done and I could go home and eat, relax, or watch the Mets on television, there was also a certain dignity to this very menial task.  We tackled a difficult job head-on, displayed physical toughness, and returned home with a sense that our labor had meaning. Moreover, we worked in a community that went deeper than our obvious biological connections.  The petty quarrels of teenage brothers often dissipated as we labored together toward a common enterprise and helped one another along the way.  The work seemed to bring out certain virtues in us that ultimately strengthened our relationships.  The lessons that I learned about work during those summer days were good lessons, and they remain with me today as I think about my place in the world, my understanding of work and labor, and even my vocation as an historian.

Midway through the essay I made an attempt to connect my “pile-man” experience to my work as a young historian:

Since I am not convinced–at least not yet–that Christian historians produce scholarship that is significantly different from their non-Christian colleagues, I prefer to understand the relationship between my faith and my scholarship more in terms of a theology of work.  My calling as an historian is driven more by the ways in which I strive to practice my craft Christianly than by the production of a particularly “Christian” piece of scholarship.  In other words, I believe that Christian historians labor in much the same way that Christian “pile-men” would.  They strive diligently to do good work and, in the process, live out the spiritual virtues required of all believers.
Scholarship can be a difficult and tedious task resulting in great fulfillment and great frustration.  Both mentally and physically it required discipline, diligence, and faithfulness.  Such toil, according to Genesis 3, is a product of the fall.  Work is something in which all humans must engage.  But at the same time, work can bring a sense of Christian dignity and worth to those who perform it.  St. Paul reminds us in Colossians 3 that “whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord Christ whom you serve.”  I thus feel uncomfortable with a view of scholarly labor that celebrates the privileged work of the members of an intellectual or professional class who have chosen to pursue a “life of the mind” in order to distinguish themselves, consciously or unconsciously, from the manual labor of the supposedly “uneducated.”  Instead, I think about work in a way that transcends class and is required of all people regardless of the form that their labor takes.  We are to be diligent in the place where God has seen fit to have us labor because no matter how insignificant or tedious our work might seem, we are still called to it by God.  When understood this way, work takes on a Christian and decidedly spiritual dimension.  It becomes one means by which we live out our sanctification in this world…
And here is the way I concluded the essay:

In the end, my theological and Biblical beliefs about work and my “pile-man” experiences as part of a larger upbringing in a working-class family have deeply informed how I appropriate and carry out the scholarly work God has called me to do.  Ultimately, God calls each of us to a different task and we, as God’s creation, must heed the call with all of our hearts and minds.  Christ continues the work of creation and redemption through us.  It is thus our responsibility to tend to this call of discipleship–whatever it may be–and pursue it toward the building of the Kingdom of God.

The community of Lilly Fellows and their mentors gave me some good feedback on the essay, but I got the impression that some in the group thought that my willingness to embrace my working class background was a bit strange.  Intellectuals and academics were supposed to move beyond their blue collar roots. How could such roots have any influence on a scholarly career? 
There was at least one person in the room–a senior scholar– who during the discussion was making a concerted effort to understand my attempt to connect my work as a pile-man to my work as a historian.  I don’t remember exactly what she said, but she suggested that the recent events of September 11th, particularly the efforts of NYPD policemen, firefighters, and rescue workers, should force us to think more deeply about the meaning of vocation.  
I have being thinking about that comment for the last ten years and I have concluded that without some sense of calling the heroes of 9-11 would not have entered the World Trade Center and put their lives on the line to rescue those in need.  Rescue workers are called to risk their lives to save others.  This is their vocation.  Or as they would describe it in dozens of interviews following September 11th, “We were just doing our jobs.”
I tell my students that there are no heroes in history.  We are all flawed human beings–sinners in need of redemption.  Because of this theological belief we should not be surprised when people disappoint us.  (I also tell my students that there are no villains in history–all of us are created in God’s image and thus have dignity and worth).  But this does not mean that people in the course of human history have not performed heroic acts.  
The events of September 11th have taught me that men and women act heroically when they do what they are called to do.  The public school teacher who faithfully meets his or her classroom every day for thirty or forty years is doing something heroic.  The scholar who advances our understanding of the world is doing something heroic.  The minister who faithfully serves God in the place where he or she has been called is doing something heroic.  The general contractor who uses his or her gifts to construct a house is doing something heroic.  And even the work of the pile-man can be heroic when it is done in service to God and others.
In this last week there have been dozens and dozens of good articles, written by this or that pundit, discussing the meaning of September 11th.  But few of them have made any attempt to connect Labor Day, which we celebrated earlier this week, with the heroism of the day we will commemorate tomorrow.  September 11th has just as much to teach us about calling and vocation as it does about national pride, patriotism, and Islamic terrorists.
I am often asked by students and friends about the historical significance of September 11th.  How should this event be interpreted in the larger narrative of American history?   I am not yet ready to answer this question.  I just can’t do it.  The events of that day are not distant enough.  I am having a hard time thinking about these events with anything close to objectivity or detachment.  I still find myself caught up in the emotional YouTube videos and the television specials about how families and communities continue to suffer.  I am sure I will feel the same way tomorrow.
While I have heard some very good Christian reflections on the meaning of September 11th, and my own faith has provided me with some resources to help me make sense of what happened on that day, I have also found the music of Bruce Springsteen to be a very helpful guide through it all, especially his 2002 album, The Rising. Springsteen, a working-class hero in his own right, writes and sings about September 11th with a very robust theology of work and calling.
Listen, for example, to the second verse of the title track, “The Rising.” Springsteen describes firefighters in their “house,” with bells ringing, preparing to head to what we must assume to be the burning World Trade Center towers. They are motivated by the symbol that hangs around many of their necks.  Springsteen refers to it as “the cross of their calling.”  This is what they are meant to do and, as a result, “on wings of fire” they go “rollin down there.”  Some of them will not come back.
Or listen to “Into the Fire,” the second song on the album.  This tribute to the rescue workers is told as a story of vocation.  It is “love and beauty” that calls these workers “up the stairs” and “into the fire.”  The Boss asks us to remember their courage.  He wants us to find hope and strength in their actions.  He wants to learn a lesson about what it means to love our neighbors.  And he repeats it over and over again just to make sure we get it:
 May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

The commemorations of that awful day have already begun. Most Americans will attempt to process the events of September 11th from their recliners and coaches as they watch the opening Sunday of the NFL season.  As we commemorate, let’s draw strength for our callings from the sacrifices of those men and women who were faithful to their own callings.  Let’s use their example to rethink the vocations to which God has called us.  Let’s use their stories to hope for a better world–a world in which men and women do their work as a means of displaying love.
Not all of us are called to enter burning buildings, but we are all called to do our work in a heroic fashion.

Where Do Ph.Ds Go When They Leave Academe?

One of my former students just passed this article along.  It reminds me a lot of Tony Grafton and James Grossman’s “No More Plan B” article from earlier this year.

L. Maren Wood is a 2009 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill where she received a Ph.D in American history.  Her and her friends all have Ph.Ds in the humanities, but most of them have been unable to find jobs in academia.  She is a researcher at an educational consulting firm in Washington D.C.

Like Grafton and Grossman, Wood calls us to do some more thinking about the kinds of non-academic work that humanities Ph.Ds can do and challenges graduate programs to invest more in job training.  Here is a taste of her recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

So where do Ph.D.’s go when they leave academe?

Far from the stereotype of the Ph.D. baristas at Starbucks, career-outcome data (see charts for each of the four institutions here) shows that history Ph.D.’s are thriving in a versatile range of careers. If we remove those who are deceased (2 percent) and those for which there are no data available (3.75 percent), then 27 percent are working in a range of industries other than academic research and teaching. (The remaining proportion at the four institutions ended up in temporary part-time, non-tenure-track, or postdoctoral appointments.)

Some of the history Ph.D.’s can be found working in areas where we would expect to find them: higher-education administration, publishing and editing, high schools, museums, government agencies, and public-history sites. They are researchers, consultants, and editors. One Ph.D. from Ohio State University is a vice president and corporate manager of a heavy-metal-equipment manufacturing company. Some are active-duty military officers. Many have successful careers as independent historians and scholars. Others run small businesses that specialize in everything from editing to organic food. Several decided to pair their doctorates with additional degrees to become lawyers, politicians, and librarians. 

Her comments about public history are also interesting:

A nonacademic career path often suggested to history Ph.D.’s is public history (that is, working for museums and historical sites). But the data I gathered showed that history Ph.D.’s in those four university programs have not ended up working in public history in any significant number. Moreover, a quick browse of job openings at museums and other public-history sites showed that those organizations seem to be looking for fund raisers, business managers, curators, and people with specialized training in museum studies. It’s not clear how many doctoral recipients in history would actually qualify for such jobs. So public-history careers may not be the panacea that some academics have suggested.

UPDATE:  My former student Katie Garland, who is working on a graduate degree in public history, notes that Wood’s discussion of public history above is skewed by the fact that three of the four universities she examined–Duke, Ohio State, and UNC-Chapel Hill–do not have programs in public history.  The lone exception in her sampling is UC-Santa Barbara.  Good point, Katie.

This Week’s Patheos Column: "Education for a Democracy"

GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum made news recently when he called Barack Obama a “snob” for saying that all Americans should get a college education. He supported his attack on the president with the now popular refrain, “college is not for everyone.” Some Americans, he said, might be better suited for vocational training, community college, or apprenticeships.

It took only a few hours for pundits to figure out that Obama had basically said the same thing in a recent State of the Union Address, but in the world of presidential politics Santorum’s remarks probably scored some points among the conservative faithful.

But let’s consider the position taken by Santorum and Obama on this issue. Are the President and the former Senator correct in asserting that a liberal arts education is not for everyone? Maybe another lesson from the founding fathers is in order.

Read the rest here.

What Happened to the American Work Ethic?

The New York Times asks this question.

A Times article last week profiled a Colorado farmer who tried to replace a third of the seasonal workers he hires from abroad with local residents interested in extra summer cash. He was surprised to find few takers, especially for the back-breaking work involved in picking sweet corn.

But foreign migrants have always performed hard labor in U.S. agriculture, no matter what the national unemployment rate. So when Americans complain about the lack of jobs to collect unemployment or disability or other benefits than it does to take a temporary job that they cannot or will not do, for whatever reason. As President Obama seeks more extensions on unemployment benefits, even some jobless Americans are asking if providing this bigger safety net is the right, or the only, thing to do in this economy. today, they are drawing a line somewhere. For many people of the unemployed, it makes more sense

Hard work is part of the national self-image. How has our definition of it changed? How can we describe the American work ethic today? 

The first response to this question comes from Barbara Dafoe Whitehead who directs the John Templeton Center for Thrift and Generosity.  She concludes that the American work ethic is getting “not lazier, but softer.”

On the Air Today with John and Kathy at WORD-FM Pittsburgh

At 5:10EST I will be joining the John Hall & Kathy Emmons Show on Pittsburgh’s WORD-FM.  I will be discussing my latest Patheos article, “Remember the Pile-men.”

Addendum:  The previous guest on the show was Vince Bacote, my divinity school roommate, groomsman in my wedding, and theologian at Wheaton College.  Thanks to John and Kathy for letting me on the air to give him a hard time!

This Week’s Patheos Column: Remember the Pile-Men

Anyone who has ever worked on a construction crew, especially one that specializes in home repairs and remodeling, knows about the “pile-men.” These are the members of a crew assigned to remove the piles of garbage, unusable wood scraps, insulation remnants, broken shingles, and cracked bricks that accumulate over the course of a given project. As the sons of a general contractor, my brothers and I spent many summers during our teenage years as “pile-men” on different construction sites. The scenario was always the same: arrive at the job early, get a cup of coffee, strap on our tool belts, and wait for the day’s assignments. Dad would issue the important ones first—framing the walls, sheathing the roof, or spackling the drywall. Then he would turn to us: “John, Mike, and Chris,” he would bark, “I want you guys to start getting all the junk on the pile into the dumpster.”

While we were never surprised by our assignment—it’s what we were there for—we were often overwhelmed by it. The pile could stand as high as fifteen feet off the ground and sprawl over much of an average front yard. Since the pile grew in size as more and more refuse was heaped upon it during the course of the day, it seemed as if we were hardly making any headway toward the completion of our assigned task.

Read the rest here:

E.J. Dionne: Let’s Rename it "Capital Day."

Labor Day is over, but E.J. Dionne’s Labor Day column at The Washington Post still resonates.

Dionne writes:  “We may still celebrate Labor Day, but our culture has given up on honoring workers as the real creators of wealth and their honest toil — the phrase itself seems antique — as worthy of genuine respect.”

He continues:

Imagine a Republican saying this: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” 

These heretical thoughts would inspire horror among our friends at Fox News or in the Tea Party. They’d likely label them as Marxist, socialist or Big Labor propaganda. Too bad for Abraham Lincoln, our first Republican president, who offered those words in his annual message to Congress in 1861. Will President Obama dare say anything like this in his jobs speech this week?

Dionne is always willing to use history, religion and theology in his columns.  Here he draws on both Lincoln and Pope John Paul:

So it would take a brave man to point out that unions “grew up from the struggle of the workers — workers in general but especially the industrial workers — to protect their just rightselement of social life.” vis-a-vis the entrepreneurs and the owners of the means of production,” or to insist that “the experience of history teaches that organizations of this type are an indispensable

That’s what Pope John Paul II said (the italics are his) in the 1981 encyclical “Laborem Exercens.” Like Lincoln, John Paul repeatedly asserted “the priority of labor over capital.”
That the language of Lincoln and John Paul is so distant from our experience today is a sign of an enormous cultural shift. In scores of different ways, we paint investors as the heroes and workers as the sideshow. We tax the fruits of labor more vigorously than we tax the gains from capital — resistance to continuing the payroll tax cut is a case in point — and we hide workers away while lavishing attention on those who make their livings by moving money around.

He also references Jefferson Cowie’s prize-winning book history of the labor in the 1970s: Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class.

Leading Lives That Matter

My series of posts on William James’s “What Makes a Life Significant” was inspired by the essay’s inclusion in a relatively new anthology, edited by Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass of Valparaiso University, entitled Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be. Schwehn and Bass have chosen readings centered around themes such as authenticity, virtue, vocation, work, the “balanced life,” and personal identity. The authors include James, Albert Schweitzer, Charles Taylor, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Aristotle, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Day, Dorothy Sayers, H.G. Wells, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Jane Addams, Martha Nussbaum, St. Matthew, Immanuel Kant, Amy Tan, Malcolm X, Willa Cather, Thomas Merton, and John Steinbeck.

I am slowly working my way through this book and may, on occasion, blog about some of the material that Schwehn and Bass have gathered.

You can find an interview with Schwehn and Bass here.