“Elephants forgot, force-fed on stale chalk,
Ate the floors of their cages.” ~ King Crimson (lyrics by Pete Sinfield)
I’m breaking the chain and making a run for it.
Yap, you got it, I’m “quitting my day job”.
If you haven’t heard me say this yet, I’m planning to take 6-12 months off and just work on art. I really want to make it 12. I’d say my chances of landing on my feet after that year are maybe 50/50. I do have an MFA, have shown pieces in a gallery before, and received a $10,000 fellowship at UCLA for a juried art competition (only one winner per grade level, and I won it for seniors), so, I’m not just a deluded dreamer launching himself into a solipsistic bubble of escapism. There’s a slim chance I can break free of my worker drone fate. I know I can make a lot of really good art in a year, but selling it and making enough to live off of is the real challenge. Though, I can live off of just $500 a month in Asia, which I know because often I don’t even make that much teaching, and, for example, my rent is $250 a month. Can I get to where I can make $500 a month AFTER a year of work? I decided that even if I can’t, I need to take the time and make the art. That is its own reward. At least I’ll have something to show for a year of life, instead of just being milked in my pen for another season. It will probably pay off eventually.
More about that elsewhere, especially when the year of art is underway (I still have 7 weeks of teaching left), but, another reminder of why I should try to become more independent and not have to work for others is that most jobs are still using the hierarchical structure, where workers are treated as inferior minions toiling for a barely livable wage. This even extends to schools where highly educated teachers are the lowly workers within the same sort of top-down, hierarchical framework and mindset that is used in sweatshops.
You can’t ever have a democracy if once you walk into the door of your job you live in a dictatorship. It’s an old insight of mine, but something in the air has made it afresh. More often than not you are told what to do and how to do it, or within what guidelines, even if it’s the inefficient and tedious way to accomplish half as much. If you have to take two baby steps forward and a big leap back, just shut up and do it. You can’t vote on your managers or bosses. You can’t question authority. You can’t vote on ways to restructure the system so it works more effectively for you, and everyone else. You must love your job or leave it.
Something is wrong with the old, capitalistic, hierarchical model of corporations, and schools for that matter. The structure (think of an upside-down tree) presumes and tries to enforce that those higher up on the ladder have more knowledge, wisdom and intelligence than those beneath them, in spades. The problem with this is simply that it’s not actually true. Often people are in positions of power because they want power, not because they are superior or more benevolent. They are not the “philosopher kings” of Plato, who were “enlightened”, wise, and philosophically trained. Anyone who has significant experience working for corporations knows that illogic, and brute exercise of petty authority are as likely forces as logic.
To imagine the pitfalls of authority and hierarchy, I just image a class full of around 30 children. We could randomly and secretly select some to have various positions of authority, which we’d honor and enforce. Before long most everyone would likely get in line. People would start to believe themselves inherently superior or inferior. We’d have a whole caste system going. These sorts of sociological experiments have been done already, so this isn’t just conjecture. The point though, is when you imagine it being done with kids, it’s harder to conceive that some deserve such authority and superior status over others. It seems criminal and arbitrary. Related to this is the idea of “royalty”, which kind of fascinates me. The people of supposed royal lineage aren’t anything out of the ordinary, and yet people buy into it.
Further, what tends to happen in these top down hierarchies is that the most important thing for the institution in question ends up being the maintenance of the authority structure, and the structure of privilege. More than that, it becomes about increasing the power of each level above those beneath them. You end up with little princes and princesses, kings and queens within each structure, who come to consider themselves inherently above those toiling below. As with other kinds of rule, everything must serve to insure those in power stay in power. Ultimately, the profits of the CEO are paramount. Related to this, a problem arises when a school turns into a business, because a teacher’s job and purpose shifts from educating people to making some asshole a bunch more money.
“What did you do in your life, Henry?”
“I taught people and in so doing helped them achieve their goals and be better people. I made a bunch of money for some businessman asshole.”
Current studies and research has discovered, not surprisingly at all, that this system sucks. As it turns out, the lowly workers will have talents, abilities, wisdom, experience and intelligence that is NOT getting used. The abilities of dozens or hundreds of “workers” are sacrificed for the autocratic rule of a handful of people ensconced in higher positions. The best ideas are inevitably drowned. Those that articulate them may be punished or ostracized.
The new way forward is through a networking structure that allows everyone to contribute constructively and have agency and independence in what they do, which also makes them more motivated to do it, and provides more rewards. It doesn’t mean that if you are a plumber and the boss sends you out with a defective plunger that you should be creative about finding a way to use your hand. It doesn’t mean you should welcome the challenge as an opportunity to improve your skills, and damn you, you’d better keep a smile on your face when your arm is elbow deep in shit. You’d better love it! Somehow those in power believe a worker’s ability is reflected in how well they can implement someone else’s plan, no matter how flawed. In other words, how well they can fulfill their duties in a subordinate position. In a forward-looking, networking model, workers are people who can be informed about and contribute to the whole of their work environment, including the most important decisions. The plumbers would be able to assess for themselves through their daily experience what methods and what tools were best for the job, and have access to those tools. The result would be that they’d be out there with the best equipment and techniques.
I’ve now worked at 5 schools. I found them all unsatisfactory work environments, usually because of a combination of corruption, ineptitude, and a refusal to listen to reason on the part of those running the show. Hell, my standards aren’t even that high. The university lasted 3 years before they made significant changes that undermined what had been a pretty good place to work at (including plans to cut out a month of salary). Basically I require a standard fair pay package that I can live off of (cheating me is unacceptable), and the ability to do my job well (no recipe for failure situations, like the 3-hour evening “Oral English” class with 100 students my last university tried to saddle me with, as an extra, unpaid class – when night classes should even pay extra, I later learned – and which I flat out refused to do). Sadly, that’s a tall order. Each school will usually fail with a combination of shortcomings. My current job has the most difficult and confusing schedule (overlapping weekday and weekend classes), as well as the highest amount of unpaid out-of-class work. We are also undergoing a transition to new books, which will, but shouldn’t, make our jobs a lot harder. When I realized I was facing another year of making ends meet for the privilege of continuing to teach, I resigned. I could keep on keeping on if I weren’t trying to do my art as well. Right now it’s as if I have two careers, and teaching is the less important one, while also taking most of my time and energy.
I’d rather be a starving artist than a malnourished worker!
Stay tuned to see how my year of art-making goes, and especially for the art I’ll be making! And, there’s a new piece that I’m trying to do the finishing touches on between classes and lesson planning… Should be ready any day now.