The Joy of Work


By NICHOLAS MURRAY BUTLER, President, Columbia University

Delivered at the Opening of the 187th Year of Columbia University, September 25, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 762-763

WHEN Longfellow wrote of ". . . the joy that springs from labor" he was writing for a generation which has passed. There has now grown up, certainly in the United States and to no inconsiderable extent in other lands as well, a curious antipathy to work. The fact that work is the fundamental activity of our civilization, as well as the foundation upon which that civilization rests, and not a form of oppression or of punishment, seems to be almost entirely forgotten. Everywhere there is pressure to reduce the hours of labor to a minimum and even to reduce the production in those limited hours to another minimum, neither of which has any relation to health, to fatigue or to the individual's capacity. These restrictions increase the cost of living for everyone, including the workman himself. If, for example, a bricklayer may only lay 800 bricks in a working day, when it would easily be possible for him, because of skill, to lay 1000 or 1200, he is multiplying the cost of construction and thereby inevitably diminishing the demand for skilled labor, including his own.

What may be the object of these efforts to reduce labor to a minimum is not clear, since they are not in the interest of him who works; for if one can escape from work or can find no opportunity for work, he must become a dependent upon somebody or something. This means that his own independence is lost. As a dependent, his laborless time is turned into leisure. How many human beings are capable of making good use of leisure or of understanding what the opportunities of leisure are? That understanding is one of the best products of a liberal education. Sports are well enough in their way, but, save for those who are professionally devoted to them, they cannot occupy more than a limited amount of one's free time. There are, of course, many uses of leisure which are wholly admirable, but it requires some knowledge and some experience to know how to take advantage of them.

The human world as we know it is the product of workó work with the hands or work with the brain. Its progress is only made possible by work. It is work which has lifted us out of brute life. It may be work which is tiresome, it may be work which is nerve-racking or it may be work which brings with it satisfaction and delight. In any case it must be work. Everything depends upon whether the individual human being understands his work and what it means and what part it plays in the human economy, and whether he is ready and willing to do his very best to make his work productive and helpful to his fellow-men. If his only desire is to do as little work as possible and to be paid as much as possible for doing it, then his case is hopeless. He is an uncivilized being. If he is a free and moral human being, he will want to do his very best in whatever his occupation may be, and he will not wish to be limited, either in the character or the amount of his work, by the capacity for work of a neighbor who may not be so competent or so well trained as himself.

Recognition should be given to excellence of manual work similar to that given to excellence of intellectual work. On Morningside Heights, it has been our established custom, when a new academic building is completed, to hold a formal gathering of all the workmen who have been engaged upon its construction and equipment. To this gathering members of the workmen's families are also invited. In the presence of this company the President of the University awards a medal, accompanied by a certificate, to that manual workman in each of the trades engaged upon the building who has been chosen to receive it because of the excellence of his work in its construction or equipment. Those who are to receive these medals are selected by a committee consisting of a representative of the University, a representative of the architect, a representative of the contractor and a representative of the trade or type of work for excellence in which the medal is to be awarded. These gatherings have been impressive in high degree and have given to the workmen a consciousness of the fact that the University regards them as contributing directly to its equipment for usefulness in its chosen field of endeavor and for its helpfulness to mankind. This proceeding is quite analogous to that of conferring a University Medal or an honorary degree at the annual Commencement.

Every attempt, by whatever authority, to fix a maximum of productive labor by a given worker in a given time is an unjust restriction upon his freedom and a limitation of his right to make the most of himself in order that he may rise in the scale of the social and economic order in which he lives. The notion that all human beings born into this world enter at birth into a definite social and economic classification, in which classification they must remain permanently through life, is wholly false and fatal to a progressive civilization. It means the invention and installation of an artificial class system where no such thing should exist. It strikes at the very roots of the possibility to which every healthy-minded man looks: the possibility that he may, as life goes on, come by his own efforts into a larger and more important field of activity than the one in which his work began. In the United States our industrial history abounds in illustrations of the capacity of men who began their life-work at the very bottom of the industrial or administrative scale to rise to posts of highest authority and responsibility by their own efforts and their own excellence.

The false doctrine of permanent social and economic classes contradicts and undermines the whole structure of democracy and lays the foundation for the quick building of a class struggle, perhaps even a class war, which, if carried on long enough and severely enough, would bring democracy to an end. It is one of despotism's ways of beginning its career.

Each one of us should be able to repeat with conviction and enthusiasm these words of Amiel:

"What I want is work. It is work which gives flavor to life. Mere existence without object and without effort is a poor thing."

This is what is meant by the joy of work. To another year of joyous work I am happy to welcome this company of scholars and their students.