"All work is noble."
In From Childhood to Adolescence, Montessori wrote:
All work is noble; the only ignoble thing is to live without working. There is a need to realize the value of work in all its forms, whether manual or intellectual, to be called ‘mate’, to have a sympathetic understanding of all forms of activity.
When I discuss this point in Montessori trainings, people often wonder what exactly she means when she says that it’s “ignoble… to live without working”. On that question, I’ll just gesture at a partial answer: she definitely does not mean that being jobless implies that you’re a bad person. (She thinks, for example, that a full-time parent is working in a way that a socialite dilettante is not.)
But today I want to discuss what is actually, in my view, the more radical point here. The idea that “all work is noble”, that work has value “in all of its forms, whether manual or intellectual”. All work, in all of its forms. Valuable. Noble.
All work means all work. It means, as Montessori says, intellectual work—and manual work. It also means artists—and bankers. It means doctors—and health insurance brokers. It means scientists—and engineers. It means teachers—and Uber drivers. It means unpaid work—and paid work. It means salaried “creatives”—and day laborers. It means employees and operators—and CEOs and managers. It means the job I have now, working to push change in education—and the job I had as a teenager, working to physically sort inventory in the back of a Toys R Us. It means so-called “changemakers”, the activists and entrepreneurs on campaigns to change the world—and it means the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.
Noble means noble. It means morally good. It means worthy of respect, valorization, moral approbation, admiration. It means that it is good to do and that it does something good to the person doing it.
If you complete the line of thinking, you will be led to conclusions such as: bankers are worthy of respect, valorization, moral approbation, admiration. Or: what makes poets and researchers noble also makes salespeople and software engineers noble. Or: that insofar as changemakers deserve some sort of moral recognition, that very same moral recognition should extend to work that is less commonly seen as glamorous or as good.
Almost no one really believes these conclusions. Certainly almost no one in education believes them. Isn’t “service learning” uniquely special, in a way that other project-based or experiential learning is not? Isn’t the student who organizes a local beach cleanup doing something rather different from the student who is making herself a skateboard? Isn’t the student who gets an unpaid internship as a theater tech doing something more admirable than the student who gets a paid internship updating accounting spreadsheets?
I think Montessori’s answer is “no”. Regardless of whether or not that’s her answer, that’s the correct answer, unorthodox as it is. And it’s our answer, organizationally. There are no moral gold stars for certain kinds of work. (Or, if you like: all work gets the same moral gold star, not literally in the sense of a gold star but in the sense of being morally valorized by the school culture.)
There are specific differences between these varieties of work, but there is not a moral difference between them. Morally, they are all work: they involve setting some aim, nudging the world in the direction of that aim, participating in the grand project of human civilization and creation and industry, and benefiting oneself, materially and spiritually. They all have immense, foundational developmental value.
If you organize a neighborhood cleanup or do volunteer work, great. If you get a job at Baskin Robbins or play in a band or write an app… also great! Exactly just as great. What matters is that you choose your values, that they have meaning to you, that you’re thoughtful, that you put your shoulder to the wheel, that your curiosity and work fuel further curiosity and work. What matters is that it is “work” in Montessori’s sense of work: intentional, concentrated activity.
“The role of education”, Montessori wrote (emphatically, emphasis in original), “is to interest the child profoundly in an external activity to which he will give all his potential.” This activity develops the student’s capacity to value, a virtue around which other virtues form. Virtue doesn’t develop from specific subsets of work, with some work being dirty and capitalistic and other work being selfless and communitarian, with some work being creative and other work being utilitarian, with some work having real meaning and some work being just for a paycheck, with some work being labor and other work being exploitation. “All work is noble”; all work develops virtue.
This unorthodoxy translates to the adult level as well. It means that Bill Gates didn’t become a better person when he switched from software to philanthropy. He did great work at Microsoft, and now he’s doing great work at his foundation. At this level, some of our students come to different conclusions about these things, and that’s fine. We aren’t here to lecture them on ethics, we’re here to enable them to develop agency, to live life fully. Our view is that the thing here that matters for living life fully—the thing that matters morally with respect to work—is the capacity to work: to labor, unalienated and with love.
This means we need to create a virtue culture of a certain sort, one where industriousness in all of its applications is seen as virtuous. This in turn means that we need to vigilantly avoid the common tendency to valorize some work more and other work less. It’s damaging for students to work in a culture where certain work gets what amounts to a religious blessing, with the rest being seen as more banal. Doing so robs the students who get the moral gold star of authentic motivation. And it plants seeds of alienation in the students who don’t get a moral gold star. You end up with, on the one hand, uninspired butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers—and, on the other hand, the self-righteous elect.
Our uncommon approach: to have a community of diverse valuers and values, where work and creation are elevated, where “all work is noble”, where the “need to realize the value of work in all its forms whether manual or intellectual, to be called ‘mate’, to have a sympathetic understanding of all forms of activity” is fully and consistently met.
Dr. Matt Bateman
Dr. Matt Bateman earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy in 2012 from the University of Pennsylvania. He taught and continued his research at Franklin and Marshall College in the Department of Psychology, on topics ranging from neuroscience to evolutionary theory to philosophy, before joining the LePort Schools as Director of Curriculum and Pedagogy in 2014.
In 2016, Dr. Matt Bateman became a founding member of Higher Ground Education. He is now Vice President of Pedagogy for Higher Ground and the Executive Director of Montessorium.