Keeping the romance alive
Happy Friday, everyone.
Some years ago, Code.org, an organization dedicated to educating children on computer programming, produced a remarkable video. It’s a heartfelt exhortation to children, extolling the virtues and pleasures of software engineering.
If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch. It expresses a joyous and idealized view of learning. The explanations of programming, though targeted at children, are good and not at all condescending.
But the best thing about it is that romanticizes the work of programming.
In the video, many accomplished engineers—men and women who now write thousands of lines of code in a day to produce incredibly complex effects—speak with childlike wonder about the first time they made a computer do something stupidly simple, like display a couple of words or a basic shape.
One woman describes programming in poetical terms:
When I finally learned a little bit of programming, this blank wall resolved into a bunch of doors. You open them and you finally start to open enough doors that the light comes in... All the corners are illuminated. You understand the structure of it. It’s a really serene feeling to have completed that.
These programmers clearly love their job. And they love their job in a way that I think of as very Montessori in spirit.
Montessori has a deeply positive view of work—the child’s work of self-creation, but also the adult’s work of shaping the world, of commanding nature, of adding to civilization, of helping along human existence in ways big and small. She considers the fact that most people are alienated from their work to be a profound moral tragedy:
All work is noble, the only ignoble thing is to live without working. (From Childhood to Adolescence, app A).
A major aim of education and healthy development is to achieve a character that has a deeply positive disposition towards effortful, purposeful, productive work, a kind of work that has continuity with a child’s concentrated activity:
The little child who persists in his exercises, concentrated and absorbed, is obviously elaborating the constant man, the man of character, the man who will find in himself all human values, crowning that unique fundamental manifestation: persistence in work. (The Advanced Montessori Method, vol 1 ch 7)
Her term for the elevation of work, this imbuing of work with dignity and meaning, is “valorization”. In the video above, the software engineers interviewed absolutely valorize their jobs. They both glorify the impact of programming and revel in the work of it.
It’s important to glorify one’s impact. Achievement, changing the world even a little bit, nudging the course of a child’s development—these are rare and difficult things. Whether easily accomplished or hard-won, they are to be celebrated, to be experienced as part of the excellence of one’s work and life. Doing great work should feel great. But just because work should be emotionally rewarding doesn’t mean that it always automatically is.
Sometimes we don’t notice how well we performed, or we don’t realize that an important outcome has been achieved, or maybe we just think that there’s something ignoble or mundane about what we’re doing and achieve it—but don’t attach emotional significance to it.
One important way to make sure that we notice and celebrate our achievements, that we underline them in our awareness, is to instill in ourselves the idea that the work involved is noble. As Montessori noted in the quote above, all human work that creates value is great work. However mundane a task might seem, fully seeing what it makes possible elevates its status, just as the programmers in the video elevate the many small, specific tasks that make up software production.
The same work looks different when looked at from the right perspective. “Classroom management” can seem burdensome—but creating an orderly environment through interaction with children is a magical, intricate art, one that can achieve astonishing and important results. Filling out a budget spreadsheet can feel like drab number crunching—but applying math to optimize resources, to quantify a functioning organizational circulatory system, is a weighty accomplishment with its own distinct challenges and joys. Wiping a child’s nose or changing a diaper add? “Here too there are gods.” These tasks help create a healthy developmental environment for a complicated little biological creature, and, if you do it exceptionally well, they inspire self-care and lay the groundwork for independence.
It’s worth spending some extra effort to take the perspective that will give your work experiences the dignity that they deserve—but don’t always get, not even from the person doing them. Everyone receiving this note is doing grand and noble work. We all contribute to the great work of empowering a human child to live a full life.
And its real work, as real as bricklaying or software engineering, as research or artistry: it shares with all work the fundamental form of human intelligence and action. It demands our best—our most acute observation skills, our honest and discerning judgment, the discipline of our convictions, our devotion to the best in the people around us.
I think it’s worth periodically asking: do you experience it that way? On a regular basis? Do you light up when you think of your daily tasks, the same way those software engineers do, in the video above? Your work benefits children—but are you reaping the full value, for your own happiness, pride, and character?
If not, there’s always a temptation to assume that it’s something about the work itself. But all work is noble, all work has dignity, all work can and should be valorized. Perhaps what’s missing is a little romance.
I definitely myself forget this at times, in the present and also at every job I’ve had since I was 12. And every time I remember to not forget—to take the time and energy to imbue my work with romance and symbolism, to see its meaning and beauty and purpose—it is transformative, both of my experience of my work and of how I substantively approach it. Obstacles transform into dragons to slay, mountains transform into adventurous climbs. Accomplishments that might have gone unnoticed instead become named as good, and thereby become crystalized experiences of the child-like joy of doing something.
Our work is about the children. But each of us has a relationship to our work. And if we can keep the spark of romance alive in that relationship, what Montessori thought held for children will also be true for us as adults:
We think the child is happiest when he is playing; but the truth is that the child is happiest when he is working. (Education and Peace)
Have a great weekend.
Executive Director, Montessorium