The Labor Program at Berea College was born of necessity. The students the College served in the mid-19th century—freed people of color and low-wealth Appalachians—meant that if they wanted to come to school they had to work. Until the College began the practice of employing all of its students in the 1890s, most students regularly had to interrupt their studies to earn more money for fees and living expenses. (Already then Berea College did not charge tuition!) Over the intervening decades, what started off as a necessity has become a key component of the Berea College learning experience. We have come to understand how work and school synergize to create better employees and citizens.
Work by itself has value. In addition to the practical skills one picks up for doing a specific job, there are other soft skills, too. Skills such as work ethic, time management, organization and responsibility enable a person not just to do a job, but to be a good employee.
A liberal arts education works in much the same way. But in addition to learning to be a good employee, a liberal arts education teaches students how to be good humans. They pick up additional soft skills that are crucial for living in a complex, human-centered world. Critical thinking allows the liberal arts student to thrive in difficult situations. The ability to speak and write to get one’s ideas across clearly is vital in a democratic society. And learning to think across disciplines and contexts makes the liberal arts student nimble and quick to offer solutions from a new perspective.
There is a special magic that happens, though, when a good education is married with work experience. At Berea College, we hire every student to support campus operations. Much like in the world outside, our students work their way up to positions with more responsibility and more relevance to their career aspirations. The art history major may begin her academic career mowing our beautiful lawns and finish by managing the art gallery. Managing the art gallery has obvious applications of learning, but what about mowing the lawn?
The beauty of mowing the lawn in a liberal arts context is that it no longer is just mowing the lawn. Our students work and learn. When they’ve finished studying American colonialism, or sustainable agriculture, or energy markets, they hop on the mower to think about lawns, the culture that produced them, the amount of petroleum required to run a mower, the complex systems that created the mower, why you should let the dandelions grow—and the art history major’s place within it all.
No labor is mindless that exists in this context. Our future labor lawyers put on an apron at Mountaineer Dining Hall and learn the dignity of a hard day’s work while thinking about labor practices—what’s fair, what’s not and what should be done about it. Through the Entrepreneurship for the Public Good Program, our future business persons spend summers working in startups and communities in our region looking for new opportunities.
We don’t just make entrepreneurs. We make better entrepreneurs by giving them a liberal arts background and opportunities to apply their lessons through work. And when they leave Berea, they go forth into the world ready not only to contribute to their local business climate, but also to attend to the broader context in which those businesses operate.