Mr. Jenks was old, with short-cropped gray hair, thick black-rimmed glasses, and wore a bow tie with a wrinkled blue-gray suit nearly his own age. He sat to the right of the front of the class under a small window on a rocking chair that reclined into a horizontal position when he leaned back. His classroom was in the basement of the junior high that was once the high school. It was next to the gym that added a bit of noise and the smell of sweat. The school was built in the late 19th century, and Mr. Jenks’s classroom was a cramped and stuffy little room with one small window. The basement was converted to use when a growing enrollment forced school officials to use every bit of space in the old building.
It was here, in seventh-grade science, I was introduced to the idea there are two kinds of people. Mr. Jenks told us that our world was made up of philosophers who ‘created’ knowledge and technicians who applied it. Obviously, this simplified view of humanity left out most, but he did so to help us grasp a point.
Had Mr. Jenks used a more inclusive description, he might have noted that somewhere between one and five percent are responsible for basic research. This research is focused on ideas and postulating theories about the Universe and everything in it. That would be followed by perhaps 10–15 percent who take these ideas and turn them into useful things. These are people who understand the science and knowledge being generated by the 1–5 percent. These are Mr. Jenks’ philosophers and technicians. What about the rest of us? We simply use the things thought about and created by the first two groups. Some may have a vague understanding of what the first two groups are doing, but most of us simply plug in and flip the switch to make whatever it is work. We have no idea how it works and would not have a clue how to build one.
According to Mr. Jenks, the data consuming technician spends his or her day shaping the environment by taking theories and turning them into useful things we need.
The philosopher, on the other hand, was referred to as a whittler, who might spend the entire day by the pond comfortably hidden in the shade of a tall arching birch, fish pole by his side while he shaped a block of wood. Whittlers never seemed to be doing anything and never seemed to produce anything useful like automobiles, computers, iPads, smartphones, or other things. Still, these woodcarvers were seen as vital because through their thoughts and quiet reflection came the big ideas, the discovery of gravity, penicillin, and others, that moved and shaped our civilization. Whittlers were the thinkers, and thinkers must have the time to sit in apparent idleness.
Most of us, lacking understanding of the role played by such thinkers, see them and their activities as wasteful and unnecessary. They are quick to seek to eliminate funding for such activities and employment. The sciences always come to mind, but the arts and humanities are often lumped in this category as unnecessary and unproductive as well.
Another bias we have in America is our condescension and disrespect for labors we see as menial and not requiring crucial skills. The garbage man, delivery jobs, clerical positions, those who stock shelves in stores, janitors, and others in similar jobs are considered undeserving of our respect and dignity. Consider what our society judges to be useful work. We attach the least value to those tasks that are most entropic. That is, we consider simple tasks that must be repeated over and over every day or several times a day as being of little value. So, someone who sweeps floors at ABC High Tech Enterprises, or operates the grill cooking hamburgers for Burger-By-The-Dozen, are paid little and held in low esteem. Their repetitive tasks require little higher thinking, having less value. We overlook that Albert Einstein postulated his theory of relativity while employed as a simple patent clerk.
On the other hand, someone who is a corporate CEO, or someone who excels at throwing and hitting a baseball, is more highly revered, regarded, and rewarded. Our culture assigns their tasks higher values. Their jobs are judged to be more complex and requiring more skills than the simple sweeping of the floor, cooking a hamburger, and providing vital services such as collecting and disposing of our garbage.
American values are distorted by the false importance we accord to the acquisition of wealth and material objects. We attach great importance to making computers, counting money, or those thinking or physical activities requiring skill. We fail to see that these very same characteristics can impede progress in advancing the human spirit or discovering new knowledge, like relativity, necessary to advancing civilization.
In Eastern thought and in the practices of some monastic Christian groups the functions held to be most important are the tasks we judge of least value. These spiritual groups consider these mundane and repetitive jobs crucial in opening our minds. When you study Taoism, Zen Buddhism, or monastic groups in Christianity, you encounter individuals doing the cleaning, cooking, gardening, or some equally unpretentious undertaking. The reason for their doing these tasks soon becomes apparent. It is held only through recurring labors of the lowest value do we see the greatest truth.
Often it is by being engaged in so-called menial tasks that we can discover the most profound truths. It is easy to forget that Albert Einstein was working as a simple patent clerk when he postulated the Theory of Relativity. Through the performance of simple duties, we often see and perceive the cycles of life and the wholeness of the creator.
To see the greatest truth, one must frequently engage in the smallest chore. The whittler sculpts the wood, the Zen recruits sweep the floor, and the whole cosmos dances before their eyes as the mating ritual of fireflies on a new summer evening — a dazzling display of pulsing light announcing a location for the consummation of life.
One choice in life necessarily leads to the sacrificing of others. The whittler gives up the opportunity to make useful objects and the possibility of collecting handsome rewards for his labor. His motivation is the desire for understanding. His reward is seeing his efforts will lead to even more useful things for others. The whittler sits at the pond’s edge idly slicing his wood, aware of the fishing pole at his side. If he is fortunate, he may also catch a fish before his wood becomes a pile of shavings.
As Mr. Jenks shared this with us, a hint of a smile appeared as he leaned back and reclined on his rocker.
See also on Medium: Jerrymlawson.medium.com