The Contemplative Life: Learning to Value Denkwerk

The term denkwork is a German term that translates as “thinking”, or “thought work”.  I learned this from a friend and colleague in an email exchange while researching and writing this piece.  The Germans, it seems, have a word for everything: schadenfreude, taking pleasure at someone else’s misfortune: backpfeifengesicht, a face in need of a good punch/slap: kummerspeck, literally “grief bacon”, or the weight one gains from eating one’s feelings.  Honestly, does it get any better?  This is the first part in a two, or maybe three, part piece about learning to value thinking as work. 

A short while ago I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s amazing opus, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, and came across this line: “thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production oriented curlture, and doing nothing is hard to do.  It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking” (5).  I keep coming back to it; not only because most of the work I do as a writer—not a word of which I’ve ever been paid for—and educator I do in my head, but also because I believe that most of the population does not equate thinking with work, or thinking as work.  Consider what happens when teachers go on strike: for better pay, for benefits, for funding for essential materials that many of us frequently purchase with our own money because school districts, local and state governments, don’t properly fund education; consider the condescension many of us hear from those who have no idea what we actually do: “They want more money?  For what?  They only work eight months a year.”  Or perhaps, “It must be nice to work six hours a day!”  I work in higher ed, so the response tends to be a little different because we associate a university education with an ivory tower, but the facts and truths are the same.  One constant remains, though: most people simply don’t respect, perhaps because they don’t understand, thought-work.  We have reached a point in our society where the time has come for a major shift in the things we value as work and what we think of as product. 

What is work?  Despite the fact that the OED defines the terms work and labor as being either physical or mental, the average person does not consider thinking to be work.  On its face, it seems fairly obvious that, as a society, we simply don’t value thinking as work and little argument needs to be made to support this claim.  In fact, we have organized our entire lives, down to the design of our cities, around the getting and spending of wealth.  Solnit again: “Most American cities and towns … are organized around consumption and production, as were the dire industrial cities of England, and public space is merely the void between workplaces, shops, and dwellings” (Solnit 176).  If a space is empty, that is to say, if it is not producing “stuff” (commodities) or housing those who, or machines that, produce “stuff”, those spaces are viewed as useless.  We must fill the world with stuff—and things.   

So, what are the ramifications of working with one’s mind in a society that doesn’t value thinking as work?  What happens when the product a worker produces is an idea rather than a physical object one can feel, measure, count?  In laying out the problem, I’ll stick within the field of my own profession for the moment: teaching. How bad is it?  NPR recently reported that in California, teachers who go on leave are required, by law, to pay for their substitutes out of their own pockets.  Imagine if that happened in any other line of work: if the laborer working in the auto-manufacturing plant had to pay for his replacement on the line, or if nurses had to pay someone out of their own pocket to replace them while they went on maternity leave.  People would be outraged.  To more poignantly put the NPR story in perspective, the average teacher’s salary in the U.S. hovers somewhere around 60k per year.  However, that’s a little misleading.  60k looks very different in the Northeast than it does in Arkansas, in Kansas, in Chicago, in San Francisco, Seattle, etc.  In most districts in Arkansas, for instance, a teacher’s starting salary is much closer to 32k: about half the national average.  This is a stark reality for those who chose to work in education, especially given that the federal poverty level for a family of four (in 2018) was around 25k.  In June of 2018, Emmie Martin, a reporter for CNBC, reported that “households [in San Francisco] earning $117,000 qualify as ‘low income’”.  Teachers are not making 117k.  We need to take stock and ask ourselves what is wrong in a world where household incomes, in any career or vocation, exceed $100,000 and yet people still have trouble putting food on the table.  This is what happens when societies value things, rather than the people that produce them. 

To build on the previous point, and to dispel several myths, teachers do not only work eight months out of the year.  In addition to my (current) full-time gig at the university, I work part-time (usually one or two courses) at a local community college each semester to make sure I have enough money in my paycheck to cover the costs of living; if I’m lucky, and nothing comes up—automotive repair, major appliance failure, household maintenance or repair—there is a little leftover; I’m one of the fortunate ones; many professionals in the field have nothing left, live on credit, or in the most unfortunate cases, may even be homeless.  Additionally, I work a four-day weekend (Thursday through Sunday) two to three weekends per month at a small Italian Pub for extra cash.  I’ve been there for fifteen years.  It works out to somewhere around an extra fifty hours per month.  When you’re piecing it together, you do what it takes to get by.  Moreover, this is true of virtually everyone I know working in the field.  We all work in the Summer at odd jobs, construction, landscaping, etc.  Some of my colleagues are talented enough musicians that they work gigs year-round to supplement their income. Furthermore, Summer’s “off” are spent working on our own research: planning the Fall syllabi: writing: networking: conferencing.  Again, these are “things” the majority of the population does not value because these are often products that cannot be measured.  Such is the value we place on thought-work.

What is the value of an idea?  I think this is one of conundrums society wrestles with, especially if that idea cannot be brought to immediate fruition via production and consumption.  Ideas also take time to reverberate through and saturate society.  Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species changed everything we know about where we come from; Alexander von Humboldt’s Cosmos entirely changed the way we look at nature; Shakespeare, according to Harold Bloom in his essay The Invention of the Human, is the reason we think of what it means to be human the way we do—a bold stretch, but it’s Bloom, and Billy Shakes.  Ideas on such a grand scale may be overwhelming for anyone trying to make a difference in the world; but we don’t have to change the world to make a difference, only one person in it. 

Get out there.  Have an idea.  Make a difference. 

Let me know what you think in the comments. 


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