Oberlin Labor

Labor is a large theme that pervades the Oberlin College campus and surrounding town.  While it can be broken down into specific categories, overlap often happens, making specific labors difficult to describe under one-word ideas.  As we looked throughout Oberlin, we tried our best to find terms that covered all types of labors.  Our three subtitles are Creative and Intellectual, Physical, and Service.

Our idea for Creative labor stems mostly from the considerable presence the Oberlin Conservatory has over the town, but extends to all arts classrooms around campus.  Musicians, painters, sculptors, and the like are all contained in this term.  Intellectual labor is the continuous theoretical discussion and analysis of concepts.  Almost all Oberlin students fall under this roof.  They are always reading, writing, talking, and exchanging ideas and opinions among themselves and professors.  Intellectual labor also extends to those in professions where their accrued knowledge is practically applied in their job, such as a doctor, lawyer, or administrator.  We decided to group Creative and Intellectual labor into one because of how much overlap exists; we believe one cannot be in effect without the other.  Physical labor is mostly directed at athletes and those who spend time in Phillips Gym, but also applies to construction workers, carpenters, masons, and the like.  This type of labor can be any sort of activity done to improve bodily or mental health through physical exertion, or those whose work requires their body to be their main tool.  Lastly, Service describes positions where an extended education is not necessary and from which one does not intend to launch a career.  These jobs could include waiting tables, secretarial work, or janitorial duties.

In Oberlin, certain types of labor are definitely valued more than others. Since Oberlin is mostly populated with people in academia or people seeking an academic degree, creative and intellectual labors are naturally valued more, while physical labor and labor that is merely done for the money tend to be seen as inferior or somehow less honorable. This is evidence of how the context and the societal niche in which different forms of labor are placed is critical when determining their perceived relative value. 

For an elementary understanding of how the various forms of labor are relatively valued on a national scale, we turn to average annual salaries. The highest-paying jobs in the United States entail practically-applied intellectual labor—that of doctors, surgeons, pharmacists, psychiatrists, and lawyers. That these professions require advanced college degrees speaks to the appropriateness of their being branded “intellectual.” This is not to say, however, that American capitalism prizes all jobs involving intellectual labor. While the mean annual wage of surgeons is $233,150, that of elementary school teachers is $56,320. What is the distinction between these two intellectual endeavors that justifies such a disparity? One may provide any number of “logical” explanations: the work of saving lives is more significant and demanding than the work of educating youth, or surgeons possess a more specialized skill set than the average educator. Breaking down these arguments, however, reveals that far from being “natural” truths, they hinge on cultural preconceptions.

At the opposite end of the pay scale, we encounter service jobs, such as fast food cooks and dishwashers, and agricultural laborers. Many workers in these industries receive minimum wage: $7.25/hour. That these workers should earn minimal compensation may seem intuitive: many would suggest that their labor is easily replaceable. Interrogating this assumption, however, forces us to confront how we as a nation define expertise. What skills we consider “commonplace” and which “specialized” are powerfully tied to classist, sexist, and racist prejudices.