Simone Weil v. Jarvis Cocker

Attention conservation notice: I take 1000 words to give you the “amazing revelation” that experience can teach you things. Then I bizarrely suggest that you should go be a dilettante hipster farmer. I finish off with a career announcement and an intro to a new post series on the blog.

In 1934, Simone Weil took a year’s sabbatical from her job teaching philosophy to go work in a factory so that she could better understand the plight of the working class. Was this an admirable act of intellectual curiosity, putting your money where your mouth is, making sure that what you are working towards corresponds to what people actually need? Or was it an example of an out-of-touch elite “slumming” in a way that’s ridiculous and borderline offensive? The action certainly fits with Simone Weil’s other behaviour where the consequences for others aren’t super well thought out. Like the time she tried to persuade the Spanish Republicans to send her on a covert spy mission ignoring the fact that, being French, she would have a lot of trouble passing for a Spaniard. Or joining up with a commando unit despite being so bad at marksmanship that her comrades had to waste their time protecting her rather than her doing anything to help them. These actions are object lessons in the idea that good intentions are not enough. And joining the factory sort of also seems like that. It’s doing things that look good but don’t actually do good. Simone Weil was a prominent writer and philosopher — she could clearly do more for workers as a philosopher, than she could working at the Renault factory.

Apart from the missed opportunity, it’s also easy to be against this kind of thing for hypocrisy reasons. Pulp covered this point in their hit song “Common People” where Jarvis Cocker sneers at rich people living like the poor: “still you’ll never get it right / cause when you’re lying in bed at night / watching roaches climb the wall / if you called your dad he could stop it all”. It’s hard to avoid the idea that Weil was “playing at being a worker” and feel kind of insulted on behalf of the people who had to spend their whole lives at the factory.

But that’s the wrong way to look at it. While I still think it can be done in a hypocritical and not well-thought-out way, I have come to believe that since lived experience is the best teacher, seeking it out is the morally right thing to do. Far from being worthy of mockery, what Simone Weil did deserves respect and emulation. If you want to advocate on behalf of people working at car plants, as she did, you have to know what matters to people working at car plants, and what car plant workers’ lives are actually like. You can say “believe the people who have the experience“ all you want, but this doesn’t actually cover it. For one, actually working in a car factory is by far the best way to get that second-hand perspective anyway. It’s also true, though, that as an outsider, you can’t tell how important one concern is relative to another. Working in the factory will make you a more perceptive judge. People are going to opine on any number of issues — if you’re not a car factory worker, you have no idea what is part of the reality of how life as a car factory worker is, and what is some external opinion.

It’s not that you’re going to learn everything you thought was right is wrong, but that lived experience can bring up issues you may never have thought of. It also has a way of being convincing in a way other things aren’t. So even as I find myself learning new things and changing my mind less and less due to argument, I still find myself learning new things. And changing my mind overall more and more — because of personal experiences.

But what about the fact that Simone Weil only did it for a year? Isn’t that not nearly enough? Jarvis Cocker says “Everybody hates a tourist / Especially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh / And the chip stains’ grease will come out in the bath”. Of course, the more all-encompassing and long the experience, the more you learn from it. However, I think this is overhyped. Whatever “the learning curve” means, it’s true that you learn the most right at the beginning.

I worked as a steel tier for less than three weeks. Granted, the main thing I learned on that job is how incredibly shitty some jobs can be. And how easy it is to get tendonitis. As a co-worker on another labour job told me later, “they give you that job when you first join the union so that you don’t complain about any of the other ones”. But that’s not the only thing I learned there. Knowing how to tie rebar is (hopefully) never going to be a skill that is vital for me, but both a realistic picture of what that job is like and talking to other people working there was very valuable to me. It’s been the same at everything else I’ve tried doing. And it’s been especially true of teaching.

This is why my new piece of political advice is: for issues that you care about, if you can manage to, actually go and do it. If you want to be active in food politics, work on a local farm. Yes, you might be a dilettante. Yes, you might be the annoying hipster who doesn’t know how to farm and is a laughingstock. But I guarantee that you will learn more than you would by just reading about the issue and believing what the farmers say. And you’ll be doing the right thing. And when you do read to learn more, you will be more informed about what information is important and trustworthy. Do you want to understand factory work? Be like Simone Weil, and go work in a factory for a year. It will inform what you are saying, and what you learn from then on.

This is one reason why, knowing that I will be teaching math to welding students, I decided that I needed to take a welding class. And I was right. I am never going to be a good welder. But I am already much better at understanding what welding is like, and what skills you need for it. It’s been incredibly worthwhile (not to mention really fun, but that’s a special case that won’t always be true).

I am coming to see learning through experience to be the most valuable thing that I can do to know about the world and to be a more useful person. So it is partially with that in mind that I have decided to leave teaching to try something different. Of course, that wasn’t my motivation. The fact that my new job (technician on a high energy physics project) involves going to CERN is kind of the big draw. But it’s one reason I think I’m doing the right thing.

So for now, my time as a teacher is coming to an end. What did I actually learn? In the next few posts on this blog, I hope to write about some of the things I’ve changed my mind on as a result of working as a teacher. As for “Common People”, I still love the song, but I no longer share its worldview.

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One Response to Simone Weil v. Jarvis Cocker

  1. Strongly agree that varied life experience is desirable and interesting and mind-opening. It’s something that comes naturally depending on your initial conditions and luck in life. For a life of privilege (which is the trend for all), the path of least resistance life becomes more and more likely:

    You and Simone Weil are uncommonly self-aware and willing to act. I think that most (based on my own experience and observations of others) would be hard pressed to leave their careers to do something completely different for a year in the name of viewpoint expansion. For your advice to scale to others, fighting this complacency is necessary. I land on a more moderate path that doesn’t involve a job change. But there is a risk that this isn’t enough to even put you through any meaningful part of the learning curve.

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