Why We Work Andrew Curry Essays


Designed to offer an appealing anthology where there is an increased interest in connections between and among cultures,Across Cultures, strives to promote understanding of diverse cultures among students.


The book advocates acceptance of a diversity of voices, while suggesting ways to probe the correspondences, interrelationships, and mutual benefits of that diversity. The selections cover a great variety of cultural facets both in the readings and selected visuals that appear at the end of each chapter. Throughout the text, students are encouraged to draw connections between and among readings through “Correspondence” questions that accompany each selection, thus developing their critical thinking skills.


  • Each unit contains selections on American culture by American writers, selections by writers from diverse ethnic groups within the United States, and selections by writers writing from or about cultures elsewhere, thus placing American culture and its diversity into a context of world culture.
  • Student texts are included in most chapters, providing accessible models and helping students to see how their cultural experiences reinforce the themes of the anthology.
  • Three categories of questions follow each reading-“Interpretations” provoke discussion topics and call attention to rhetorical features; “Correspondences” encourage students to explore cultural similarities and differences; “Applications” provide writing assignments and opportunities for collaborative work.
  • Opening selections in each chapter are myths or folktales that place cultural issues in an historical context.
  • Head notes provide biographical and cultural information about the author and subject for each selection.
  • A Rhetorical Table of Contents helps students consider different types of writing offered in the anthology and provides flexibility for instructors in approaching the selections; a Rhetorical Glossary defines essential terms.

New to this Edition

  • With eighteen new readings- and more student essays- the eighth edition offers a fresh and updated perspective on the inter-cultural issues at the heart of the text.
  • Because today's students live in an increasingly visual world and multimedia has become the primary vehicle for learning, the text features fourteen brand new visuals. A new essay by Giovanni J. Gelardi also demonstrates how a visual artist perceives his work and provides guidance for students approaching images in the text. 
  • Additional “Perspectives” questions that include “Web topics” have been added to help students use the Internet as a resource for thinking about the essays they have read. The new feature encourages students to consider topics that better reflect other kinds of literacies they are engaged in, including the visual, spatial, musical, and mathematical. The “Web topics” invite students to consider synthesizing information in written forms that push “literacy in bold new directions.”
  • Chapter Eight, “Popular Culture,” has been recast to emphasize the impact of new technologies students frequently employ, such as the Internet and text messaging.
  • Two new sets of essays are presented as a unit within the “Family and Community,” “Traditions,” and “Popular Culture” chapters to facilitate discussion and increase interactivity among the texts.

Table of Contents


Rhetorical Contents

Preface for the Teacher

Preface for the Student


Chapter 1: Writing, the “Writing Process,” and You

Literacy Narratives

Composing Your Own Literacy Narrative


Chapter 2: Family and Community

How the Wicked Sons Were Duped, Indian Folklore

People Like Us, David Brooks

Changing My Name after Sixty Years, Tom Rosenberg

Where the Land is Stepped on, the Sky…, Trikartikaningsih Byas

We Kissed the Tomato and Then the Sky, Dana Wehle

Focusing on Friends,  Steve Tesich

Treasures, Mahwash Shoaib

Two Lives, Shirley Geok-lin Lim

For My Indian Daughter, Lewis (Johnson) Sawaquat 

The Night I was Nobody,  John Edgar Wideman 

The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me, Sherman Alexie

One Voice, Susan G. Madera

Solidarity, Charles Neuman


Chapter 3: Gender Issues

The Wise Daughter, Swahili Folktale

Apollo and Daphne, Greek Legend

Shrouded in Contradiction, Gelareh Asayesh 

To Be a Man, Gary Soto

Man-Made Misery, Thomas M. Colicino

Why Are Gay Men So Feared? Dennis Altman

Gay, Anna Quindlen

Why Do We Hate Our Bodies? Gillianne N. Duncan

The Gravity of Mark Beuhrle, Jason Barone

He and I, Natalia Ginzburg

The Storm, Kate Chopin


Chapter 4: Education

The Bar of Gold

A View from the Bridge Cherokee Paul McDonald

Mute in an English-Only World, Chang-Rae Lee 

A Letter to a Child Like Me, José Torres

Always Living in Spanish, Marjorie Agosin

The Mistress of Make Believe, Doris Viloria

Dropout to Graduate, Laura Kuehn

The Fender-Bender, Ramón “Tianguis” Pérez

When the Simulated Patient Is For Real, Taneisha Grant

Multiple Dimensions of Love: From the Artist's Eyes, Giovanni J. Gelardi

from Poets in the Kitchen, Paule Marshall

My Pen Writes in Blue and White, Vincent Cremona


Chapter 5: Work

My Young Men Shall Never Work, Chief Smohalla (as told by Herbert J. Spinden)

Life Stories, Michael Dorris

Why We Work, Andrew Curry

Essential Work by John Patterson

Black Hair, Gary Soto

Work Hard-Quit Right!  Thomas M. Colicino

Working Like a Dog, Charles Neuman

Forty-Five a Month, R.K. Narayan

Free and Equal, Lalita Gandbhir


Chapter 6: Traditions

In the Beginning: Bantu Creation Story, African Legend

Quiché-Mayan Creation Story, Quiché-Mayan Legend

Footbinding, John King Fairbank

The Algonquin Cinderella,  Native American Myth

Cinderella's Stepsisters, Toni Morrison

Seven Days of Mourning, Yael Yarimi

New (and Improved) Delhi, Gautam Bhatia

The Lottery, Shirley Jackson

Stone Throwing in India: An Annual Bash, Mark Fineman

The Losing Champion, Ramon Mendez, Jr.


Chapter 7: Cultural Encounters

The Falsehood of Truth, Senegalese Myth

The Wise Rogue, Jewish Folktale (as told by Moses Gaster)

Fraternity, Garrett Hongo

Passion and the Dream, Linda Stanley

On Leaving New York, Emma Wunsch

The Man I Killed, Tim O'Brien

Child of the Lot, Ariela Rutkin-Becker

What's in a Name? Gloria Naylor

Konglish, Kenneth Woo


Chapter 8: Popular Culture

The Pleasures of Text, Charles McGrath

Can You Hear Me Now?, Sherry Turkle

Too Much Technology?, Katherine Larios

Is That Video Game Programming You? John Misak 

The Timeless Culture, Tom Lee 

Whatever Happened to Rock 'n Roll? James Geasor

…well if you can't hold the torch…then why pass it? Todd Craig 

Why We Crave Horror Movies, Stephen King

Why Does Wall-E Listen to Broadway Musicals? Martin Kutnowski


Rhetorical and Cultural Glossary

Geographic Index


Is work good or bad?  A fatuous question, it may seem, with unemployment such a pressing national concern.  (Apart from the names of the two candidates, “jobs” was the politically relevant word most used by speakers at the Republican and Democratic conventions.) Even apart from current worries, the goodness of work is deep in our culture. We applaud people for their work ethic, judge our economy by its productivity and even honor work with a national holiday.

But there’s an underlying ambivalence: we celebrate Labor Day by not working, the Book of Genesis says work is punishment for Adam’s sin, and many of us count the days to the next vacation and see a contented retirement as the only reason for working.

We’re ambivalent about work because in our capitalist system it means work-for-pay (wage-labor), not for its own sake.  It is what philosophers call an instrumental good, something valuable not in itself but for what we can use it to achieve.  For most of us, a paying job is still utterly essential — as masses of unemployed people know all too well.  But in our economic system, most of us inevitably see our work as a means to something else: it makes a living, but it doesn’t make a life.

What, then, is work for? Aristotle has a striking answer: “we work to have leisure, on which happiness depends.” This may at first seem absurd. How can we be happy just doing nothing, however sweetly (dolce far niente)?  Doesn’t idleness lead to boredom, the life-destroying ennui portrayed in so many novels, at least since “Madame Bovary”?

Everything depends on how we understand leisure. Is it mere idleness, simply doing nothing?  Then a life of leisure is at best boring (a lesson of Voltaire’s “Candide”), and at worst terrifying (leaving us, as Pascal says, with nothing to distract from the thought of death).  No, the leisure Aristotle has in mind is productive activity enjoyed for its own sake, while work is done for something else.

We can pass by for now the question of just what activities are truly enjoyable for their own sake — perhaps eating and drinking, sports, love, adventure, art, contemplation? The point is that engaging in such activities — and sharing them with others — is what makes a good life. Leisure, not work, should be our primary goal.

Bertrand Russell, in his classic essay “In Praise of Idleness,” agrees. “A great deal of harm,” he says, “is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work.” Instead, “the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.” Before the technological breakthroughs of the last two centuries, leisure could be only “the prerogative of small privileged classes,” supported by slave labor or a near equivalent. But this is no longer necessary: “The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.”

Using Adam Smith’s famous example of pins, Russell makes the solution seem utterly simple:

Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before.

We are, Russell thinks, kept from a world of leisure only by a perversely lingering prejudice in favor of work for its own sake.

But isn’t Russell making an obvious mistake?  He assumes that the only reason to continue working eight hours a day would be to make more pins, which we don’t need. In modern capitalism, however, the idea would be to make better pins (or perhaps something even better than pins), in that way improving the quality of our lives. Suppose that in 1932, when Russell wrote his essay, we had followed his advice and converted all gains in productivity into increased leisure.  Antibiotics, jet airplanes and digital computers, then just glimmers on the horizon, would likely never have become integral parts of our lives. We can argue about just what constitutes real progress, but it’s clear that Russell’s simple proposal would sometimes mean trading quality of life for more leisure.

Leif Parsons

But capitalism as such is not interested in quality of life. It is essentially a system for producing things to sell at a profit, the greater the better.  If products sell because they improve the quality of our life, well and good, but it doesn’t in the end matter why they sell.  The system works at least as well if a product sells not because it is a genuine contribution to human well-being but because people are falsely persuaded that they should have it.  Often, in fact, it’s easier to persuade people to buy something that’s inferior than it is to make something that’s superior. This is why stores are filled with products that cater to fads and insecurities but no real human need.

It would seem, then, that we should increase leisure — and make life more worthwhile — by producing only what makes for better lives.  In turn, workers would have the satisfaction of producing things of real value.  (For a recent informed and vigorous defense of this view, see Robert and Edward Skidelsky, How Much Is Enough?)

But this raises the essential question: who decides what is of real value?  The capitalist system’s own answer is consumers , free to buy whatever they want in an open market. I call this capitalism’s own answer because it is the one that keeps the system operating autonomously, a law unto itself.  It especially appeals to owners, managers and others with a vested interest in the system.

But the answer is disingenuous. From our infancy the market itself has worked to make us consumers, primed to buy whatever it is selling regardless of its relevance to human flourishing.  True freedom requires that we take part in the market as fully formed agents, with life goals determined not by advertising campaigns but by our own experience of and reflection on the various possibilities of human fulfillment.  Such freedom in turn requires a liberating education, one centered not on indoctrination, social conditioning or technical training but on developing persons capable of informed and intelligent commitments to the values that guide their lives.

This is why, especially in our capitalist society, education must not be primarily for training workers or consumers (both tools of capitalism, as Marxists might say). Rather, schools should aim to produce self-determining agents who can see through the blandishments of the market and insist that the market provide what they themselves have decided they need to lead fulfilling lives.  Capitalism, with its devotion to profit, is not in itself evil.   But it becomes evil when it controls our choices for the sake of profit.

Capitalism works for the good only when our independent choices determine what the market must produce to make a profit. These choices — of liberally educated free agents — will set the standards of capitalist production and lead to a world in which, as Aristotle said, work is for the sake of leisure.  We are, unfortunately, far from this ideal, but it is one worth working toward.

Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. He is the author of, most recently, “Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy Since 1960″ and writes regularly for The Stone.

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