This morning my Introduction to Literature class read the poem “Out, Out” by Robert Frost. We talked about death and how life goes on after death, as the poem says “And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” Somehow we related it to Sarah Cleghorn’s “The Golf Links,” which reads: “The golf links lie near the mill / That almost every day / The laboring children can look out / And see the men at play.” Although Frost’s poem is not about child labor laws and Cleghorn’s is, together the poems triggered a heated discussion on child labor laws and the exploitation of workers.
Today, we have laws that prevent children from being exploited in the workforce in this country, but in other parts of the world, child labor is still an issue, I explained. Surprisingly, some of my students said, “Someone has to do it” and “They should be glad they have a job. To support my argument, I cited history’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and recent stories from India (“India’s Exploited Child Cotton Workers“) and China (“Apple, Foxconn Scandal Highlights Exploitation of Chinese Workers“). And again, surprisingly, some students argued that such exploitation was good for the economy. As one student said, “There’s no right or wrong in economics, just profit.”
I was floored.
I urged them to change the system, reminding them that laws (even international laws) could be put in place to make working conditions and compensation fair for all workers, but it will take time and ideas. Even Thomas Jefferson looked forward to emancipation, but he conceded that it would be difficult, as slavery was the only system his society knew. We can change things, I argued. You can change things, I emphasized. The debate went back and forth, with some students seeing my point and others still insisting our economic base depends on the exploitation of workers.
After class, two students stayed with me to continue arguing their point: cheap labor works. One student — one I admire a great deal — asked me directly, “What are you doing? You don’t lead by example.” I explained that teaching literature and analysing literature through a lens of social justice was my work — I am doing something. He signed and said he had to get to class, as if to dismiss my efforts as not enough. His comments have stayed with me all day. What am I doing? Can I do more? And how?
It’s an important and moving day when one student can make me stop and think. He was frustrated and so was I, but I think the important thing is that he has me thinking. I hope I have him thinking, too.