Whether teachers in a liberal arts college are employees

[This is the third in a three-part series on liberal education: (1) Whether the purpose of a liberal arts college is to teach; (2) whether teachers at a liberal arts college teach for the sake of their students; (3) whether teachers at a liberal arts college are employees.  For background on the subject, see my post on Pieper’s book.  For a glimpse into the kind of enjoyment I hope this post offers, see my comments on the scholastic question format.]

Article 3: Whether Teachers at a Liberal Arts College Are Employees

Objection 1. It seems that teachers at a liberal arts college are employees, because an employee is someone who does something for pay.  But teachers are paid for teaching.  Therefore, teachers are employees.

Objection 2. In any business, one is either an employee or a boss.  Now a boss is someone who governs other people.  But the governance of a college belongs to the board of directors, not to the teachers.  Therefore, teachers are employees.

Objection 3. If someone objects to the previous argument by saying that the hiring and firing of teachers does not belong to the Board of Directors but belongs to the administration, it will still be the case that teachers are employees.  They are employees of the administration.

Objection 4.  An employee is one who cannot decide his own course of action but has it decoded for him by another, namely by a boss.  But a teacher in a liberal arts college cannot decide on his own course of action:  he has to obey rules about curriculum, about pedagogy, and about testing, and so on.  Therefore, the teacher is an employee.

On the contrary, A. G. Sertillanges says in The Intellectual Life, “The priest has the right to live by the altar and the man of study by his work; but one does not say Mass for money and one must not think and write for money.”

I respond that, to employ something is to use it as an instrument, and an employee is something or someone used as an instrument.  Consequently, an employee is one whose action is not his own but the employer’s.

Every human being’s action is his own in the sense that he has free will and should not be used by another apart from or against his own good.  Nonetheless, a human being’s action can belong to another in two ways.  One way is when the employee’s action is a part of a larger action belonging to the employer, as when a house builder employs a bricklayer to perform one part of the action of building a house.  The brick layer acts as an extension of the house builder to perform one of his actions for him.

A second way is when the employee’s action is not a part of the employer’s action but ordered to it and subordinated to it.  For example, a corporation’s goal is to make money, but the action of the employees is not “making money” but may be driving trucks or making widgets.  Or a non-profit organization’s activity may be to feed poor people, but they may employ an advertising professional whose activity is to create magazine advertisements.

A teacher is not an employee in either of these ways.  He is not an employee of the first kind, because his action, namely teaching, is not part of a larger action carried on by the administration or the board of directors.  And he is not an employee of the second kind, because the goal of the college is not “to make money” or some other thing, but to live a life of wisdom by teaching and learning.  Consequently, the teacher’s action is his own, and the teacher is not an employee.

Reply to 1.  A person can receive money for what he does in two ways.  One way is to receive money for work, where the money is a compensation or fair exchange for the work, the way a shoe maker might make a shoe in return for some number of chickens equal in value to the shoe.  In this case, we call the money the worker’s “wage” or “salary.”  At a trade school, where teachers impart skills whose value can be measured in terms of their earning potential, teachers can be paid this way.

Another way to receive money for what one does is when the money is given in order to free the person from other obligations so that he can do what he does, for example when a patron of the arts supports a painter so he can paint or supports a poet so he can write poems.  In this case the money may be called an “honorarium,” to indicate that the money “honors” but does not “compensate” the one paid.  No amount of money could be considered compensation or fair exchange for what students receive from their teachers at a liberal arts school, any more than a child could eventually pay his parents for giving him birth, so a teacher is given money not in the first way but in the second.

Because all human work is in fact human, a wage should resemble an honorarium inasmuch as it should be intended to support the employee’s life and not simply to trade for services according to the demands of the market.  Rather than insisting that everyone be employees, we should rather insist that not even employees can be “employed” in the crude manner of an object.

Reply to 2.  The United States Government requires non-profit organizations to have a board of directors for tax purposes, namely to insure that the money the organization receives tax-free is in fact used for the mission stated to the government.  Accrediting bodies require that colleges have independent governing boards to insure that decisions are made impartially and without favoring anyone within the college community.  In both cases, the board of directors has the role of a referee or judge rather than a role like a coach or player on a baseball team, i.e., one whose action the game is.  Or to use another comparison, the board of directors is a steward of the college rather than its owner.  This is why accreditors insist that the faculty have say in the curriculum and anything else academic, because the action of the college belongs most of all to the faculty’s.

This is also why a member of the board of a liberal arts college has a responsibility to understand liberal education:  if he does not, he is like a referee who does not know the rules.  Neither the United States Government nor the accrediting bodies require that directors be recruited on the basis of their understanding of the college’s activity.  The reason seems to be that the non-profit structure is thought of by analogy to the for-profit structure, and a for-profit widget-making corporation does not require its directors to understand widgets or widget making.  But the reality in a for-profit corporation is that the activity of the organization is not widget-making but “making money.”

Reply to 3. To the degree that the administration directs the college’s essential activity, the administration should be populated with teachers.  To the degree that the administration oversees other activities that are not part of but subordinated to the college’s essential activity, the administration can be populated with non-teachers.

Reply to 4. Teaching in a liberal arts college belongs to the faculty as a whole rather than to each teacher individually.  So the teacher is free to determine his own course of action, but he is free not as an individual but as a member of the faculty.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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