Education, Work and Repetition – An Essay by Alex MacLean

Alex MacLean - repetitive apples

A liberal arts degree requires four years of perseverance. By the end, students will have gained critical thinking skills, a larger knowledge base, better writing and communication skills, and an increased realization of where their interests lie and how they may align with the world. Throughout these years, they partake in the tasks of reading, paper writing and route memorization with a definite theme of repetition. In this repetition, however, there is also a constant sense of change. A change in courses taken, books read, professors met, and ideas introduced. Then, after four years of studying, life changes again, as school is just a brief phase in the entire order of things. After these four years comes the real work which an education has seemingly prepared them for. You know, the type of work where people make money and do things that are theoretically important for society.

In some cases, however, there is a dissonance between someone’s time at school and their time in the working world. While an education may have broadened a mind, it hasn’t necessarily prepared it for the stark repetitiveness of the tasks which make up a lot of entry-level jobs. In fact, an education could actually make it harder for someone to start working. Shortly after they become aware of their seemingly unlimited intellectual potential, they are asked to limit it in the confines of a narrow job. This dilemma poses the question of how someone can deal with the repetition associated with work while still using the potential of their mind, and whether the two concepts of repetition and growth can be blended.

One area where the power of repetition is particularly important is in religion. Someone might go to church, a mosque, or a shrine and repeat the same action over and over again. They might chant, read passages from the bible, meditate and pray. The idea behind this repetition is that to learn something, and to truly learn it and hold onto it, it must be repeated. As opposed to being fed information once with the expectation of remembering it, religion participates in a process of  partaking in something so consistently that it becomes imprinted in the participant. Although religion demands repetition, however, the way in which the practitioner carries out this  repetition actually changes over time, as the practitioner changes themselves . And the practitioner changes precisely  because of this repetition. The chicken and the egg effect of repetition is that we change the way in which we repeat things precisely because repetition allows us to get to know those things and incrementally improve on the way we do them.  The secret to this type of repetition is that, essentially, it’s not actually repetition. It’s a constant source of change through repetitive tasks, resulting in changes in both the individual and the task itself.

The same could be said of ballet. In ballet the same exercises are repeated each day at the barre and in the centre, mainly in the same order. In ballet, however, repetition is an illusion. The way that an exercise felt yesterday is not the same as how it  feels the next day. And even though the differences may be so microscopic that the untrained eye won’t see them, they are still very much there. So although the shell of the exercise is a repetition, the internal and external  elements of  feeling and execution are not. And in fact, this repetition can help one better understand the changes in how something looks and feels over time  as the outside shell and structure of an exercise  remains the same.   

One of my first jobs out of school was to teach dance at a non-profit skills development program at a school offering free dance classes for youth in Washington DC. The base of the job was repetitive and wasn’t entirely in line with what I’d been trained to do. The practical, exterior, shell of the job was simply to teach dance through routines, exercises, Youtube presentations and simple movement games. The job, although dance related, was also advertised as social work. A list was given describing the games teachers could play, videos they could watch, and even the types of movements they could teach. Basically the job could be as repetitive or non repetitive as the teacher made it. Someone approaching the job with a liberal arts education, however, might have a different method than an applicant coming from a different context. From the beginning, it was clear that I wasn’t simply teaching dance. Dance was used as a base for a broader mission of teaching confidence, leadership skills, bodily awareness, creativity, exercise, teamwork, abstract thinking and problem solving. And hopefully, someone who had been trained to see connections through education would be able to make the associations between what they were teaching and a larger skill base. The designation of the job was loose and intended to be molded by the experiences of the teacher.  

Not all jobs have room for creativity, however, and may simply require the completion of a task in a previously established way. Sometimes there is very little wiggle room in the way that a job can be completed. Yet in many jobs there are at least some elements of subjectivity. From the way an email is written to the ideas that are brought up in a meeting or even to how a dance routine is taught, there can usually be some elements of personal touch. Sometimes it’s up to the employee to notice the minor details; how a student changes over time, how a client becomes increasingly confident in a situation, or even how much more efficient and at ease one becomes with what they’re doing. Religion and ballet show that in order to truly understand things, sometimes we can’t simply be shown them once but must be immersed in them over time in order to comprehend the way that they actually are and to ingrain them into our lives. Education won’t necessarily change a job, but it can change how someone approaches a job, and possibly teach them how to find some of the value in the repetition.

Because of the nature of today’s work world, many people will have multiple jobs within their lifetime, and maybe even multiple jobs at the same time. Their education is unlikely to change very much once they have completed the foundation. The way in which they use it, however will change over time and with each situation they encounter. I certainly have days where I question the value of all those books I read and essays I wrote which didn’t have anything to do with a job description and taught me nothing technical in particular. When things seem a bit chaotic, however, situations or characters from books I read remind me of the collective chaos from which there is no escape. Life and work can be incredulously boring and repetitive. Sometime it can be in such flux that we wish we could find more repetition in the everyday. Much of life seems to be a mix of repetition and consistency: we change through repetition and are also capable of changing the repetition itself.


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