A Meditation on Work

I am no economist, and no political scientist either, but I do know enough to understand that what failed in Poland, and in the rest of the former East Bloc, was not communism as a recognizable economic or political system, but an experiment in high idealism: a system which undertook to feed, clothe, house, educate, and employ all of its citizens, all of the time, to the best of their mental and physical capabilities, to the best of its own resources. I don’t know how others feel, but I would like to see any government so conceived and so dedicated succeed resoundingly. I am saddened to see such ideals scrapped with the failure of this particular attempt.

The Swiss dramatist Dürrenmatt, visiting Warsaw in 1989, said that capitalism isn’t a system, it’s just human nature. And what has triumphed in Poland and the rest of the East is not a system of free markets, but old habits bred in the bone. Apparently, as Andrew Carnegie warned only a century ago, the utopias dreamt by idealists are indeed “the work of eons,” and people’s republics are not built in a few decades. Perhaps, as Andrew Carnegie really believed, workers’ paradises are not going to be built ever. I can only speculate on what went wrong, and my speculations—the semi-informed opinions of an outsider newly come to the country—change daily.

In the first place, Poland did not afford optimal conditions for a test case. Where the United States started with vast expanses of rich soil, tall timber, untapped mineral deposits—the whole bank account built up century after century by Native Americans and stolen in a few swift raids by immigrant settlers—Poland began with an old and depleted land battered by two world wars. When you construct a nation only to have it razed, reconstruct it only to see it razed again, and then reconstruct it a third time without help from any Marshall Plan… well, you work under a handicap. I doubt that America, capitalist or socialist, would have succeeded under such circumstances.

World War II and the Nazi occupation didn’t help the Polish work ethic any. In a Kultura (1985) essay titled “The Knoll,” Bohdan Korzeniewski recalls the advice of his work detail commander in Auschwitz: “Now mark my words carefully. You mustn’t work, but even more important, you mustn’t make it obvious that you’re not working. If you’re not careful and make it obvious, you die even faster than the ones who work, understand?” The stereotype of the lazy Pole is, as much as anything, a tribute to the acting ability of these clever and, given the proper incentives, industrious people in the presence of gullible German masters. In another sense, however, what you see is what you get; we are, finally, what we appear to be; dancer cannot be separated from dance. At non-work disguised as work, Poles are still quick studies.

After the War, Poland remained, for all practical purposes, occupied territory, underwriting the Soviet economy in a dozen ways, large and small. You can’t expect an economy to function well when drained this way. When I suggested in 1990 that Poland could trade potatoes and grain to Russia, a colleague laughed in my face. “We’ve been sending them free potatoes for decades!” he scoffed. You can’t expect an economy to rebuild itself and its neighbor to the east… to rebuild itself while supporting a large and useless military, and a large and even more useless secret police.

And a hierarchy of directors who are appointed to their directorships not because they know their business, but because they are members of the Club, the only club in town, from whom all directors must be chosen. And the Party clubhouse is built at the people’s expense, with public money. And the people lose hope. And the arms of the workers fold once more. People invent lines and stand in them, a little longer each day. There is sabotage. There are excuses: “We cannot meet our quota, comrades, because parts have not arrived from the supplier.”

Well, what did you expect?

There is theft, and workers use public facilities and state-owned machines for their own little projects.

Well, what did you expect?

And in a country which guarantees employment to all, people cannot be fired, not really fired, not put out of an income, whether they work, work hard, work a little, work not at all.

And when a government’s hold on its populace becomes so tentative that the least spark threatens its legitimacy, that government is likely on the one hand to intimidate and repress, but on the other hand to grant grudging and select concessions, rewarding not increased productivity but raw political clout. So subsidies serve this group or that, and the price of political stability is milk at .3 cents a bottle and bread at a penny a loaf, and rail travel is cheap, and mothers receive endless maternity leave, and potentially troublesome students receive free parties just before their exams, and long summer holidays as well, all subsidized by a government which just prints more worthless money. Over several decades, this all takes a tremendous accumulative toll, not only on the economy of the nation, but on the nerve of the people, who are weakened proportionally to the degree they are pampered.

And then there is the bureaucracy, the endless bureaucracy, which antedated the communists, which Warsaw was no more able to contain than Washington, D.C. The endless, growing, absorbing bureaucracy takes a tremendous toll.

And behind all this lies a century and a half of partitioned Poland, a nation divided into thirds, from the First Partition of 1772 until the Republic of 1921, a country and a people not in charge of their own affairs, without real incentive to greatness. A country that was not a country.

And behind the Partition of 1772, a tradition of the small nobility, the szlachta, a warrior class long retired from battle, become small-potatoes politicians “hard on their subjects and people of the lower orders, careless of their speech, used to living beyond their means” (this from a contemporary historian, Długosz), who sold their loyalties to higher and sometimes foreign lords, who frustrated serious constitutional reform until far too late. Who, when impoverished in the nineteenth century beyond their ability even to feed themselves, chose to complete their ruin rather than work as a cook or gardener in the household of some German factory owner. “We are angels. We have titles. Work for us is a mistake.”

And behind all that, centuries of the Roman Catholicism, the Papacy a bureaucracy all its own, and countless other bureaucracies besides, and a philosophy of life as well: “Ask not for much on this earth, where moths eat up and rust corrupts. Your reward will be in heaven. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom. Nor is it wise for a man to know much beyond his credo and his ave. Mother Church will take care of her own. Have faith, and do as the priest tells you.”

Queue at Central Store, Łódź, 1991

Not without reason are Polish elections held just after Sunday mass.

The entire East Bloc system, designed to manufacture jobs and minimize work, found its most characteristic embodiment in the queues which maddened Westerners to the extent that many Americans I knew actually hired natives to wait in line for them. I never noticed much genuine Polish resistance to queuing: waiting in a queue is the ideal non-work: it’s necessary, it’s apolitical, it beats the hell out of working your ass off on an assembly line or a construction crew. And the Polish system of commerce increases, rather than decreases the number of, and thus the time spent in shopping queues. At the usual Polish shop, for example, there is no fingering merchandise directly, picking out what you want yourself, hustling through a check-out counter where a scanner reads a bar code and automatically computes price, tax, total, cash tendered, and change. No sir. You queue at the counter, and when you reach the counter, you ask for what you want.

Maybe it’s gloves.

“Do you have gloves?” you ask when, after half an hour in line, your turn comes.

“Why, yes, we have gloves,” the clerk answers, and she fetches a pair of gloves from a drawer behind her. You examine them, feeling the leather, checking the stitching. You try them on, decide they are a tad too small and ask about a larger size. She fetches another pair of gloves, and you try them on.

“Do you have brown as well as black?”

She fetches a pair of brown gloves, your size. Others wait. On one occasion—the matter was boots, not gloves—the clerk, who was alone at the counter, herded all his customers outside the shop, locked the front door, and wandered off to a storage shed in search of a pair of size 37 black boots.

Having settled the matter of gloves, you ask about scarves. The clerk fetches you scarves, you study the selection, the rest of the queue waits. When you finish, the clerk totals your bill by hand, writing an invoice (with carbon) describing your purchase and its price. At the grocery store, and in some private shops, you may pay the clerk directly, but usually you walk, invoice in hand, to a cashier’s window, where you wait in another queue to pay the cashier. Then you return with the original invoice (now stamped “paid”) to the counter at which you purchased your merchandise. A clerk there has meanwhile been wrapping your purchase in cheap brown or gray wrapping paper, folding edges upon themselves in that miraculous manner Polish clerks have of making a tightly bound bundle without using a bit of Scotch tape or string. You wait your turn (queue to the left of the counter—not with people waiting to purchase goods), present your receipt, pick up your package, and off you go.

In a large department store you queue at different counters, often on different floors, for toys, radios and television sets, crystal, cooking utensils. Probably you will make several trips to the cashier’s windows, as it’s unwise to leave purchases waiting too long.

This is an old system once used in the States. It has nostalgic value, and I’ve seen variations alive and functioning in, for example, Foyle’s Book Shop in London. But anyone with a double-digit I.Q. could devise a more efficient system of shopping.

The cashier’s office may even be in a separate building entirely. Foreigners buying green card insurance for automobiles traveling outside of Poland apply for their insurance at the Warta Agency, Piotrkowska 99. After filling out appropriate forms there, they are sent with their invoices, to the Central Bank of Lodz, Piotrkowska 211, a thirty-minute hike or a short tram ride from Warta, to pay in U.S. dollars, queue first at window three, where a computer generates five (5) copies of a deposit slip which are stamped four (4) times each, signed (all copies) by both depositor and clerk, and taken, with the U.S. dollars, to window six, where a clerk collects the dollars, the five deposit slips that were stamped four times and initialed twice, issues a certificate of payment (duplicate), which is stamped twice, signed once, and handed to the owner of the foreign car, who may then return to Piotrkowska 99 and pick up his green certificate of insurance. If he carries only Polish currency, there will be one additional detour, with one additional queue, to buy hard currency.

You can kill an entire day buying Warta insurance . . . or collecting your salary, paying the telephone bill, and buying a train ticket.

I am following a thread here not because I want to plaster blame, but to trace the arc of a nation, to discover why a people so spectacularly industrious and successful in other countries made such a mess of their own.

I want to see how my students fit into the larger picture.

“They are confused victims of a system that makes no sense—not to them, not to you, not to anyone,” said my predecessor in Łódź, Donald Morrill. “Just talk to them, and you will be the only teacher who cares about their lives and their success, and you will be appreciated.”

“These students are very clever at inventing excuses and lying their way out of any situation,” a Polish colleague at the Institute advised me just after my arrival. “Polish students are the best liars in the world.”

After two years, I still don’t know what to make of them.

They are bright, even the dullest of them, brighter than most of my students in the States. Their presence at the Institute comes after a long winnowing process, genuinely competitive testing for not too many seats in not too many universities (the process did give sons and daughters of doctors, teachers, and Party members undeniable and probably insurmountable natural advantages). Higher education in Poland comes tuition-free, even providing room and board stipends, and further stipends for need and for good grades. Some of the married ones make more money each month than Michelle, their teacher. Who would not fight for a seat at the University? And with English now so popular in Poland… a seat at the Institute of English Philology!

They are indeed clever, especially with excuses.

They are as fogged in as I am. As workers they are underpaid, although here I agree with the State: their work is indeed “non-productive,” so they deserve less. Still, like all European students they are subsidized in a number attractive ways: travel, associations, the discounts attendant on having a legitymacja. Some deliberately delay graduation to retain a dorm room or stipend. In contrast to American students, who work all summer and half-time during the academic year to pay half their tuition, room, and board, while borrowing the other half, so they can graduate $10,000 in debt to take some 30-hour-a-week, no health care, $1-an-hour-over-over-minimum-wage job… well, these kids live very comfortably.

They are wonderful sitting in the café drinking tea, chatting. They can survive a lecture just like that, although I get a lot of what Americans consider rude chatter—not only during their teachers’ lectures, but also during student presentations.

On paper their week is long—more hours than American counterparts put in. However, they manage to trim two-hour blocks of class to 90 minutes, including a fifteen-minute break for sandwiches and tea, so that two hours distill quickly to one. A three-or four-hour marathon, like the evening classes many American students endure, would be unthinkable in Poland. Absenteeism is very high in all classes, although in this regard Poles are no worse than Germans or Brits. It is not uncommon for an entire class to blow off a lecture, or for individuals to spend a week or two in mid-semester skiing in the mountains. The academic calendar is plump with holidays, rector’s days, and other days of officially canceled classes. Medical excuses provide another source of time off, as do children, ailing parents, even conferences at other universities. In the spring of 1991, the entire third year at Wrocław took rector’s leave from classes to join two of their younger teachers at a conference in Poznań. Not one showed up at the conference. The net result is that Polish students are not in class any more minutes per week than American students… who, studies indicate, come on the average nowhere near a forty-hour work week, not even combining class time, study time, and transit time.

My Polish students are good at watching films, and very good at throwing parties.

Three things about them concern me. First, they are genuine sheep. They think as a group, they act as a group, and on exams they frequently—after consulting each other orally in Polish—answer as a group. What we would consider cheating, they consider group effort. They are surprised when Westerners are offended. Returning from a year at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Agnieszka Leńko told me in surprise and admiration, “Americans won’t cheat! When I offered to help one of my friends with grammar study, he was horrified. In Poland, that’s how we get through exams, by helping each other.”

Polish students spend most of their education in group, even at the Institute: before their first year they are assigned to, say, IC, a small group of fifteen first-year students which meets together every class, every week for the whole year. IC then becomes IIC, and so on until VC, the same fifteen students, always in classes with each other. Only when they specialize (pedagogy, American literature, British literature, linguistics) do they break from the group. They may not like their group or its collective nature, but they will not actively work to transfer to another group, or to change the character of their own group. Individuals fear for their very careers: to stick out too much is bad form, and dangerous.

Thinking on examinations or papers is timid, formulaic: the same clichés resound in paper after paper. M.A. theses are long on recited criticism, short on fresh insight. If a written examination question asks them to spit back notes from a lecture or book, or repeats questions from last year’s exam, they fire right at you; but questions that require even the simplest review, sorting, and synthesis leave them stumped. On a historical grammar exam, most simply could not “discuss the ways English has, from earliest times to the present, formed the negative of verbs”… although all could have translated the forms nadde, hadn’t, and didn’t have. Such strengths and weaknesses do not bode well for their future—or Poland’s. (In their timidity, of course, these students are no worse than most teachers—American or Polish.)

I remember especially one occasion when my students simply refused a written exam in my American culture lecture. The whole group stormed out together. “This is not legally required of us,” their representative told me.

“It would be a good experience,” I argued, “an experience in American culture. And besides, 1990 is not the appropriate time for Poles to be deciding what they are not required to do.”

But out the whole group went.

Then back some of them came, individually, sneaking into the room with furtive looks over the shoulder, each with the same tale: “I would not have minded the exam. I think it might even have been fun. But the group… if it had come to a vote, I am sure the group would have voted 60-40 against it.” After two hours the figure stood at 50-50; the next day only “the vocal few” had wanted to leave. The point is, they all went out together. Solidarity forever!

My second concern is that most of my students are genuinely lazy, which is to say most of them would prefer to work as little as possible, or even not at all . . . at least on their studies. Most are self-confessed minimalists: a passing grade is fine. When Agnieszka Leńko returned from a St. Louis a smash success—bringing with her scores of books, a perfect American accent, enlarged vocabulary, serious cash, Presence, and her own personal computer—they told me by the dozens, “I could never do that. I’m not Agnieszka!”

“Neither was Agnieszka before she left,” I told them, but the message fell on deaf, jealous, suspicious ears. Most English language students “give private lessons” or teach at some private school, but I cannot imagine their teaching depletes their energies any more than their day-to-day classroom work. If there is fire in the western Slavic soul, it breaks forth in dance, song, and affairs of the heart, not in work . . . at least not work in Poland. Students burning with intellectual curiosity? I met only a handful, most in their first or second years. By the time theses are completed, the fire is quite gone out, and they are safe and suitable teachers.

I expected more fire, especially in people in their early twenties, and regarding things American. When I point out the obvious, that for the sake of Poland things must change, all readily admit yes, things must change, but “I think for the older generation it is already too late, even for people as young as we are. We have spent too much time in the old school…”

Their academic apathy is matched only by their lack of political activity, which seems limited to striking for fewer requirements and more electives (the American system of elective courses is widely misunderstood, as are many features of American post-secondary education). “If students ran the Polish railroads” a colleague once joked, “there would be train service only in February and June [exam months].”

Dead Poet’s Society was a run-away smash hit film in Poland, especially among students, but for all the wrong reasons. “I wish we had teachers like that, teachers who would have us stand up on our desks,” they all sighed.

“Which of you would be first to stand on a desk?” I wanted to know.

They’re on the edge, looking out that door, sighing, wishing, dreaming. But they still need what Janis Joplin used to call “that old kick in the ass.”

My third concern is related to the second: none of my students seem genuinely interested in, anxious over, or even curious about work after graduation. Few take summer jobs, in Poland at any rate, because their education is tuition-free. They travel, they retreat to family enclaves in the countryside or mountains, some claim to read. If they go to the West, they work like maniacs at jobs they would consider demeaning in Poland: waitressing, babysitting, cleaning houses or stables in Germany, picking berries in Wales, constructing roads in Sweden. They are in it for the hard currency and the short haul. (In this regard they are no different from their parents and friends, who work 16-hour days at two or three jobs during their two-year stays in Chicago, piling up $30,000 or $50,000 to take home to Poland, where the livin’ is easy.)

Students who cannot travel complain about not having the money to travel. When asked what plans they have to earn the money for tickets, they seem genuinely puzzled: Poland is not an appropriate theater for earning money. Suggestions for an aggressive poster campaign to drum up business as tour guides or translators for visiting businessmen snooping around Łódź fell flat on their face. When, two weeks later, I produced a poster peeled off a wall in Warsaw advertising precisely such a service at five U.S. dollars per hour, the reaction was disbelief. When I suggested T-shirts in Polish might be a real money-maker, their reaction was, “Who would buy them?”

“I would,” I replied; “Michelle and I. Every rich foreigner who visited Poland these last two years has been looking desperately for a Polish language T-shirt or sweatshirt.”

In spring of 1990 Michelle devoted two hours of her composition class to preparing vitas and writing letters of application. When she asked if they had found the lecture worthwhile, students answered, “It was very interesting, but I cannot imagine ever having to write such a letter.”

Not many of these kids plan to teach high school, although many study methodology, and Poland is so desperate for English teachers that it imports Peace Corps workers and World Teach volunteers by the dozens, and employs other native speakers as well, has set up a whole system of “teacher training institutes” to generate in three years Polish teachers of English, German, and French. A couple of very bright students availed themselves of foreign opportunities for the advanced degrees prerequisite to teaching college, although none intend to teach at a Polish university. A few students have broken away from the Institute to form private companies. A few are energetic in translating into Polish English classics, contemporary fiction, and trash novels. One became a television sports commentator. Most just muddle along, unable to connect their education with a vocation, or even a paying job. While I believe in a liberal education, I also understand that what is consumed must be produced.

The candidacy of Lech Wałęsa for President of Poland crystallized the whole issue dramatically for my students—and for Polish intellectuals in general—who dislike and fear Wałęsa. In conversation, they emphasized his awkward use of the language. (The first Polish-language T-shirt I ever saw was, in fact, a satire: Wałęsa announcing in idiomatic Polish, “I am the President.”) More than one self-serving academic assured me that intellectuals “made Wałęsa,” whom they picked as a figurehead who would appeal to the masses… and now here he was, full of delusions of grandeur.

What really troubles Polish intellectuals about Wałęsa, I suspect, is that he represents the worker ascended to the office of President. His success threatens their values, especially since they cannot write it off as Party connections, foreign intervention, or the old corrupt good-old-boys network. His election threatened them even more, because their candidate, the intellectual, did not even make the run-off. Wałęsa is clear proof that even in an emerging democracy speaking good Polish is not required for political success; by extension, speaking good Polish, or good English, may not be required for anything at all. Possibly speaking and thinking may, in and of themselves, lack intrinsic value. People must work, and smart people as well, to paraphrase D. H. Lawrence. Not that Polish intellectuals, underpaid and underappreciated, constitute a new aristocracy, as do German academics, but that is the way they would like to think of themselves. Wałęsa denies what they most assert: “We drink tea. We hold conversations. We are angels. For us clever ones, work is a mistake.”