Unexpected Philosophers

When you think of successful university careers, you might think of presidents, provosts and deans; when you think of the wisdom to be found on campus, you’re likely to think of professors sharing the fruits of their decades of research on chemistry, classics, or quantum mechanics. You almost certainly won’t think of the folks cleaning the bathrooms, washing the floors, and changing the trash bags. Might you be missing something?

September 2, 2009

When you think of successful university careers, you might think of presidents, provosts and deans; when you think of the wisdom to be found on campus, you’re likely to think of professors sharing the fruits of their decades of research on chemistry, classics, or quantum mechanics. You almost certainly won’t think of the folks cleaning the bathrooms, washing the floors, and changing the trash bags. Might you be missing something?

Patrick Shen thought so. While working on a previous film, Shen -- who works at Transcendental Media, the independent film company he founded, as a director and producer of documentaries -- interviewed Sheldon Solomon, a professor of psychology at Skidmore College. During one conversation, Solomon remarked -- Shen told Inside Higher Ed -- “that he is often mistaken for a homeless person because of the way he dresses and wears his hair long.”

“That got me thinking,” Shen said, “about what wisdom we might find from the people on the fringes of society.” So, along with his co-producer, Greg Bennick, Shen set out to make a film about the wisdom of people whom we rarely think of as wise. The two called colleges and universities across the United States to ask if they could interview the janitors.

Why universities? Because, Shen said, “these are learning institutions, and it’s important to point out that learning isn’t exclusive to classrooms -- learning can happen just about anywhere, in any area of our lives.”

After numerous inquiries and telephone interviews, Shen and Bennick narrowed the candidates down to the eight custodians who appear in The Philosopher Kings: Melinda Augustus of the University of Florida, Corby Baker of Cornish College of the Arts, Luis Cardenas of the California Institute of Technology, Oscar Dantzler of Duke University, Jim Evener and Gary Napieracz of Cornell University, Josue Laujenesse of Princeton University, and Michael Seals of the University of California at Berkeley. They were chosen from a much larger pool of willing participants -- nominated as potentially good subjects by directors of human resources or facilities maintenance at the institutions that agreed to take part -- because Shen and Bennick felt that each of them had a particularly compelling story to tell and a gift for communicating effectively.

The fact that their institutions are generally well-known and well-regarded is not accidental, either.

“We definitely wanted to approach the Ivy League initially,” said Bennick. “The original vision of the film was to represent a dichotomy between the way society perceives higher education and the way society perceives workers, particularly [those] at the quote-unquote level of custodians.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, not every university -- and certainly not every Ivy -- was eager to have its custodians included in the film. Some rejected the filmmakers’ request, “including,” said Bennick, “some who historically have had more challenging relations with their staff, for fear that we were trying to do an exposé of working conditions” or “labor relations.”

To judge from the final product, no such fears were grounded. On the contrary, rather than focusing on their daily grind -- although it is mentioned -- most of the movie's subjects are shown talking about other aspects of their lives: their families, the hardships that they’ve been through, the hopes and plans they have for the future. (Perhaps the most notable plans are those of Laujenesse, who works as a janitor at Princeton by day and a taxi driver by night, all to finance his goal of bringing clean water to the village in Haiti where his family still lives.)

Evener, who is head custodian at Cornell, speaks in the film about his experiences in Vietnam, where he was shot in the back and so badly wounded that his doctors feared he would never walk again. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Evener said, “I shared stuff I’ve never talked about before, you know, Vietnam… I thought the movie was quite a surprise because it turned out almost totally opposite from what I expected. I thought it was going to be something about the type of work that we do.”

But The Philosopher Kings isn’t really about what it’s like to be a custodian, or to be in any particular job at all. “To me,” Evener continued, “it’s not just about myself, Gary, or any of the others in the film… I think it represents everyone, everywhere. …You can’t judge a person by the job they do or the way they look. We all have stories and wisdom to share.”

Still, those who watch the film may be struck by how happy its subjects seem in their line of work. Bennick said that, while they didn’t try to pry into how the custodians felt about their jobs, he and Shen “found across the board that people were proud.”

Added Shen, “They were so satisfied with their working conditions that they just shared that information spontaneously.”

Indeed, the custodians with whom Inside Higher Ed spoke affirmed that they were mo

Photo: Scott Shamansky

Jim Evener, Cornell University

re than satisfied with their careers and with their employers. Dantzler, of Duke, said that although the film has brought him a great deal of attention -- so much that “When people say, ‘You look familiar,’ I say, ‘You must be thinking of my twin brother!’ " -- “Even before the movie, I was totally respected at Duke.… Life is wonderful and I feel that Duke University and the students, I’m not giving them the opportunity, they’re giving me the opportunity. It’s a great place to work.”

Evener and Napieracz expressed similar sentiments about their jobs at Cornell. “I’ve had almost a quarter century at Cornell University and it’s been the best time of my life,” said Napieracz. “I’m telling you the truth. You know, the people are so fantastic.” (In a later conversation, Napieracz added that, in talking to the other custodians, he'd gained a still greater appreciation for Cornell -- speaking of Augustus, he said that when some people at the University of Florida "heard the word 'custodian' or 'janitor,' they looked down on her... that's never happened at Cornell University. No one should be looked down on for their job.")

Appearing in The Philosopher Kings, Napieracz emphasized, was the undreamt-of highlight of this happy career. “This was like a fairy tale -- to do something that we would never have thought would ever happen in our lives. To be a part of this documentary -- it means so much.”

He hopes that those who see the film will be able to take away some of his wisdom about living a good life: “You come to work at your job and make the best out of it. Have fun with your job.… A workplace is what you make it.”

Agreed Evener: “This has been a very, very exciting time, you know? It’s something that’s probably never going to happen to me again -- the fact that I was able to share something that may help a person down the road, I’m absolutely ecstatic about.”

They may work at some of the country's most prestigious universities, but these philosopher kings believe that great learning need not be academic -- and that, lacking Ivy League educations themselves, they still have plenty of wisdom to impart: "To me it's not just about the book reading," said Evener. "There's a lot of people at Cornell a hell of a lot smarter than I am, but a lot of it's book learning, you know, but I think that life... is a big learning lesson itself, and I think the film depicts some of that. It just goes to show that you can't learn everything in the books."

Melinda Augustus, University of Florida

If all goes as planned, Evener's story – and those of his seven costars – may help more than a few people "down the road." The Philosopher Kings premiered this June at the prestigious SILVERDOCS documentary film festival, where it was one of seven films (out of 122 at the festival) chosen for an additional "Back by Popular Demand" screening. Last Wednesday, the film's national tour began with a showing at Cornell, where -- The Cornell Daily Sun reported -- it met with a very warm reception; Sun city editor Michael Stratford told Inside Higher Ed that "there were several standing ovations and tons of applause."

The film will next appear at Duke University in September, and then at a number of film festivals throughout the fall; a DVD is to be released on October 2, which is National Custodial Workers Recognition Day. Shen and Bennick are also "in talks with PBS for a national broadcast," according to Shen, though nothing has been confirmed.

Whatever happens next, the custodian-stars could hardly be more delighted than they are now. The fact of the film's creation, and the recognition it's already received, Dantzler said, are "unbelievable. It could only happen in America to some good hard-working people."


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