chapter  8
22 Pages

The Myths of Education

Early on in telegraphy, messengers working in low-traffic offices had a real chance to learn how to send and receive Morse code, a career potential that legitimized their long hours and low wages. But as described in chapter 3, when ADT appeared in 1872 the tenuous apprentice relationship between messengers and operators was severed, at least in large cities. Urban telegraph offices, where messengers became subcontracted piece workers, diverged from rural telegraph offices, where messengers were still directly hired as telegraph employees. Since a local ADT franchise was not a national telegraph company and was unable to offer a career path for the many messengers it hired, ADT was saddled with a nationwide problem of rampant messenger turnover. For the mes-

sengers, what had been an "internal" labor market, with rules and customs for eventual advancement into a booming high-tech field, had been replaced with an "external" labor market, where the only rule that applied was worker competition for a subsistence wage. 3

When publicly questioned about their high turnover rates, managers relied on two strategies to explain frequent firings and resignations. First, they claimed that those who were fired didn't deserve a good job. In 1875, the Telegrapher reported, "[ADT's] system of supervision is so complete and effective, that the dishonest, indolent and incapable are quickly weeded out," leaving only the "more active, intelligent, gentlemanly and generally well-behaved community of boys" on the payroll. The second strategy, used to explain why so many messengers quit voluntarily, invoked some form of what could be called the "messenger career advancement myth," claiming that boys found better jobs thanks to their messenger service. Worthy messengers would naturally rise in the business world, in Horatio Alger "pluck and luck" fashion. The negative job attribute of high turnover was recast as a positive "placement office" function, in order to legitimize it.'