The Nation That Works: Conversations on American Pluralism and Identity

“The Nation That Works” focuses on the workplace—an area that brings Americans of disparate communities and backgrounds together because of economic need and occupational goals. “We live in neighborhoods separated by race, ethnicity and class, but we meet in the workplace, and our working lives are knit by small but symbolically resonant stories of nurturing and competition, support and betrayal, trust and fear,” said Valerie Smith, project advisor and professor of English at UCLA.

“Although it may appear that employees of different races, ethnic groups, religious beliefs, and economic classes have little in common, their attitudes toward work frequently reveal shared “American” values that stress hard work as critical to success,” Smith said. “Work is an excellent ’conversation starter’ that can help people explore the broader issues involved in defining American identity and the nature of contemporary American society.”

There are five themes that explore what work means in our lives and how our attitudes toward work reveal both personal and national values:

  • Theme I: “Work Across Ages: From Grandparents to Generation X”
  • Theme II: “Gender, Work and American Values”
  • Theme III: “Race, Ethnicity, and the Workplace”
  • Theme IV: “Immigration, Migration, and American Identity”
  • Theme V: “New Technology and the American Workplace”

Book List/Selected Works

Theme I—“Work Across Ages: From Grandparents to Generation X”

  • Growing Up by Russell Baker
  • “Among Children” a poem by Philip Levine
  • Life Work by Donald Hall
  • Minimum Wages, a documentary film by Bill Moyers
  • “Americans Used to Try Harder” in Blue Monday by Robert Eisenberger
  • “The Employment of Time in Homestead,” a poem by Robert Gibb
  • Working by Studs Terkel
  • Sons on Fathers by Ralph Keyes
  • “Retirement,” a poem by Karl Shapiro
  • “Dulcimer Maker,” a poem by Carolyn Forche
  • This Song Remembers by Jane Katz

Theme II—“Gender, Work and American Values”

Theme III—“Race, Ethnicity, and the Workplace”

  • A Soldier’s Play, a play by Charles Fuller
  • “Telling,” short story by Grace Paley
  • “Looking for Mr. Green,” short story by Saul Bellow
  • Lemon Swamp by Mamie Garvin Fields
  • “Divine Attention,” poem by Paulette Roeske
  • Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez
  • Working by Studs Terkel
  • “Field Poem,” “Mexicans Begin Jogging,” and “TV in Black and White,” poems by Gary Soto
  • This Song Remembers by Jane Katz
  • “Without Title,” poem by Diane Glancy
  • “Sure You Can Ask Me a Personal Question,” poem by Diane Burns

Theme IV—“Immigration, Migration, and American Identity”

Theme V—“New Technology and the American Workplace”

  • The End of Work by Jeremy Rifkin
  • “To Err Is Human,” essay by Lewis Thomas
  • Working by Studs Terkel
  • “Every Blessed Day” and “Coming Close,” poems by Philip Levine
  • “The Football Factory,” short story by John Updike
  • “Orientation,” short story by Daniel Orozco
  • “Dolor,” poem by Theodore Roethke
  • “The Vanishing Point” and “Slow Motion,” short stories by Reginald Gibbons
  • “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” essay by Wendell Berry
  • “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” poem by Wendell Berry 

Program Brochure

The humanities scholar’s essay was written in 1996 Suzanne Ozment, Professor of English, The Citadel, Charleston, SC.

Download the scholar’s essay, annotated book list, and supplementary texts (PDF). Please note: The American Library Association is the copyright owner of this essay and annotations. The credit lines embedded in the program materials and/or sponsor and funder logos must remain on all published (print and web) materials derived from these materials.

How-To Discussion Programming Guides

Developed to aid participants in “The Millennium Project for Public Libraries,” this how-to guide (PDF) provides basic information about developing and promoting book discussion programs.

When planning a “Let’s Talk About It” program, you may wish to consult the planner’s manual (PDF) for general how-to information about program format, selecting a scholar, promoting your series, evaluation, and more.