SHOP CLASS AS SOULCRAFT by Matthew B. Crawford
Why do we devalue manual work when it’s so satisfying?
The Dallas Morning News, Sunday, September 24, 2006
Anyone in the market for a good, used machine tool should talk to Noel Dempsey, a dealer in Richmond, Va. Noel’s bustling warehouse is full of metal lathes, milling machines and table saws, and it turns out that most of it is from schools. EBay is awash in such equipment, also from schools. It appears shop class is becoming a thing of the past, as educators prepare students to become “knowledge workers.”
A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our mode of inhabiting the world: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves installing a pre-made replacement part.
So perhaps the time is ripe for reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen out of favor: manual competence and the stance it entails toward the built, material world.
Neither as workers nor as consumers are we much called upon to exercise such competence – most of us, anyway – and merely to recommend its cultivation is to risk the scorn of those who take themselves to be the most hard-headed. The hard-headed economist will point out the opportunity costs of making what can be bought, and the hard-headed educator will say that it is irresponsible to educate the young for the trades, which are somehow identified as the jobs of the past. But we might pause to consider just how hard-headed these presumptions are and whether they don’t, on the contrary, issue from a peculiar sort of idealism, one that insistently steers young people toward the most ghostly kinds of work.
Judging from my admittedly cursory survey, articles began to appear in vocational education journals around 1985 with titles such as “The Soaring Technology Revolution” and “Preparing Kids for High-Tech and the Global Future.” Of course, there is nothing new about American futurism. What is new is the wedding of futurism to what might be called “virtualism”: a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy.
New, and yet not so new – for 50 years now, we’ve been assured that we are headed for a “postindustrial economy.” While manufacturing jobs have certainly left our shores to a disturbing degree, the manual trades have not. If you need a deck built, or your car fixed, the Chinese are of no help. Because they are in China. And in fact, there are reported labor shortages in both construction and auto repair. Yet the trades and manufacturing are lumped together in the mind of the pundit class as “blue collar,” and their requiem is intoned.
Even so, The Wall Street Journal recently wondered whether “skilled [manual] labor is becoming one of the few sure paths to a good living.” This possibility was brought to light for many by the best seller The Millionaire Next Door, which revealed that the typical millionaire is the guy driving a pickup, with his own business in the trades. My real concern here is not with the economics of skilled manual work, but, rather, with its intrinsic satisfactions. I mention these economic rumors only to raise a suspicion against the widespread prejudice that such work is somehow not viable as a livelihood.
PSYCHIC APPEAL OF MANUAL WORK
I began working as an electrician’s helper at age 14, and I started a small electrical contracting business after college in Santa Barbara. In those years, I never ceased to take pleasure in the moment at the end of a job when I would flip the switch. “And there was light.” It was an experience of agency and competence. The effects of my work were visible for all to see, so my competence was real for others as well; it had a social currency. The well-founded pride of the craftsman – who might be understood as one who does something well, for its own sake – is far from the gratuitous “self-esteem” that educators would impart to students, as though by magic. Craftsmanship must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away.
Because craftsmanship refers to objective standards that do not issue from the self and its desires, it poses a challenge to the ethic of consumerism. The craftsman is proud of what he has made and cherishes it, while the consumer discards things that are perfectly serviceable in his restless pursuit of the new. Being able to think materially about material goods, hence critically, gives one some independence from the manipulations of marketing. The tradesman has an impoverished fantasy life compared to the ideal consumer; he is more utilitarian and less given to soaring hopes. But he is also more self-reliant and free.The craftsman’s habitual deference is not toward the new, but toward the distinction between the right way and the wrong way. Such an orientation is somewhat at odds with the cutting-edge institutions of the new capitalism and with the educational regime that aims to supply those institutions with suitable workers – pliable generalists unfettered by any single set of skills.
Today, in our schools, the manual trades are given little honor. The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into “college prep” and “vocational ed” is overlaid with another: the fear that acquiring a specific skill set means that one’s life is determined. In college, by contrast, many students don’t learn anything of particular application; college is the ticket to an open future. Craftsmanship entails learning to do one thing really well, while the ideal of the new economy is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement. Somehow, every worker in the cutting-edge workplace is now supposed to act like an “intrapreneur” – that is, to be actively involved in the continuous redefinition of his own job.
As sociologist Richard Sennett argues, most people take pride in being good at something specific, which happens through the accumulation of experience. Yet the flitting disposition is pressed upon workers from above by the current generation of management revolutionaries, for whom the ethic of craftsmanship is actually something to be rooted out from the workforce. Craftsmanship means dwelling on a task for a long time and going deeply into it because one wants to get it right. In management-speak, this is called being “ingrown.” The preferred role model is the management consultant, who swoops in and out, and whose very pride lies in his lack of particular expertise. Like the ideal consumer, the management consultant presents an image of soaring freedom, in light of which the manual trades appear cramped and paltry.
My experience leads to the opposite conclusion. Socially, being the proprietor of a motorcycle shop in a small city gave me a feeling I never had before, or since. I felt I had a place in society. I bartered services with machinists and metal fabricators, which has a very different feel than transactions with money, and further increased my sense of social embeddedness. There were three restaurants with cooks whose bikes I had restored, where, unless I deceive myself, I was treated as a sage benefactor. I felt pride before my wife when we would go out to dinner and be given preferential treatment, or simply a hearty greeting. There were group rides and bike night every Tuesday at a certain bar. Sometimes one or two people would be wearing my shop’s T-shirt. It felt good.
Given the intrinsic richness of manual work cognitively, socially and in its broader psychic appeal, the question becomes why it has suffered such a devaluation in recent years as a component of education. The economic rationale so often offered – that manual work is somehow going to disappear – is questionable if not preposterous, but it comes from a longstanding cultural partition of work in a capitalist economy between thinking and doing. This has bequeathed us the dichotomy of “white collar” vs. “blue collar,” corresponding to mental vs. manual. These seem to be the categories that inform the educational landscape even now, and this entails two big errors.
First, it assumes that all blue-collar work is as mindless as assembly line work, and second, that white-collar work is still recognizably mental in character. Yet there is evidence to suggest that the new frontier of capitalism lies in doing to office work what was previously done to factory work: draining it of its cognitive elements. Paradoxically, educators who would steer students toward cognitively rich work options might do this best by rehabilitating the manual trades, based on a firmer grasp of what such work is really like. And would this not be in keeping with their democratic mission? Let them publicly honor those who gain real craft knowledge, the sort we all depend on every day.
Much of the “jobs of the future” rhetoric surrounding the eagerness to end shop class and get every warm body into college, thence into a cubicle, implicitly assumes that we are heading to a “postindustrial” economy in which everyone will deal only in abstractions. Yet trafficking in abstractions is not the same as thinking. White-collar professions, too, are subject to routinization and degradation, proceeding by the same process as befell manual fabrication a hundred years ago. If genuine knowledge work is not growing but actually shrinking because it is coming to be concentrated in an ever-smaller elite, this has implications for the career guidance that students ought to receive.
TRADESMAN AS STOIC HERO
What is it that we really want for a young person when we give him or her vocational advice? The only creditable answer, it seems to me, is one that avoids utopianism while keeping an eye on the human good: Seek work that engages the human capacities as fully as possible. I offer no program, only an observation that might be of interest to anyone called upon to give guidance to the young.
The physical circumstances of the jobs performed by carpenters, plumbers and auto mechanics vary too much for them to be executed by idiots; they require circumspection and adaptability. One feels like a man, not a cog in a machine. The trades are then a natural home for anyone who would live by his own powers, free not only of deadening abstraction, but also of the insidious hopes and rising insecurities that seem to be endemic in our economic life. This is the stoic ideal.
So what advice should one give to a young person? By all means, go to college. In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences. In the summers, learn a manual trade. You’re likely to be less damaged – and quite possibly better paid – as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems. To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, as it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable.
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Matthew B. Crawford is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He is also a contributing editor of The New Atlantis (www.thenewatlantis.com), from the Summer 2006 issue of which this essay is adapted.
His e-mail address is email@example.com.