My nephew once told me he wanted to be an architect. Intrigued by this career choice from an eight-year-old I asked him why. "Because it's a smart job," he said-meaning cranial rather than manual. I'm not sure if designing buildings had any strong appeal for him, but he knew he didn't want to build them.
My generation may have been the first to dreamrealistically of escaping manual labor. Our parents grew up expecting to go into a trade or keep a home, but we expected (or were expected) to go to college. Or else-"Do you want to dig ditches all your life?" Sure, plumbing, roofing, and maintenance were respectable jobs, but everybody knew that the real money and success came with a degree. That's why the plumbers, roofers, and custodians worked so hard to send their kids to college.
As I've written before, higher education seems to have been oversold and a glut of grads are taking jobs they could have learned fresh out of high school. But the corollary is a developing shortage of skilled labor. These days, the board certification, not the diploma, may be the surest way to a good living.
Matthew Crawford holds a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago. He's also a motorcycle mechanic in his own shop. In terms of personal satisfaction and intellectual challenge, there's no contest between this job and his previous one as director of a Washington think tank-reflections on which led him to write Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value Of Work (Penguin, 2009).
If you're in the market for power tools, Crawford says, surplus stores are overstocked with equipment from high school shop classes. These were largely dismantled in the '90s because of the supposed opportunities for "knowledge workers": processors, analysts, visionaries. The notion that not everyone is cut out for "knowledge work" seems to have escaped the writers of articles titled "Preparing Kids for High-Tech and the Global Future." There's also the troublesome question that if the wiring in the computer lab is faulty, who's going to fix it?
Crawford argues that there's a high cost to denigrating manual labor, both to society and to individuals. The ideal of education in the computer age is "indeterminate" human beings, celebrated more for potential than achievement. Training in a particular skill locks us in, ties us down. Far better, the thinking goes, to lurk on the cutting edge of possibility.
But in the real world, people take pride in specifics. Most of us are not mavericks or visionaries; most, in fact, are suited to certain kinds of work and not others. How many potential crack mechanics are diverted into mediocre accountants by cheerleaders for the information age?
Further, in an increasingly specialized society, we find ourselves disoriented and powerless. The Model T used to come with a toolbox so the motorist could make basic repairs himself. But today he may need a special screwdriver, not locally available, just to open the obelisk-like casing over the motor block. The assembly-line worker of today is the office drudge, shepherding information to no discernable purpose to earn the money to buy vehicles and appliances he can't even do routine maintenance on.
Crawford suspects we weren't made for such disengagement. He sees a correlation between the brain and the hands: "There was more thinking going on in the bike shop than the think tank." The Psalmist discerned a similar truth: "Establish the work of our hands." Paul's admonition to the Thessalonians to live quietly and work with their hands is not merely a way to keep out of trouble. He modeled the advice, an educated man who knew and applied a manual trade.
There's no such thing as a "virtual human." Just as the cyber-world requires an immense scaffolding of skilled labor, so we need practical skills to connect with our society and ourselves. By all means, train the mind. But don't disparage the work of your hands.
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