Friday, July 24, 2009

Advice for the Young: Develop a Craft?

Matthew Crawford’s new book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work makes a strong case for the value of “working with one’s hands,” or manual labor. With a PhD in political philosophy, Crawford has worked at universities and think-tanks, in what he calls “knowledge work.” But it was never satisfying. The “work” was too abstract, without much to show for it. When he opened a motorcycle repair shop things began to change. Not only did he find this work more meaningful and enjoyable, but he also noticed that it required him to think more. Repairing motorcycles was more intellectual in a richer, deeper sense of the word. (Click here to learn more about the book and to view a video of Crawford’s appearance on The Colbert Report.)

Crawford wonders, "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 as a component of education." Where have all the shop classes gone? As a culture do we tend to look down upon work and workers who do manual labor? In attempting to answer these questions, Crawford has some important things to say about education in general and higher education in particular. I think his concerns warrant consideration for those thinking about academic faithfulness. He writes:

“So what advice should one give to a young person? If you have a natural bent for scholarship; if you are attracted to the most difficult books out of an urgent need, and can spare four years to devote yourself to them, go to college. In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences. But if this is not the case; if the thought of four more years sitting in a classroom makes your skin crawl, the good news is that you don’t have to go through the motions and jump through the hoops for the sake of making a decent living. Even if you do go to college, learn a trade in the summers. 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 or low-level 'creative.' 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.”

Readers of this blog are diverse. Some are current and former students, some are on faculty and staff at colleges and universities, and some are considering whether or not higher education is the best next step for them. I’m curious, what do you think of Crawford’s advice for young people?


tgrosh4 said...

As you know, I think getting our hands 'dirty' is a significant part of who were created to be by God, in His image toward the care of His creation. But I must confess that although my dad tried to teach me various handcrafts/skills from an early age, it has never been a strength/gift/predisposition of mine. I would even say that such labor is not an interest of mine when compared to reading, writing, imagining, chatting, etc. Although, I have found some interest in blue collar/use of hands when there is opportunity for conversation during the task(s) at hand.

Being married with a family of four in Lancaster County, PA, humbles me and forces me to press on with learning handcrafts/skills as we build, garden, invite friends to spend time w/us, maintain our house/property. Such a life has forced me to much prayer and reliance upon the larger community.

Maybe it is time for Vo-Tech or Community College. ... HT to Ivy Jungle Network's July Update where they note the Chicago Tribune's article "Interest in blue-collar trades up, colleges say: Welding, HVAC among the pursuits of students young and old,",0,711992.story

Eric Bierker said...

As Crawford notes, it is not an either/or scenario between academia and vocational education, although Crawford obviously expounds on the benefits on the latter.

As a school counselor (high school) I like to see my students who are academically-oriented develop at least some proficiency in hands-on skills. It teaches them about the physical world, process, and problem-solving. And, it keeps them from being suckers when they call the plumber or talk to the mechanic.

I also like to see my hands-on students develop proficiency in academics. It gives them the ability to read contracts and calculate interest rates so as to not have too little money and too much bills (etc.). Blue collar people can be myopic about the world and lack a fundamental awareness of the bigger events outside of their own environment that academia imparts. It makes them prone to not see trends that will have a profound effect on their lives.

Both audiences can diminish the importance of the other realm. That being said, as you note, we all have different sets of proficiencies hard-wired into who we are. It is generally a poor plan of action to try to become good in something where there is little evidence of the intrinsic ability. We have to work on our weaknesses to the point where they will not hurt us if they are in an area that could be a component of our calling (but not a major piece).

It is interesting that Crawford writes a blue collar tome clearly utilizing the skills he attained by earning his Ph.D. Most blue collar people could not pull this off due to their lack of inclination to work on this end of schooling. Thus, he is a prime example of why having both skills sets is the best of both worlds.