Shop Class as Soulcraft

A return to manual competence in the age of information

| September 28, 2006

We live in a society that urges youth to go to college and then ushers the majority of graduates into cubicle jobs. The college prep trend has seeped into high schools to pave the way to this path, but the approach may be leaving a gaping hole in young people's educations: the knowledge of craft. Writing for The New Atlantis, Matthew B. Crawford observes that many secondary institutions are abandoning shop class in favor of courses that prepare students for futures in 'knowledge work.' This change is symptomatic, he writes, of a cultural shift away from self-reliance and toward consumerist dependence.

As the inner workings of mechanical objects are increasingly hidden behind sleek designs, and information about those complex interiors is made less accessible to consumers, any problems have become the domain of trained professionals. Crawford, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, proposes that it's time to take a look at where the information revolution has taken us, and argues for a return to 'manual competence.'

Achievements in the manual trades are tangible and impart a sense of independence that challenges the wasteful nature of consumerism, Crawford argues. The lifestyle of the craftsperson directly contradicts that of the producer-consumer because of their different approaches to the material world. 'The craftsman is proud of what he has made, and cherishes it,' writes Crawford, 'while the consumer discards things that are perfectly serviceable in his restless pursuit of the new.' Nor are craftsmen and craftswomen easily seduced by 'social narratives' like marketing and brand allegiance, an immunity that results from their grounding in the reality of a product's production.

Contrary to popular claims, Crawford argues that there is a promising future for those educated in the manual trades. Unlike jobs in manufacturing, trades such as construction and auto repair cannot be outsourced. In fact, Crawford cites a line from the Wall Street Journal claiming that 'skilled [manual] labor is becoming one of the few sure paths to a good living.' Though labor trades are often represented by a 'muscled arm, sleeve rolled tight against biceps,' the brain is just as important a part of the industry. Experience with a medium, resourcefulness in problem solving, and collective knowledge all converge in the hands of a craft-master.

The manual trades, writes Crawford, are an inviting alternative to both white- and blue-collar jobs that have demoted human beings to parts in an office machine or factory assembly line. Crawford promotes stimulating the mind with a college education, but advises a career in the manual trades. 'You're likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid,' he writes, 'as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems.' -- Suzanne Lindgren

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