Shop Class as Soulcraft

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

Go there >>
Shop Class as Soulcraft

Related Links:

Related Links from the Utne
Archive:

Comments? Story tips?
Write a letter to the editor

Like this? Want more?Subscribe to
Utne magazine

UTNE
UTNE
In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.