Sep 1

Dale Dougherty

Dale Dougherty

Shop Class as Soulcraft

Matthew B. Crawford writes in praise of manual labor, lamenting the disappearance of the shop class (and shop teachers) as our culture focuses on developing knowledge workers who supposedly use their heads, not their hands. He writes: " At the same time, an engineering culture has developed in recent years in which the object is to “hide the works,” rendering the artifacts we use unintelligible to direct inspection."

He wonders if a decline in the use of tools has made us "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." Crawford adds: ” 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." At Make, we couldn't agree more.

Crawford, who left a job in a "think-tank" to become a bike mechnanic, traces the history of shop class in America back to the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, which was meant to meet both vocational and general education requirements. Even from the outset, it seemed designed to create a path from school to the assembly line for the lower class, creating an artificial divide between "white collar" and "blue collar" that separated thinking from doing, which is just wrong.

"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."

"Shop Class as Soulcraft" appears in the summer 2006 issue of the magazine "The New Atlantis."

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Comments: 9

  Sara Brumfield [09.01.06 08:21 AM]

My father, and many of his friends, like to refer to themselves as "practical engineers" -- people with no college degrees but with a vast set of hands on experience in mechanics, machining, and handwork that they (rightly) consider superior to the book learning they worked so hard for their children to get. One of my honorary uncles has worked for years in the shop of one of the University of Texas' research labs, and takes great delight in telling stories of correcting or finding shortcuts in the designs of wet-behind-the-ears Ph.D. engineers.

I worry, though, that the effects of globalized manufacturing (both making the creation of things a mystery because no one around you knows how they are built and making us think it doesn't matter because those things are so affordable) and the dying off of this practical engineer generation. It's heartening that the pendulm is starting to swing the other way with people that are "Makers", but I suspect the real future ingeniuty will come from the developing world where supply dictates that you know how to keep your car running without the appropriate parts.

My final thought: The article reminds me of a section of Richard Florida's Rise of the Creative Class, where he discovers that highschool students would much rather be hairdressers than work in manufacturing jobs, because they perceive it as a more creative pursuit. When did we lose the concept that making "things" is inherently uncreative? Yes, manufacturing factories and plants have become more and more uncreative, but the ones that are still able to compete in America are the ones that are nimble enough to retool and create truly innovative products that meet their clients imaginative needs. And you can't tell me that you can turn that quickly if you've cultivated a workforce that can't think creatively.

  rektide [09.01.06 10:47 AM]

an engineering culture has developed in recent years in which the object is to “hide the works,”

i think this key unlocks quite a number of deeply latent issues. we've designed ignorance into the system at a very deep and profound level. this is definately manifest and makes sense to project into manual competence and craftworking, but the issue is globally systematic.

MAKE & the diy movement is just a small push back, but it seems so marginal against a society programmed to not understand, not to tinker.

we've been stressing shorter and shorter term learning curves for years. we've kind of reached an ultimate state: the goal of modern applications, modern appliances is to make users instantly familiar & completely comfortable. any user uncertainty is regarded as a flaw of the designers.

  Joe [09.03.06 05:13 PM]

I think it isn't that we have "designed to hide the works", but instead that we've hidden the works that we've designed. Encapsulation of concepts, even outside of software style engineering, is important (and often lacking) because it lets people focus on larger tasks with the same cognitive load.

But just because you have done a good job encapsulating something doesn't mean you should slap a sticker on the outside that says "No user servicable parts inside". :-)

  Avi Solomon [09.04.06 05:23 AM]

Here's another great perpective on the renaissance of meaningful handiwork:
'Lives in their Hands: Johnnies Work for Lasting Beauty'

  Jeff Bach [09.04.06 08:01 AM]

Personal experience has been showing me the satisfaction of MAKING something with your hands. I am one of the owners of 2 Wheel Films, a video production in WI. My background has been hands off knowledge-type work for most of my career. Then I started 2WF and the first challenge was to build BY HAND the custom motorcycle that was the topic of 2WF's first movie. And I did. I built this bike with my own hands. To this thread I would like to add that troubleshooting a mechanical device is much like troubleshooting a non-mechanical process or object. The creativity I applied and developed in designing and building the 2WF motorcycle required many of the same skills I've used in my years of non-mechanical work. Maybe these two worlds are not so different? Finally, there is NOTHING LIKE the satisfaction of starting the engine on something you have built with your own hands. Websites, servers, and business models don't even come close! So yes, let's not turn our backs on these skills. Using your hands for something besides tapping a keyboard is IMMENSELY satisfying and, I think, fills a need that many people have and may not even recognize.

  Barb [09.04.06 09:11 AM]

It's not just tech ed-type ingenuity that is being lost. Today's western society trains us to be consumers -- when something breaks we throw it away and buy another. Even darning socks or sewing on buttons is a mystery to many now, and why bother when socks are cheap and plentiful. Craft stores are filled with almost-complete projects, a sad commentary on both the consumer who purchases these kits to "make" a craft, and on the people half a world away who are making these kits for a living.

Our local school district has middle schools, designed to give students a taste of many "elective" course -- home arts, sewing, music and tech ed. A rejigging of the student-to-teacher ratio regulations that go into effect this year (set by the provincial government) means that this year many schools will close their tech ed departments as they can't justify hiring an "extra" teacher with those skills.

Another problem is our way of living. The many apartments and townhouses where urban families now live have limited space - certainly no where to set up a workbench or store tools.

  Brian Carnell [09.04.06 11:41 AM]

Barb wrote:

"Another problem is our way of living. The many apartments and townhouses where urban families now live have limited space - certainly no where to set up a workbench or store tools."

I completely agree with Barb -- the real root of the problem are urban apartments. Lets start by tearing them all down. Perhaps the former dwellers can be taught how to hand-craft new domiciles by taking apart an old iPod or something.

Seriously, the last thing we need is another "people these days don't spend enough time learning [insert pet educational cause here]".

  adamsj [09.04.06 05:12 PM]


Barb named three causes for the decline in respect for making things.

You misrepresent her as claiming one (which I assume steps on your pet cause) is a root problem.

Wouldn't you agree, Brian, that one reason for the decline in model rocketry is the lack of open spaces in which to practice the hobby? Similar changes have reduced the amount of some types of hunting--no place for the hounds to run.

I'm seeing serious harm locally to my pet cause--garage band music--because of fewer places to practice and increased costs in renting those that still exist. It's exacerbated by thousand-dollar fines for violating sound ordinances.

Anyway, the problem stated is not "people these days don't spend enough time learning X". It's better expressed as "Do poor decisions on the part of society actively discourage people who otherwise might from learning X?"

For a different and very thoughtful discussion bearing on this question, I refer you to Mike Rose's The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker.

P.S. to Sara--Rose's second chapter is on hairdressing. I've read short pieces by Florida--I'd be curious to read the whole book.

  Nicholas Paredes [09.04.06 07:19 PM]

When my grandfather was in high school in Colorado, prior to 1917, machine shop was an option. He went on to the School of Mines, and utlimately designed stereo equipment and high-speed machinery, retiring as a tool and die maker at 80.

Making things is never separate from thinking, so far as the world around us has been primarily physical. How this changes will be seen. Although I do not have machinery myself, I am designing some pieces that will be delivered from eMachineShop when funds are available. Is this personal manufacturing? I think so. Perhaps making will pull us closer together in that we need tools and places to work.

Abstracting Craft is an interesting read for a discussion on what "craftsmanship" means in the age of computers. As a designer, I have been struggling with what is personally valuable. Avi, thanks for the link!

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