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A Case for Working with Your Hands

Permalink 09/13/10 14:32, by Ryan, Categories: School, Useless Blatherings, Geekery , Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Matthew Crawford, author of the best-selling Shop Class as Soulcraft, opened the Caroline Werner Gannett Project’s “Visionaries in Motion IV” speaker series at RIT on September 8. Crawford, whose career path has meandered from electrician to philosopher to think-tank director to motorcycle mechanic, speaks a gospel seemingly well-crafted to the emerging open-it-up-and-make-it-better maker culture. The prevalence of futuristic seamless designs, built to be replaceable rather than repairable, is but one contributor to the demise of the craftsperson in every day life, however.

The focus of Crawford’s ire is more systemic. Over the past few generations, the perceived value of doing “hard work” for a living has plummeted. Smart kids have been increasingly funneled towards a college degree in some field of thinking, such as engineering or computer science or philosophy. This left the more vocational career paths, such as becoming a mechanic or a tradesperson, for those not “smart enough” to operate a pencil or keyboard for a living, and created a belief that “if the work is dirty, it must be stupid.”

In reality, trades work requires nontrivial thought, often more so than white collar jobs. Crawford’s current profession, repairing classic motorcycles, is a prime example of a very thought-driven yet “dirty” job. There are myriad things that can go wrong with a motorcycle, and each manifests itself in a unique and often deceptive way. There is no OBD-II port, and there probably isn’t a repair manual either. This leaves the motorcycle mechanic somewhere the office dweller rarely treads: relying only on intuition and experience.

An important discriminant of a good career path is economic viability. Here, Crawford draws a distinction from the makers and artists by focusing on the ability to earn a decent living. Hackers and knitters and gardeners are essential in our culture, but very few people make a career of such craftwork. This leaves the rest of us, who aren’t the “rock stars” of our fields, to find some way to pay the mortgage and feed the cats. Crawford also underscores economic viability with the outsourcing test: if it can be outsourced to another country to save money, it probably will be. As unglamorous as plumbing may be, you cannot (currently) outsource toilet repair to Indonesia.

Another cornerstone of Crawford’s argument includes the intrinsic satisfaction of a job well done. In his work as an “unlicensed but careful” residential electrician, he found the “let there be light” moments at the end of  the day to be uniquely satisfying: something actually happened indicating that his work was successfully completed. Also, self-assessment is trivial in such a job. Either the light comes on, or you did something wrong; either you can bend conduit or you can’t. Incompetence is obvious, and there is no hiding behind nebulous evaluations or committee reports. In my personal work as a contract systems administrator and shadetree Pythonista, I know the other side of this quite well. It’s often difficult to end the day thinking “well, maybe I got something done.”

How does Crawford propose rectifying the lack of respect for the trades and the over-importance of the college path? It comes down to perception, and that will be difficult to change. Any high school principal who publicly states that her school’s ultimate goal is anything less than a 100% four-year college transfer rate will find herself without a job relatively quickly. School resources will necessarily be focused towards activities which crank up the test scores, and shop class is usually not one of them. This is quite unfortunate, as the only tangible things I still have from my high school career are a wooden lamp from shop class and a frilly pillow from home economics. They are also the only tangible things (aside from a balsa wood bridge and various baked goods, elsewhere in those courses) I made in high school. Alas, Crawford offers no real solutions, but drawing attention to the problem is a necessary first step.

A good job is one where one puts their best capacities to work with an effect on the real world, according to Crawford, and we have optimized our society to produce individuals focused on putting their college degrees to work with an effect on their real bank balance. While the world needs engineers and architects and middle managers too, the future seems to be in the calloused hands and adaptive minds of the workers.

(Full disclosure: this blag post will be submitted for extra credit in an Intro to Philosophy class.)


Comment from: James Sweet [Visitor]
James SweetThis leaves the motorcycle mechanic somewhere an engineer rarely treads: relying only on intuition and experience.

Well that's just completely false.

There is a highly-suspected phenomenon in which there seem to be a disproportionate number of engineers supporting wacko denialist causes like creationism, 9/11 trutherism, etc. My pet theory for why this is so is because engineering is "science-like", except that you are constantly relying on your intuition and experience, sometimes privileging it over the hard data. Scientists may use that to generate hypothesis, but the end result must be data-driven; engineers like data-driven results, but if that's "too hard", they'll just go with intuition and experience. It's the nature of the beast.

Yeah, I mean sorry, that's just not correct at all.

On Sep 13, James Sweet wrote "Ben Goldacre is right".

09/13/10 @ 17:29
Comment from: Ryan [Member] Email
My pet theory for why this is so is because engineering is "science-like", except that you are constantly relying on your intuition and experience, sometimes privileging it over the hard data.

As I wrote that section, I was thinking of a small subset of the rubber-stamping engineering discipline instead of the entire profession, which was, indeed, wrong. I will revise it to be less stupid.

UPDATE: This article has been updated. The original version may be found here; the new version may be found here. Thanks for calling me out on that. (note to self: need better way to manage diffs, sheesh...)
09/13/10 @ 20:32
Comment from: Leo Vince Exhaust [Visitor]
Leo Vince ExhaustI think what really satisfies the modern day worker is autonomy. They don't want to be on a production line being told what to do and exactly how to do it. I think your motorcycle mechanic example proves this.
03/19/11 @ 02:08

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