Last December, I received a book entitledShop Class as Soulcraftby Matthew B. Crawford, a Ph.D. in political philosophy who makes his living as the owner of a motorcycle repair shop in Virginia. Although the book reads too much like a doctoral thesis, which to me doesn’t suit its proletarian topic, I found some of the points Crawford made compelling and reminiscent of educational and manufacturing subjects on which I have editorialized frequently.
Crawford’s book gained my interest early, stating in its introduction that: “The disappearance of tools from our common education is the first step toward a wider ignorance of the world of artifacts we inhabit. And, in fact, an engineering culture has developed … in which the object is to ‘hide the works,’ rendering many of the devices we depend on every day unintelligible to direct inspection.”
This passage reminded me of two things. The first was that I learned a lot about metalworking and woodworking in high-school shop class. I believe the elimination of these classes from school curricula, bemoaned by Crawford, is a systemic educational blunder of the highest order. The second is that I have always held that grade-school students, where possible, should be taken to local trade shows, in much the same way they might visit the zoo or a museum on a field trip. I have seen many such shows, and college students are often in attendance, but I believe younger, more impressionable students could benefit equally from this type of exposure. I have no doubt that the eye-catching exhibits, the newest technologies and the biggest and best equipment on display would fascinate some kids and influence their future career choices.
For the last few decades, educational trends in our society have focused on preparing young people for jobs in the emerging-knowledge economy. In doing so, the so-called “trades” were largely ignored, with students being directed into courses of study that led them, and our society, away from its traditional manufacturing base. This wasn’t all bad, but the results of that trend return to haunt us when we hear of foreign trade deficits with emerging countries that sell us goods we used to make for ourselves. In part, our growing aversion to tools has caused us to export our standard of living to those willing to work with their hands.
As Crawford states: “A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our relationship to our own stuff: 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 make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves replacing an entire system because some minute component has failed.”
Our growing detachment from the ubiquitous items we use daily has disturbing long-term consequences. It is symptomatic of the decline of manufacturing enterprise in the U.S. and of why manufacturing businesses have trouble finding good people to work for them.
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