September 18, 2006


Shop Class as Soulcraft (Matthew B. Crawford, Summer 2006, New Atlantis)

Anyone in the market for a good used machine tool should talk to Noel Dempsey, a dealer in Richmond, Virginia. Noel’s bustling warehouse is full of metal lathes, milling machines, and table saws, and it turns out that most of it is from schools. EBay is awash in such equipment, also from schools. It appears shop class is becoming a thing of the past, as educators prepare students to become “knowledge workers.”

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. Lift the hood on some cars now (especially German ones), and the engine appears a bit like the shimmering, featureless obelisk that so enthralled the cavemen in the opening scene of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Essentially, there is another hood under the hood. This creeping concealedness takes various forms. The fasteners holding small appliances together now often require esoteric screwdrivers not commonly available, apparently to prevent the curious or the angry from interrogating the innards. By way of contrast, older readers will recall that until recent decades, Sears catalogues included blown-up parts diagrams and conceptual schematics for all appliances and many other mechanical goods. It was simply taken for granted that such information would be demanded by the consumer.

A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our mode of inhabiting the world: 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. 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 installing a pre-made replacement part.

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. Neither as workers nor as consumers are we much called upon to exercise such competence, most of us anyway, and merely to recommend its cultivation is to risk the scorn of those who take themselves to be the most hard-headed: the hard-headed economist will point out the opportunity costs of making what can be bought, and the hard-headed educator will say that it is irresponsible to educate the young for the trades, which are somehow identified as the jobs of the past. But we might pause to consider just how hard-headed these presumptions are, and whether they don’t, on the contrary, issue from a peculiar sort of idealism, one that insistently steers young people toward the most ghostly kinds of work.

It's not a political program that anyone could run on, because no one wants to get their own hands dirty or have their kids dirty theirs, but few social reforms would be moree useful than curtailing the number of people we send to college and encouraging more into skilled crafts.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 18, 2006 12:00 AM

Possibly the best thing about the Mythbusters TV show is its implicit celebration of the hosts' ability to build any sort of fantastic contraption, and showing them doing so. It's probably given us more future engineers than any government program.

Blowing things to smithereens on a regular basis would be a close second, of course.

Posted by: Mike Earl at September 18, 2006 11:29 AM

"To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk."

- Thomas Edison

The truth of the last part is obvious anytime they show the Mythbusters warehouse (and most engineers cubes...).

Posted by: TimF at September 18, 2006 12:42 PM

"Blowing things to smithereens on a regular basis would be a close second, of course."

Don't forget all the stuff they shoot, or just let gravity destroy, too. Great show.

And as a software engineer, I find my "junk pile" of old code, half-finished projects, outdated utilities and even obsolete hardware comes in handy for getting work done, too.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at September 19, 2006 12:06 AM