Who knows?

In light of the massive fraud case being pursued by the federal government against a company that runs for-profit colleges in culinary, visual art, and other programs one wonders where people can attend higher education any more and learn anything practical.  In his book, “Shop class as soul craft: an inquiry into the value of work”, Matthew Crawford elegantly examines this problem, and how a culture that loses the ability to appreciate work of the hands is in trouble.

Most liberal arts institutions and major state universities still follow what we might think of as a books and desk curriculum, or more aptly a books-desk-computer curriculum.  Lab spaces are for the use of chemistry, biology, a few engineering, some medical, and studio art courses.  Very little else of what is done is “hands-on”.  That is usually considered more base, less theoretical, and relegated to what we used to think of as community colleges.  But even community colleges started dumping hands-on courses favoring a “college prep” curriculum, and becoming less identified with “training”.  High schools did the same, tossing out shop classes in favor of computer lab space.

But as I searched for an expert plumber, electrician, heating and cooling expert, bricklayer, and various other “hands on” professionals in the past several years, one thing became clear.   The people who spent their lives developing exquisite expertise in essential areas of functionality are growing old, and there is no one to replace them.  Every professional I spoke to agreed, and lamented the lack of preparation programs in both high school and community college, and the cultural perception that somehow these careers are less valuable, less honorable, less important than say accountant, banker, business manager (all of which these people learned to be, or at least learned how to hire others to do), or other higher status fields.  One went on to say that he sees so many people going to the gym to work out, but if they had jobs working with their hands and getting off their behinds every day they would not need to.  It was an interesting point of view.

I recall my father talking about all the “college educated” engineers who could not see when their CAD drawings, like an Escher print, would not work.  He would often take wire and bend it for a 3-D representation, to show them the error of their ways.  They were never very happy about it, but over time came to depend on his visual-spatial and hand skills- and offered a grudging respect.

As I get older, I wonder who will know?  Who will know how to do anything- are we expecting just to do searches on our computers, run down to the Lo-HumDepo-Ace’s, get what ever standardized Chinese made supplies they have and do everything ourselves?  There are a lot of issues that one must be an expert in to truly understand, to strategize, to plan, to solve.  Just reading a how-to page will never be enough.  Husband did a fine job on 80% of the house.  But that final 20% needed an expert, and he relied on experts to check the work he had done as well.

All my sewing machines are still machine based, not digital.  It is a cost-benefit analysis for me:  when something breaks or goes haywire on the computerized machines, it is hideously expensive to fix and often requires a new machine.  They are also plastic through and through, and the wear and tear on them adds up quickly.  My mechanical machines (mostly metal) still require maintenance (which I am learning to do), and sometimes specialized care.  Then, they are usually good to for a long, long time.  But the people who know how to work on these machines are also aging, dying, and passing into memory.  They take entire worlds of knowledge with them, knowledge we may not get back.

There is also the aesthetic appeal of machines, of working with one’s hands, and seeing the results.  It not only builds confidence and practical skills, but also develops complex 3-D thinking in ways nothing else can.  I think Crawford is right: until we begin to value work of the hands again, we will continue losing not only a part of our culture, but an important part of our minds.  As discussions about rewriting school curriculum continues, let us not disregard the shop classes, the labs, and the field work that helps us become what we are- 3 dimensional beings made of muscle and fine motor skills.  Also, let all forms of learning and technology be respected as helping us become the best of who we can be.   Let us plan sensibly for all the jobs/roles we need to run our wires, pipes, and build our communities.  In sum, I hope we are not left standing around asking, “Who knew?”

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