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End of shop class, and what it means for (most-needed) manual trades

In the summer of 2006, Mathew B. Crawford had the urge to explain what was happening to “shop class” across the United States. Schools were getting rid of machine tools (metal lathes, milling machines, table saws) in a time when educators prepared students to become “knowledge workers.”

The machines would appear on eBay, in warehouses, dumps. Some people, like Noel Dempsey, a dealer of machine tools in Richmond, Virginia, were buying them on a budget.

A little time later, the collapse of Lehman Brothers uncovered a systemic crisis some analysts tried to relate only to a housing bubble and a rampant lack of accountability of financial markets. People like Crawford saw something more. Over fifteen years later, manual trades are not yet out of the perceived stigma of imaginary blue-collar existence.

A journalist training as an electrician

On January 12, 2022, environmental journalist Nathanael Johnson made public a carefully planned personal plan he had kept quiet until then: it was his last week at Grist, to start the next week full time as a trainee electrician.

To Johnson, a respected journalist and essayist who has not been afraid to confront with a critical point of view some old environmental rigid stands (including nuclear power and most GMOs), his professional decision wasn’t shocking. Still, he sensed some people would appreciate understanding how he had come to such a pivot by midlife:

“Over the last few years I’ve found myself feeling increasingly jealous of the people I interview – foresters, power plant workers, farmers – in short people who interact with physical atoms rather than bits.”

At the same time, Johnson felt some of the challenges of writing —”the crappy first draft, and the edits revealing my failures”— were paying a toll. So, after three years raft guiding and the following seventeen writing short and long-form articles, the journalist had found a new professional passion to the point he wanted it to be his new full-time occupation.

The new trade (“slithering into crawlspaces,” he explained) was not going to increase his reputation on intellectual circles, but he didn’t seem deterred. The impact of writing on him and others was difficult to measure, whereas “electrifying everything” meant living the abstract world:

“I’ve just followed my gut, and what made me happy, to this place, so I haven’t fully understood/rationalized it. I’m feeling that old urge to write, to figure out what’s going on… Maybe this is just the pandemic. Maybe it’s my midlife crisis. But I’m happy.”

When personal determination overcomes social perception

Stewart Brand, futurist and self-defined “eco-pragmatist,” quickly responded to the personal announcement: “This is the most congratulatory thread I have ever seen. Scores of us (me too) applauding Nate Johnson for leaving journalism at 43 and taking up work as an electrician. (Where, among other advantages, he will be better paid.)”

Brand, who at 83 he still lives on a boat across the Bay from San Francisco, presides the Long Now Foundation and writes an essay on the importance of “maintenance” on any human complex system that aspires to properly function over time, added: “Nate, if you discover things in your electrician work that should be in my book about maintenance (there’s a chapter on buildings), I hope you’ll let me know. Meanwhile, applause and flowers.”

Nathanael Johnson’s friends did not send condescending messages —and didn’t try to deter him either. But somehow, his decision still reads as an outlier despite long known accounts of some of the potential benefits of working with one’s hands instead of clerk menial work devoid of any intellectual stimulation. Sometimes, as Jonhson’s decision illustrates, some jobs considered menial work since the rise of professional urban occupations require daily interaction with atoms and offer measurable evidence and impact of any progress related to one’s work.

Innumerable essays have shown how industrial work and (especially after World War II) clerk jobs prone to be automatized in the following decades, created a detachment between tasks performed and the sense such tasks had a “meaning” beyond their senseless fractional meaning. A work’s role, especially if it wasn’t performed using a trade that demands skill and an idea of the context, would drive to alienation.

Maintaining motorcycles, building canoes, and more

Feeling foreign of the abstract products that workers were producing despite of being a byproduct of their own effort and skill became pervasive in industrial societies; sociologist Thorstein Veblen, among others, theorized leisure and consumption came to soften the trade-off. Yet something had been lost from work.

Mathew B. Crawford’s Soulcraft workshop

When manual tinkering and engineering, as well as machineering, became computerized fragmentary tasks to be performed by blue-collar workers, jobs that had enrolled passionate individuals for decades became unnecessary when automatization and overseas production made them obsolete. The dangers of post-industrial society are encouraging more and more people to learn innumerable “menial” or “obsolete” trades, from agricultural to artisanal to industrial.

Kirsten Dirksen has interviewed several people over the years who, often fighting the odds, decided to work with their hands in a quest for meaning in what they do, but also a reflection on abstract values we have a hard time measuring despite acknowledging they are worth pursuing, such as “quality.” For that, both philosopher Robert M. Pirsig and science historian George Dyson made strong cases. The former, by developing what he called “metaphysics of quality,” an emergent property of things that demands the conscious, knowledgeable care of the maintainer (not only the builder).

Dyson, by dedicating his focus for decisive years to learn the ancient craft of building canoes instead of starting as soon as possible a promising academic career that would have prevented him from building complex, “quality” objects with his hands.

Pirsig and Dyson’s inquiries onto how our perception of things and values can permeate beyond us into what we do inspire to influential essays from the troubled seventies (marked by the 1973 oil crisis): Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974); and Kenneth Brower’s The Starship and the Canoe (1978), a deep life conversation between theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson and his son George, living at the time of the book on a treehouse in British Columbia while learning to be connected with nature and physical things.

A little over eight years ago, we visited Brian Schulz in his Oregon coastal farm, where he has built (or renovated) five small structures. The old farmstead barn had become his workshop. There, he painstakingly worked on building skin-on-frame kayaks like the ones used by some of Pacific Northwest’s Native American societies during pre-Columbian times. Schulz carried an off-grid lifestyle that allowed for experience to combine harmoniously abstract knowledge and craftsmanship.

A machinist in the Salt Flats

As we visit makers on our travels, we often find ourselves contributing to the ongoing conversation of the contrast between two solid and contradictory drives in contemporary society: the hyper-theoretical, intangible work that has evolved into the digital layers that power our goods, jobs, and entertainment; and the sometimes instinctive, almost-pantheistic temptation of learning a manual trade and resyncing with the things we make, grow, and, ultimately, with what we call “nature.”

We own digital copies of both books. It’s not rare that I end up, during long road trips, retrieving a passage here and there of any of them to fall asleep while ruminating something meaningful after hours of serious driving. I did so last summer after we visited Mark Atkinson at his live-work hanger on an airport runway outside Salt Lake City. We had talked about the alienation some non-tangible menial work can cause and the low salaries it might bring, which can make it difficult to repay student debt and aspire to buy a home. Mark Atkinson turned his passion into work as a skilled machinist, making custom vehicles & plane parts, but it hadn’t been easy and steady either.

Atkinson, who some time ago had designed the BMW Alpha, an otherworldly shark-nosed land speed racer, showed his worries about what he sees as a societal bias against skilled manual work. There is no new generation willing to learn to be a machinist, and nobody will think there’s a problem in relying upon computer specifications and purchasing custom pieces overseas until you get a series of systemic crises that momentarily upheld production & supply chains.

“My art and craft are dead when I’m gone. There is nobody to take over. The machine shops I’ve worked in there are no young kids there and you think, this stuff stops, when I’m done, it all comes to a stop. We’ve convinced every young kid out there to go to college, to sit in a frickin’ cubicle and process insurance paperwork and whatever mindless crap. You think of all the things that are going wrong in our society and I think if you went back to working with your hands you’d understand where you fit in, what you bring to the table. and I think the sky’s the limit here, and you would find so much fulfillment in all the stuff you can create and grow and do.”

Mastering a manual trade paid off for them

Online resources have changed what we call education, only informally: all types of resources and documentation, from 3D files having pieces ready to print or cut to videos and speeches to get inspired, and also in-depth documentation, real-time collaboration, and more. But not even a pandemic and a cost to attend college in the United States unable to justify the investment even after years of work, have brought back prestige to fairly respected manual trades. They aren’t perceived as compatible with the image of “success” that still reigns within pop culture.

An old-time commenter pointed out on social media that she has three degrees and never actually used them for a job; on her good years, both in the ’70s and teens, “were homesteading years, with an emphasis on making.” She is hardly an exception.

Of course, intellectual, meaningful tasks are not antagonistic or exclusive with respect to manual work perceived as meaningful. We’ve met over the years accomplished individuals and families or even teams of people who had successfully managed to combine work they didn’t consider meaningful at all with activities that allowed them to develop things they relied on for personal growth and mood balance.

The list of crafty homesteaders, makers, tinkerers, inventors, polymaths of all sorts, builder aficionados, and architects is long. It comprises from experts of small, affordable places (Paul Elkins, Derek Diedricksen) to outsider artist-builders (Fernando Abellanas, Ethan Schlussler), to aged-outside, young-inside inspiring doers such as Charles Bello and Russ Finch; some of them worked on their passions, some others were retired or had to leave their job, some others aimed at becoming as self-sufficient as possible; many live in the countryside or left the city some time ago, others prefer to live in urban environments and improve their immediate communities, such as Johnny Sanphillippo from GranolaShotgun.

They all learned to blend their non-tangible, idealist side with an urge to transform their immediate world by taking action, often by manifesting a longing for improving on or mastering a manual trade, either on part-time or as a full occupation, directly compensated or not. Economist Francis Fukuyama, whose first book The End of History and the Last Man gets more and more quoted as we enter the twenties with a display of interdependent, multifaceted crises at a planetary scale, has dedicated sensitive articles to the meaning of the joy of craft over the years.

Shop Class as Soulcraft

On June 2009 (those were the early days of YouTube, Germany was getting comfortable with the idea of getting gas from Russia at a good price, and naïvete reigned still in our perception towards social media and nobody had seriously considered their instrumentalization) Fukuyama published a review in The New York Times about Shop Class as Soulcraft, an essay by Matthew B. Crawford, owner of a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia. Those were the days, Fukuyama noted, when all across the United States:

“…high school shop classes teaching mechanical arts like welding, woodworking or carpentry are closing down, to free up funds for computer labs. There is a legion of experts denigrating manual trades like plumber, carpenter and electrician, warning that the United States labor force needs to be “upskilled” and retrained to face the challenges of a high-tech, global economy.”

But to Fukuyama (in reference to Matthew B. Crawford, but also to his passion, serious woodworking), “most forms of real knowledge, including self-knowledge, come from the effort to struggle with and master the brute reality of material objects.” Fukuyama elaborates:

“The truth about most white-collar office work, Crawford argues, is captured better by Dilbert and The Office: dull routine more alienating than the machine production denounced by Marx. Unlike the electrician who knows his work is good when you flip a switch and the lights go on, the average knowledge worker is caught in a morass of evaluations, budget projections and planning meetings.”

According to Crawford, the “ideologists” of knowledge have established a false dichotomy between knowing and doing:

“The fact of the matter is that most forms of real knowledge, including self-knowledge, come from the effort to struggle with and master the brute reality of material objects — loosening a bolt without stripping its threads, or backing a semi rig into a loading dock.”

Fukuyama confesses at the end of the article:

“While I make my living as a “symbolic knowledge worker,” I have both ridden motorcycles and made furniture — my family’s kitchen table, the beds my children slept on while growing up, as well as reproductions of Federal-style antiques whose originals I could never afford to buy.”

Woodworking amid the End of History

More recently, after the rage of the first pandemic waves and confinements, The Economist‘s magazine 1843 interviewed Francis Fukuyama at his second home in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Fukuyama confessed:

“Most of the stuff I make I intend to use. I don’t give it away. I don’t sell it.” As the famed political scientist and writer, a lot of people have managed to develop a deep relationship with one particular manual craft, if not with several ones, while at the same time conducting a successful professional life, sometimes with a defined purpose and strong intellectual drive.

Other people (most people?) don’t feel they belong to the group that managed to flourish with a non-tangible job in which they never found actual meaning, a sense or purpose, or even a way to determine whether their participation was worth the compromise and effort. For such cases, where alienation is not a mere potential threat that belongs to outdated theories but a reality they confront every day, learning a trade is much more than a celebration of Thorstein Veblen’s leisure class or the poster child of reaching the top of Abraham Maslow hierarchy of needs, pragmatic nirvana of post-consumerism https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-consumerism (an ideal perceived with the cynicism of a noble but unattainable classic —or Eastern— philosophy of life).

Kenneth Brower’s “The Starship and the Canoe” illustrates the contrast between the point of view of renowned physical theorist Freeman Dyson vs. his son George (living on a treehouse and practicing serious handcrafting at the time of the book)

In contrast, meliorism advocates for the improvement of things surrounding us by taking action and working for the improvements we want to see. At a moment of what somebody in Britain has recently defined as the era of “permacrisis” (as in “permanent crisis,” or a constant superposition of overwhelming, civilization-scale threats), meliorism reminds us —like a modern-day, pragmatic stoicism— of what it’s in our hands to assume, tackle, improve.

Redefining “knowledge”

There is room for improvement, also for personal improvement. Working with our hands can be a meditative way to deepen self-improvement, but also a gateway for a better existence that will also extend its outcome well beyond the individual. If Quixotism were pragmatic, it would remind us of those projects put aside too many times. We depend on a lot of things that (we forgot) depend on us.

In our inquiry into the value of work, the struggle we face to overcome “the brute reality of material objects,” whether it’s art, a piece of furniture, a garden, a home, a vehicle, etc., has depended on how society has distinguished between the more academic and prestigious “episteme” (from Classic Greek, “knowledge”) and how we use that knowledge to accomplish our work (“techne”: craft or art).

George Dyson contemplating his canoe while facing the effort to struggle with and master the brute reality of material objects

Some argue the main issue within impersonal, bureaucratized modern societies is the willful omission of a third type of “knowledge” also defined by Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics: the capacity to discern whether our action can be good or bad, a judgment or decision that depends on us but it’s based in our ability to interpret reality.

As Matthew B. Crawford argues in Shop Class as Soulcraft, we should question the societal imperative of turning everyone into a “knowledge worker.” Or, put differently, we should wonder why people gifted on manual trades are not considered “knowledge workers.” Our very definition of “knowledge” should be improved.