When I was twelve I made a pair of mirrored wood sconces in shop class. My teacher was a massive figure who looked like Mr. T’s older brother and had only one speed: deliberate. I imagine if you cut your finger off with the bandsaw he’d amble over, shake his head, and lead you wordlessly to the office so you could get stitched up. We made all sorts of things in shop, which had the glorious title of “Industrial Arts”. I got to use all types of power tools with the power to immediately maim and dismember, and as far as I know, nobody got hurt during my two years of junior high. Today I’d bet that shop class is gone, the machines rusting in a district warehouse, the epoxy chiseled off the floor, and the teacher making doo-dads in his garage with a sweating can of Michelob on the workbench.
Such is the fate of shop in America today. Budget cuts are only a partial explanation for its demise. As Matt Crawford writes in Shop Class as Soulcraft, since the 1920s there has been a conscious schism between white collar and blue collar work which has become increasingly associated with intelligence, social strata, and income. Over the last century we’ve pushed industrial arts to the side with the assumption that our nation’s economy would transition to one of mental, not tactile, work. Sadly, this has allowed manual trades and knowhow to move overseas, and we’re finding that so-called white collar work is equally quick to disappear to phone banks halfway around the world or to IT centers in another hemisphere. We’re stuck with a nation of people who can’t operate a screwdriver, which might not matter since most appliances today are meant to be thrown away when they break.
Everything about this book sings to me. The author is a former academic who turned to motorcycle repair for intellectual stimulation and moral reward. Having grown to appreciate the rewards of manual labor myself, I can understand the joy in assessing a problem, using tools and sweat to correct the problem, and standing back to see it work again (although since I’m Uncle F$@k-Up, there are usually four-letter words and skinned knuckles along the way). I’m especially excited by the idea in this book that learning a trade is incredibly useful for today’s children. Not only is there nothing to be ashamed of by learning to become a plumber, but while they are earning eighty dollars an hour doing a job that cannot be done by someone over a phone line, the white-collar worker may find that she is no better than an assembly-line worker in a massive corporation, doing repetitive work that could quite easily be done by a machine.
This book made me think a lot about parenting, how bringing Toddler Harbat into the kitchen or garden helps her understand that vegetables don’t grow at a grocery store, bread doesn’t come from a plastic bag, and when something breaks you can fix it yourself. When she graduates high school I want her to know there is a broad spectrum of work out there, and the traditional path of liberal arts degree and office work is only one avenue. If she is able to do something as an adult, I’ll know I did my job. Too many office workers today don’t really have tangible skills, and I’ll put myself into that camp. Until I was in my 20s, I’d never changed the oil in my car or fixed an appliance, and it took a conscious effort to learn how to do things for myself. When Toddler Harbat and I work in the front yard, she’s understanding that self-reliance is a virtue. I want her to know how to pick up a bug, operate power tools, make her own food, and get her hands dirty. More importantly, I want her to be able to apply critical thinking to a problem. Even if shop class doesn’t exist in the future, we’ll have it at home. Thanks, Matt.