Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The case for working with your hands

"The ex-boyfriend of an older housemate, Chas was a machinist by training. Currently he worked the parts counter at Donsco, the oldest VW speed shop in the Bay Area, in Belmont. He also built race motors for them and pitted for their off-road racing campaigns. Once a classical guitar-playing Buddhist vegetarian, he was now a gun freak and brilliant misanthropist. He still had long hair, but it was rarely released from the bun under his tweed cap."

"I once attended a conference entitled 'After the Beautiful'. The premise was a variation on 'the death of God', the supposed disenchantment of the world, and so forth. Speaking up for my own sense of enchantment, I pointed out, from the audience, the existence of beautiful human bodies. Youthful ones, in particular. This must have touched a nerve, as it was greeted with incredulous howls of outrage from some of the more senior harpies."

Matthew Crawford lived in a commune between the ages of nine and fifteen, worked as a trainee electrician and mechanic, obtained a degree in physics from UC Santa Barbara, worked in several fruitless and depressing office jobs, obtained a PhD in the history of political thought from the University of Chicago, and was briefly occupied as director of a Washington think tank, before finally returning to his true vocation, as a motorcycle mechanic. He's been around, in other words. And applying his personal experience and philosophical skills to an analysis of modern work, he's come to some very salutary conclusions.

The principal thesis of the book is that working in a manual trade is vastly preferable to working in the office. A trade, argues Crawford, has objective standards of competence, makes you responsible for your own work, is motivated not purely by the extrinsic desire for money but by the intrinsic good of fixing and building things, requires people to get outside their own heads, entails a constant acquaintance with failure that engenders honesty and humility, encourages self-reliance, and satisfies the fundamental human cognitive requirement to wield tools.

Crawford argues against the wisdom of sending so many people to university, preparing them for careers in a purported post-industrial, information economy, when most of those office jobs actually consist of mind-numbing, morally debasing, routine tasks. This is largely correct, although one might point to software engineering as an office job which also possesses many of the characteristics that Crawford finds so admirable in the trades.

The philosophy, however, is also entwined with delightful personal recollections of Crawford's life as a mechanic, hence this book could be seen as a harmonic overtone to Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The highlight of these reminiscences describe Crawford's disenchantment with academia, and his initial attempt to earn a living as a mechanic in a rented Chicago warehouse:

"There were...various litters of kittens and a rotating series of questionable individuals, usually 'in between situations', living upstairs in the unheatable, uncoolable warehouse, including one very sexy young S and M model and a pizza delivery guy who shot a man in self-defense and then skipped town, leaving behind only a Koran and a pile of porn. I'd gone from the Committee on Social Thought to this."


Sean said...

I might give that one a go, on my hols in March.

Sometimes I get a job to demolish something, that you know should not be demolished and its a bit like arranging a funeral. A bit like the feeling I got from watching Horizon on Monday night and finding out I am probably just a hologram.

yup the idea of mass market Tertiary education as us all being able to understand things is a pile of shite. The fact is a lot of smart people have sat down for years and worked stuff out and given us a map to make it seem simple, but its never simple, it just appears simple, just ask the hologram guy.

Gordon McCabe said...

What sort of things do you demolish Sean?

Sean said...

Anything that needs destroying, dismantling and/or moving and in these hard times, a lot off securing and making safe, as well as hunting and shifting out all the metals and aggregates.

The odd university building...

and now and again you get to blow something up.


I suppose in the grand scheme of things everything is in the process of being demolished.