May 23, 2009

"High-school shop-class programs were widely dismantled in the 1990s as educators prepared students to become 'knowledge workers.'"

"The imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. This has not come to pass. To begin with, such work often feels more enervating than gliding. More fundamentally, now as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses."

I greatly enjoyed this essay by Matthew B. Crawford, which is adapted from his book "Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work." Crawford is highly educated and has worked in information economy jobs and the sort of jobs you learn to do in shop class. He's got a lot to say about what these different kinds of jobs have to offer. I do have 3 criticisms, however.

1. Crawford's hands-on real-world job is working in his own business as a motorcycle mechanic and his reward-for-going-to-college job was cranking out abstracts of scholarly articles that he couldn't understand for $23,000 a year. So the "real world" job was particularly good and the "information" job was particularly bad. You've got to concede that there are plently of good, bad, and middling jobs in both categories and to match up 2 good ones or 2 bad ones or 2 middling ones to make a fair comparison about what different sorts of work do to your soul.

2. Crawford had a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago, so he is not just another guy that got shuffled into college on the theory that the whole economy is going to be about knowledge and you're going to have to fit into it. He had big hopes of an academic career, and ending up in that article-summarizing job must have hurt him in ways that have little to do with how average guys who could have learned trades feel when they end up slotted into Dilbert cubicles. Now, the plight of those average guys is tremendously important, but Crawford is not one of those guys. His experience was different. He belonged in a university, but the job market in academia is tough.

3. Crawford has written a book about it all, and book-writing is an "information" job. So he can't really say that working with your hands is completely fulfilling. He had to think about and analyze his experience and make it into an intellectual project. That's fine, but this making it into a book is a proper part of the story about his soul that he wants to tell. It's not in the essay. Maybe it's in the book.


downtownlad said...

More fundamentally, now as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses. Yes - they're called Mexicans.

An Edjamikated Redneck said...

After spending 15 plus years as a machinist and then going back to school to take the cubicle route, i can tell you that there is no more satisfying feeling than taking a piece of usless metal and making a useful product out of it.

Since I have taken the office route I have a small wood shop in my bsement that I take useless pieces of wood and turn them into useful dodads. It helps keep my hands busy and satify my creative urges.

I would have gone cometely nuts my first 2 years of cubucle life if I hadn't had my woodshop.

An Edjamikated Redneck said...

I forgot to mention, I also still fix my own cars, lawn equipment and house.

Some of that is a cretive urge, some is just because at heart I am still a Redneck.

Maxine Weiss said...

The invasion of Mexicans into the public school system does nothing to enhance high-school football teams.

The average height of today's high-schooler is 3 times less than it was in the 80s. These darkies have killed intra-mural sports.....

....nevermind parents who refuse to push their kids to excel in high-school athletics programs.


downtownlad said...

I do all my own housework as well. If texting my servant and asking her to do the housework counts . . .

rhhardin said...

The average height of today's high-schooler is 3 times less than it was in the 80s.

There are more girls.

rhhardin said...

We learned chess in shop.

chickenlittle said...

The invasion of Mexicans into the public school system does nothing to enhance high-school football teams.

To paraphrase Dr. Laura, I am my lawn's own gardener.
How about you Maxine?

lyssalovelyredhead said...

I think that what it all comes down to is a loss of the individual. I, personally, am terriblly uncoordinated and have trouble with figuring out mechanical objects. But I've always excelled with reading and writing- clearly the college bound program was right for me. But that doesn't mean that it's right for everyone.

Instead of pushing everyone down the path of college prep (I went to HS in the 90s, and I remember the scorn that was heaped on the vocational students quite well- mostly, I'm sorry to say, by my college prep classmates), what we need to do is simply remind people how valuable and important these vocational jobs are, and (as opposed to information jobs which can be easily outsourced) pretty much always will be, and encourage those that excell in the skills needed for those jobs to make the most of their talents, rather than pushing them all through the same conveyer belt in the name of "equality" or some nonsense.

rhhardin said...

I doubt shop matters. An employer wants an indication of good work habits more than anything. He'll train you.

amba said...

Edjamikated Redneck is one of the people like my husband's friends in Romania who built, plumbed and wired their own houses, dug the well and maintained the car. I wrote about them here, perhaps illegitimately linking political liberalism to practical helplessness. Ya think?

EDH said...

My high school, in the late 1970s, was one of the first equiped with a TV studio. A daily student "news" broadcast, basically announcements, was piped into each room via closed circuit.

As president of the Forum Club, I got permission to produce it's first weekly debate segment, similar to 60 Minutes' PointCountpoint.

Among less controversial subjects, I remember trying to do a segment on whether locating the bi-lingual and shop classes together in the high school's basement was de facto segregation. (Later, such practices were called "tracking" or "streaming.")

Anyway, after the administration got wind of that, they pulled the plug.

al said...

I would have gone cometely nuts my first 2 years of cubucle life if I hadn't had my woodshop.I've been in cubicle life for over 20 years. Having a garage to go create in keeps me sane (my wife and kids would argue that). I thank shop class in junior high and high school for that. I still have the screwdriver I forged, the hammer I turned on a lathe, the tool box I built, and much more. Still use them all. :)

I was talking to a shop teacher in my daughters high school and he's building the program back up. Getting all kinds of equipment from all over the state (for free!) and getting kids back into the shop and using their hands to build something.

Like our resident Redneck I still fix most of the equipment around the house. No reason to waste money and I hate having strangers in my house.

Doug Sundseth said...

"The average height of today's high-schooler is 3 times less than it was in the 80s."

Indeed. The average high-schooler is now negative eleven feet tall.

And that's a Bad Thing, to be sure.

Seven Machos said...

The problem isn't shop or immigration at all. It's this incredible shrinking of the population.

Used to be, it was just old people. The world is flat, indeed, Mr. Friedman.

fred said...

I would suggest a reading of Studs Terkel, WORKING, which makes clear what is and is not satisfying work.
If you want to get a bit philosphical, then try Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

There is a difference between bing your own electrician and having your own company and being a helping electrician for someone else (same goes for all the jobs mentioned in the articles). And there are only so many of each trade needed in any given community before what they earn is hardly enough to get by on.

Clearly, the author got a good deal out of working with his hands. And so he used his mind andwrote a book to make real money about it.

Seven Machos said...

And there are only so many of each trade needed in any given community before what they earn is hardly enough to get by on.Journalism. Middle management. Law. PhDs. You want me to go on?

You've hit upon the all-important supply part of supply and demand. I'm pretty sure it's not limited to stuff you can learn in shop class.

John Lynch said...

Writers tell the story of people who can't write.

OK, so he's smart, but that doesn't mean what he's saying isn't true.

For myself, it's been the opposite. All my blue collar jobs have been frustrating as hell. I only really enjoy working with my mind. So, different strokes.

traditionalguy said...

Americans were 90% farmers 100 years ago. The trades and construction workers came out of that store of practical skills. Today the jobs for skilled labor are gone to Japan and China. The American education curriculum today focuses on how to enter the political system and take over Governing something for a living. There are less and less of those jobs needed. Health care is needed for the Governing Class, but the rest will soon become treated like the surplus/inconvenient burdens they are when measured in the new World Monetary Units. By the way,how are the farmers who were so highly skilled in the agricultural industry doing up against The Governing Classes in Zimbabwe/Rhodesia these days?

doofus said...

Many of my friends who work as programmers/IT/sysadmin types are really hardcore automotive freaks. They take their cars, strip them down to bare metal and rebuild them into hot-rods. Kind of the 60's hot-rod culture on steroids. I personally am working on putting together my own Cobra kit car (think of it as my personal protest against the auto bailouts...).

The real point is that a lot of these "information" workers still have to get their jollies doing this more blue-collar "shop-class" work.

Of course, they go at it in a whole different way. Their mods almost invariably include some set of wide band data sensors as well as an information logging system that allows them to plug in their laptops to a data port and pull out enough information about their car to make an Indy team envious.

Then, of course, there will be the real-time fuel injection monitoring and modification software on the laptop...


Eli Blake said...

The average height of today's high-schooler is 3 times less than it was in the 80s.I was going to say that your comment was stupid the first time I read it, but 'three times less' height means that if, say they were 6 feet tall then they'd be two feet tall now.

Seen any two foot tall high schoolers?

Maybe in Munchkinland High School.

And the sad thing is, that's about the most intelligent thing you said at all.

Eli Blake said...

As to the original post I'd only add this:

In my job I get to work with a lot of young people. That includes a lot of them whose parents have always pushed them towards college but they aren't sure either what they want to do with their life or whether they are cut out for college. In many cases the real problem is that they need a year or two after graduating high school to figure out what direction to push their life in.

So my advice to them is that they should start a course of study in something like yes, construction, plumbing or auto mechanics. It's relatively cheap to do so, and in a couple of years when they figure out where nirvana is they won't be saddled with a mountain of debt and they may have learned something that will be useful down the road.

Eli Blake said...

They do a good job of teaching shop-related subjects at our little local school here, but that's because we live hundreds of miles from anything that might be called a major city so there is a much better chance that the kids here will actually need skills related to regular living.

One drawback is it's disquieting how many of the young people from here do end up moving to the city-- probably because they can make more money fixing toilets in rich people's houses than they can fixing them on farms.

CharlesVegas said...

This presentation by Mike Rowe ("Dirty Jobs") at the 2008 TED conference is a must see.

"Mike Rowe, the host of "Dirty Jobs," tells some compelling (and horrifying) real-life job stories. Listen for his insights and observations about the nature of hard work, and how it’s been unjustifiably degraded in society today."


Oligonicella said...

I have a degree, I spent 35 years in IT, I built my last house by hand (sans foundation). None of these are exclusive things.

" average guys who could have learned trades feel when they end up slotted into Dilbert cubicles."

"Average." Wow. Whether you meant it or not, that comes across quite demeaning.

Diamondhead said...

The summer before my senior year in college, I worked for a moving company. It was exhausting physical labor, and the temperature in the truck averaged probably 115 degrees. I drank two gallons of Gatorade over the course of the 12-13 hour day. But there's no beer like the one consumed after a day like that. And I slept like a baby. Nothing in public accounting has been as fulfilling as that. I'm not saying I'd trade positions now, but I remember it fondly and yes, envy those who work with their hands and muscles.

Maxine Weiss said...

'three times less' height means that if, say they were 6 feet tall then they'd be two feet tall now."


(Except that I never said they were 6 feet tall , and not everybody measures height in terms of feet)

(Maybe you should try to read for context instead of trying to parse the mathematical semantics of people that you'll never measure up to !)


Ann Althouse said...

You can't say "average guys" anymore?

Political correctness marches on.

Nick Carter said...

I graduated with a BA, major in philosophy after switching from Computer Engineering. I met my wife while travelling around and we started making jewelry, which led to lapidary work, and then to my learning machining. Through that I ended up selling small machine tools on the internet to a cross section of American tinkerers. We still make jewelry as well. I'm so glad I accidentally ended up working with my hands, as soon as I first used a lathe a part of my brain clicked with it, as though I had been meant to do it all along.

Without machinists, there is nothing. No industry, no cubicles, no cars, no food because the tools that are used to make the instruments of production all rely on the machinist.

Skipper50 said...

I'm continually amazed at the jobs people have that they cannot explain. We have innumerable organizers, coordinators, consultants, commentators, and this and that, all of which have no discernable value. Doesn't anybody do useful work anymore?

rhhardin said...

The distinction is that average guys don't have fragile egos.

rhhardin said...

I met my wife while travelling around and we started making jewelry, which led to lapidary work,

Butterflies on everything!

Maxine Weiss said...

What I like is the laddering:

Executive Specialist I
Chief Executive Specialist II
Lead Administrator III
Business Dev. Specialist IV

Lotsa special people !

Oligonicella said...

It's more like it sounded that you think trades are for 'average' people. I know brilliant people in the trades. Hardly average.

An Edjamikated Redneck said...

Skipper50 said...
I'm continually amazed at the jobs people have that they cannot explain. We have innumerable organizers, coordinators, consultants, commentators, and this and that, all of which have no discernable value.

Has anybody besids me seen the origanal British series of 'Hitchhickers guide to the Galaxy'?

John Lynch said...

OK, here's another way of thinking about it.

This guy is exceptional. He got an education. If he hadn't, he probably would not have written a book and gotten it published.

Most good writers (most) have a college education. His message can still be true even if he is a well educated writer.

Writers have been writing about people less privileged than themselves for a long time. Take The Kite Runner. That wasn't written by a typical Afghan. That doesn't mean it isn't a good insight into ordinary Afghans' lives.

I don't think he disproved his thesis at all just because his life experience is exceptional. If it wasn't we wouldn't be hearing it at all.

John Lynch said...

Redneck, yes, and they all get sent away.

Remember what happened to the planet once they were gone, though.

Diamondhead said...

Is there a good way to express the point Althouse was making without using the phrase "average guy?" Limiting expression through enforced political correctness may not be Newspeak exactly as Orwell conceived of it, but it's a close relative.

Kev said...

Redneck, yes, and they all get sent away.

Remember what happened to the planet once they were gone, though

Yes, everyone who was left "died from a disease contracted via a dirty telephone." Douglas Adams was brilliant, but he didn't anticipate the rise of the cell phone. We wouldn't need a telephone santizer any more than the Golgafrinchans did.

Especially at this point in time, I'd like nothing more than to blast the useless one-third (if it's still that small) of our population into space on a "B" Ark. This would, of course, include bureaucrats of all stripes, educational administrators, the vast majority of middle management, most of Congress, and nearly everyone else who works for the federal government (except for the Pentagon and the really cool parts like NASA).

I'm pretty sure that, aside from their families, nobody else would miss the members of the unproductive class if they went away.

reader_iam said...

It is perhaps a more average experience than generally acknowledged for most people, on average, to have average lives--which, startling often, may involve a mix of so-called average, hands-on occupations with average, so-called knowledge-based hobbies--and vice versa.

(Some may get that point and like it. Some may get that point and not like it. Some may not get that point and like it. Some may not get that point and not like it. Some might think it it's profound, regardless. Some may think it's not profound, without regard. Some may think it's just bullshit.

Just doin' my bit to keep peeps sharp: It's the *sociable/social* aspect that's supposed to be key, after all, in later life [to tie two current threads together, however loosely & etc.].)

Methadras said...

A lot of the trades suffered in the late 80's and 90's. I'm a mechanical engineer, but I also did trade work to supplement those lean times. The lean times for me at least are gone, but I've gone from being a cubicle creature to having my own product design company, but I still work with my hands and have my own machine shop/wood shop. There is nothing more satisfying than for a man to create something with his mind, skills, and hands. Seeing shop classes disappear is a sad state of affairs and I think robbed young boys an outlet for their creative processes. I remember when I was a kid in the boys club and I learned how to work wood in the woodshop. Today that is gone replaced by the liabilities from lawyers and the effete snobbery of the elite to look down on the blue collared trades masses.

But when your plumbing needs fixing, who do you call? When you need to spend a million dollars on a make-over who do you call? Want to make something from nothing? Who do you call? Someone that works with their hands, that's who. I hope to see a larger influx of the trades and shop classes again. Bring it all back, woodshop, metalshop, autoshop. All of it.

Largo said...

I'm glad to see something new written on this theme. When I encountered Soulcraft some years ago, it influenced my approach to teaching high school computing.

Computer programming as an industrial art resonates more in the professional open source programming community than it does in the high schools (think of it as carpentry rather than mathematics). Rather than (just) the mathematically astute, I would like to attract the academic underachievers who might otherwise show themselves to me gifted gearheads in machine shop.)

Crawford emphasizes work of the hands. I want to generalize that. To put it vaguely, much 'knowledge work' is more conceptually that technically oriented. Even in technical legal writing (say), the product is pretty much an arrangement and presentation of concepts.

To put it more clearly - much writing of computer code is more akin to shop work than to other mind work. Perhaps because it meant to be read my machines rather than (just) humans, it has to -work- in a way that other writing need not. It is less forgiving.

Tinkering with computer code is more like tinkering with a car than tinkering with a novel. The way in which it is more similar to novel writing than auto mechanics -- that you are manipulating words rather than nuts and bolts -- lacks significance I think. In writing and tinkering with code, the words are the nuts and bolts.

A distinction can be made between software carpentry and software engineering, I think (and both is different from computer science). Software 'carpentry' is the level of software that young people can get a grasp of quickly, and is the kind of programming that actually dominates in terms of man-hours. It is hardly trivial -- just as carpentry is hardly trivial -- but like carpentry, it provides quick reward for 'hands-on' practice.

Sorry, this is more of a thesis than a comment. But do any of you see the value of an industrial arts approach to teaching programming in high school?

AllenS said...

I never went to college so I had to make a living working with my hands. I love building/fixing things. I own a welder, torch, drill press, parts cleaner, 2 types of sand blasters, chop saw, metal band saw, press, engine puller, transmission jack, engine stand, paint gun, table saw, radial arm saw, and more...

I completely disassembled and restored a 1966 Austin Healey 3000, and my 1946 John Deere Model H tractor. That included overhauling the motors. I did the body working and the painting.

I had about 20 friends who bring their lawn mowers, ice augers, chainsaws over and other things to be fixed/welded when they don't work. Last winter I built an overhead gantry crane for my chain hoist to lift exceptionally heavy objects.

I could go on, but you get the picture.

AllenS said...

I have about 20 friends...

Largo said...

Astonishing. I just read through the article. As I read, one name kept coming to mind.

Ayn Rand.

An Edjamikated Redneck said...

Largo- I have just one quibble; you can't get dirty writing code, and I think dirt is a key component of manly creation.

An Edjamikated Redneck said...

I am also reminded of the old joke about the lawyer who called a plumber to fix a leaky drain.

When the lawyer saw the charge was $250 an hour he was astonished. 'I don't make $250 an hour' he said.

'Neither did I when I was a lawyer' replied the plumber.

Frodo Potter said...

Kudos to you Largo for a very well thought out analogy--very trenchant analysis! In many ways, you are right: working on computers and writing code is indeed much more like shop class than it is, say journalism. I agree with you that this is something that could be fruitful for a high school to look into.

Having said, that I must emphasize the word *could.* An Edjamikated Redneck is exactly right when he says one needs to get dirty. The proverbial dirt under the fingernails is important not because it makes one more manly, but because, as Crawford points out: if it can be done over wires, it can be outsourced.

As Crawford writes, “But there are also systemic changes in the economy, arising from information technology, that have the surprising effect of making the manual trades — plumbing, electrical work, car repair — more attractive as careers. The Princeton economist Alan Blinder argues that the crucial distinction in the emerging labor market is not between those with more or less education, but between those whose services can be delivered over a wire and those who must do their work in person or on site. The latter will find their livelihoods more secure against outsourcing to distant countries.”

So Largo, I think when it comes to writing code, Americans are probably screwed, if not already, then very soon. On the other hand, the guys in the Geek Squad, independent computer mavens, customizers, etc. could be fairly secure for the time being.

One quick point, Largo. I think I might know what you mean about this relating to Ayn Rand, but am not sure. Could you elaborate?
Oligonicella is entirely right that some of the people in blue collar trades are brilliant. Many of them have an intuitive grasp of geometry and trigonometry and, had they had a chance, might have been A+ students in the higher realms of mathematics.

Methadras mentions the effete snobbery of elites. Having worked in both blue collar jobs and academia, I can tell you without fear of contradiction that some of the biggest snobs are Marxist academics. Country club Republicans tend to be snobs in a rather clueless way. Liberal academics genuinely loathe working people. Crawford is the rare exception--and he is out of academia. It’s an irony I often ponder.

rhhardin said...

as Crawford points out: if it can be done over wires, it can be outsourced.

It can also be insourced.

Oligonicella said...

reader_iam --

Nice. Good rhythm too.

rhhardin --

"It can also be insourced."

Yeah. The only problem I've witnessed with that is the entitlement mentality that a lot of IT (old and new) have about salary levels.

Corporate wise, it's kind of at work in reverse. "You'll work for $40K? Must not be that good. Hire the Pakistanian for $35K."

kentuckyliz said...

Not get dirty working with computers? Our IT staff set up networks and they're always crawling around on the floor. Our IT programs include the option to get certified in pole climbing--an extremely good employability booster. They go over to the telephony training lab to take the training.

Our IT students work on setting up wiring and networks in new and existing buildings and have to carry tools, wear hard hats, and crawl around behind ceilings, walls, and in ducts. In fact, when back-injured disabled physical workers come for retraining and think they're going into computer networking, I tell them what to discuss with their doctor to see if they are capable of meeting the physical demands without aggravating their injuries.

Largo said...

@Frodo: Thank you for your kind words. You make an important point about outsourcing which which will remain for me, for better or for worse, at most a peripheral interest. Even when working as a teacher I cannot be bothered to think of whether and how much I have been paid (I am thankful to my wife that she is more interested). For the same reasons, I struggle to concern myself with grading. It is all incidental to the interesting stuff.

There is a degree of getting hands dirty. I like my students to be able to strip a physical network down to parts, and to rebuild it services and all. I would like to someday try building novel logic and control circuits with them from scratch. As for the software side, I see few of them going on to careers in programming. But I am interested in the computer programming for everybody approach. If you want to call your friend, who may be at several different numbers, it should not be hard to program your smart phone to cycle through a list, staying with each number for at most five rings, until your friend is reached. If you have source to the software you use: the know how to at least hack the configurations files, and perhaps to look into the source code and have a go at finding some setting or function call you might tweak (or being able to tell quickly that the code is over your head).

This kind "of hackery-in-the-small" can, at times, greatly improve one's productivity. At the same time, it is so small scale and personalized that the transaction costs make outsourcing not feasible. (But in connection with my teaching interests, this is more a happy accident than a designed outcome).

Imagine being a machine shop teacher, and being an oasis to a group of gear-head kids who have achieved little academically, but who love rebuilding an engine. It is not only shop class that can provide this oasis. Imagine such a student practicing his (or her) center defense, or high dive; or mastering a passage on the French Horn; or running a bridge club after school (but ignore this case, as it is not for credit). What all of these subjects have to offer, to varying but significant degree, is the opportunity for technical mastery, in a community that prizes and appreciates excellence in product. (I would encourage my students to recognize and call attention to whatever shoddiness they might find in their course materials, which my principal did not always appreciate.)

In short, these are all environments that are permeated by the hacker ethos (though seldom identified as an ethos, whether by that name or others). I would tell my computer students, look at the high jump. Dick Fossbury changed the game forever when he won gold in 1968 with his "Fossbury Flop". That was an athletic hack of the highest order!

So I like a class where students are there excitedly, motivated by the joy they get out of excellence, and (reasonable in its place) desire to please their teacher, for the pleasure is a mutual one arising out of a shared valued pursuit. For many PE/Art/Music/Shop teachers, formal academic assessment is not paramount. Grades are largely discretionary, and are not the reason the students want to be there. Computer class could be like that. As it is though, most schools see only two molds for computer classes: the 'how to use powerpoint' mold, and the A-Level/AP academic mode. Would it surprise you to hear that I find it hard to keep down a teaching job?

In spite of that, life is good. I'm not complaining! I will answer your inquiry about Rand in a minute.

(Sorry Ann, this is stuff I have been wanting to make my own blog to talk about for some time, and I can't help but make this reply to Frodo. I hope it has not veered too far off topic. Slap my wrist if I am taking it too far.)

David said...

Pacific Beach Junior High 1970-73. Wood, Plastics, Metal, Electric, Power Mechanics and Graphic Arts. We forged, wrought, brazed, welded, cast molten metal, etched circuit boards, soldered, worked wood, thermal and thermal-set plastics, rebuilt lawnmower engines, read and drew blueprints, silk screened, typeset, ran offset printing press. None of this exists for my own children, except what I am able to teach them. All of these skills I have used all my life. Something is wrong.