A rich and evocative article called “The Case for Working With Your Hands” appeared in the New York Times Magazine this week. The author, Matthew B. Crawford, left the world of the cubicle to run his own motorcycle repair shop. In so doing he was returning to a love of machines that had given him great pleasure as a teenager and young man –- a love suppressed for a number of years while Crawford trod the standard educational path to success.
It is precisely this path — often called a “track” — that Crawford asks us to reconsider:
A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic rather than to accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not self-destructive. There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions. …
The trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience. … I have found the satisfactions of the work to be very much bound up with the intellectual challenges it presents. And yet my decision to go into this line of work is a choice that seems to perplex many people.
Crawford recommends the trades for a number of reasons that cross from the economic to the social to the personal:
On the economic front, consider: Workers in the trades cannot be replaced by foreign workers. He quotes Princeton economist Alan Blinder “You can’t hammer a nail over the Internet.” You can’t fix a car, unclog a drain, remove a dead tree, resize a ring, or replace a broken window over the Internet either.
Socially, every trade immerses its members inside a community with standards of excellence that help to shape the work ethic, and even the personal virtues, of those who practice it. Of course, all professions help to shape and form those who practice them, but particularly in the trades, because they deal daily with brute physical reality, this formation is honest and grounded:
There is an ethic of paying attention that develops in the trades through hard experience. It inflects your perception of the world and your habitual responses to it. This is due to the immediate feedback you get from material objects and to the fact that the work is typically situated in face-to-face interactions between tradesman and customer.
As the school year comes to a close around the country with college plans in upheaval for many due to the economic situation, perhaps these words from Crawford will be of comfort and even be a sign post to a different path.
If the goal is to earn a living, then, maybe it isn’t really true that 18-year-olds need to be imparted with a sense of panic about getting into college (though they certainly need to learn). Some people are hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, against their own inclinations and natural bents, when they would rather be learning to build things or fix things.
Make. Build. Fix. Maybe that’s just what this country needs — more verbs, less verbiage.