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'Why the trades are worth taking a fresh look at'

Matthew B. Crawford, bestselling author, philosopher and motorbike mechanic, writes:

I graduated from a state university in 1989 with a degree in physics, and moved to Los Angeles to look for work in the aerospace industry. I sent out dozens of resumes and got close to zero response. After five months my savings were gone, and I found myself going around the parking lot of a home improvement store putting flyers on the windshields of cars to advertise my services as an electrician. This was work I had done throughout high school and college, starting as a helper when I was fourteen. The flyers said “unlicensed but careful.” I got immediate response. There was more demand for my services as an unlicensed electrician than as a credentialed college graduate. I was glad to have something to fall back on, and went into business for myself, illegally.

I never ceased to take pleasure in the moment, at the end of a job, when I would flip the switch. “And there was light.” It was an experience of agency and competence. The effects of my work were visible for all to see, so my competence was real for others as well; it wasn’t just a private opinion I had of myself. Nor was it something bestowed on me by a diploma.

I was sometimes quieted at the sight of a gang of conduit entering a large panel, bent into nestled, flowing curves, with varying offsets, that somehow all terminated in the same plane. This was a skill so far beyond my abilities that I felt I was in the presence of some genius, and that the man who bent that conduit must have imagined this moment of recognition as he worked.

As a residential and light-commercial electrician, most of my work got covered up inside walls. Still, I felt pride in meeting the aesthetic demands of a workmanlike installation. Maybe another electrician would open up the wall and see it someday. Even if not, I felt responsible to my better self. Or rather, to the thing itself—craftsmanship has been said to consist simply in the desire to do something well, for its own sake.

Some people get 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. A woodshop teacher named Doug Stowe wrote eloquently that "in schools, we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement. Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract, and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged."

A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic, let us say, rather than 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. Further, there is wide use of psychiatric drugs to medicate boys, especially, against their natural bent toward action, the better to "keep things on track," as the school nurse says (think Nurse Ratchet from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). This serves the interests of educators in preserving their own sanity. I know this because I taught briefly in a public high school, and would have loved to set up a Ritalin fogger in my classroom. It is a rare person, male or female, who is naturally inclined to sit still for sixteen years in school, and then indefinitely at work. And yet this has become the one-size-fits-all norm, even as we go on about “diversity” in education.

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. We’ve developed a dichotomy of knowledge work versus manual work, as though they are two very different things. But that’s a distinction that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Say you’re trying to diagnose why a car doesn’t idle properly. That’s not a trivial problem. And more generally I’d say that the different kinds of thinking that go on in the various trades can be genuinely impressive, if we stop to notice it.

Conversely, I think we sometimes romanticise white collar work by presuming it has more intellectual content than it may turn out to actually have. A lot of white collar work gets dumbed down. There is such a thing as the electronic sweatshop, every bit as stultifying as the assembly line. By contrast, what a plumber, electrician, or auto mechanic does is fundamentally different from the assembly line. It can never be reduced to simply following a set of procedures. The physical circumstances in which you do those jobs vary too much for the work to get routinised. It always requires improvisation and adaptability. You fell like a human being, not a cog in a machine.

Obviously, there’s a great diversity of different kinds of work that take place in an office, and some of it is much better than others. More important, I think, than the question of whether you work with your hands or work in an office is the question of whether the job entails using your own judgment. But it is precisely on those grounds that the trades are worth taking a fresh look at. They’re not for everybody, but they can be a good life for someone who wants to use his or her mind at work.

As part of the Edge Foundation’s 10 Year Anniversary, Matthew B. Crawford will be delivering the Edge Annual Lecture on 15th October. Edge is celebrating ten years championing technical, practical and vocational learning.

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