10 June 2009: The edification of working with your hands

The edification of working with your own hands

A friend tells me of her nephew, a recent high school graduate bungling down a dead-end street, who turns his nose up, as my mother would phrase it, at any job that involves getting his hands dirty.

The depth of her frustration is made evident by her wry comment about him being busted for shoplifting.

“He says he doesn’t like getting his hands dirty, but then he turns around and steals,” she seethes. “So, now his hands are dirty.”

She is insightful to frame his attitude metaphorically: hands dirtied by stealing versus dirt and grease under one’s fingernails from honest labor.

In addition, she gets at a pervasive attitude that is condescending towards manual labor and those who work with their hands for a living.

In a piece in the New York Times Magazine, Matthew B. Crawford, who has earned a PhD. in political philosophy, explores from personal experience the edifying aspects of working with one’s hands as opposed to what Dilbert-like corporate automatons “do.”

Crawford tells of his journey from brilliant academic to motorcycle mechanic extraordinaire. While not castigating the former as much as extolling the new, Crawford relates how he has been able to put to very practical use the complex thinking skills he developed over his years in academia, using surgeon-like adeptness, for example, in retrieving a feeler gauge from the crankcase of a Kawasaki Ninja.

He did so through “the use of a stethoscope, another pair of trusted hands and the sort of concentration we associate with a bomb squad.”

By describing the account of doing open-heart surgery on the machine, Crawford touches on an essential point that delineates the divide between manual and non-manual efforts: When working with one’s hands, the evidence of success or failure is immediately visible to the observer.

“When finally I laid my fingers on that feeler gauge,” he writes, “I felt as if I had cheated death. I don’t remember ever feeling so alive as in the hours that followed.”

In this case, Crawford succeeded, and he attributes much of his success to acquired higher-level thinking skills that allowed him to “come up with several imagined trains of cause and effect for manifest symptoms.”

We witness that when we take our vehicle to a “technician,” who hooks it to a computer to assess what’s wrong, rather than an old-school mechanic who diagnoses the squeal, hum, or plinkety-plink noise we masked by turning up the radio by simply listening to it.

I tell the story of my first manual creation, a bottle opener formed from a strip of metal. I was in the eighth grade, and periodically we Catholic school students would march to the public junior high for the girls to learn cooking and sewing and the boys, metal and woodworking.

I felt intimidated and uncomfortable moving from my academic comfort zone, wherein I generally excelled. My manual skills were correlated to advanced pencil sharpening, it seemed, not having had a mentor to instill in me rudimentary sawing and hammering skills and the desire for such, an advantage many of my peers had.

The bottle opener looked anything like but a bottle opener and was the subject of much good-natured ribbing from peers. The notch was erratically carved and the hole at the other end was off-center and drilled on an angle. It was barely operational. But I had made it and took embarrassing pride in my efforts.

In hindsight, I can see it was confidence I lacked at that young age, and it was not until I worked as a laborer in construction during my college years I learned how to drive an 8d nail with less than eight taps by not choking the hammer.

It would have been great to have had a greater opportunity to develop my innate creative skills at an earlier age, but regardless of hammering ability, my trajectory would have been, nonetheless, into the world of academia.

How many others, though, have I talked to over the years, often parents at conferences that ended up in some white collar endeavor, who expressed regret they hadn’t followed their dream of being a carpenter or artist or…?

Crawford writes, “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.”

He notes that push has failed, miserably, I will add, not only for society but also for the men and women programmed to be capitalistic eunuchs.

And that imperative has had enduring implications for public education, but more about that next week.

Aside: In response to my article about deer and dandelions, one reader suggested including dandelion leaves in salad or stir fry. Having considered that option, I’m standing with the deer.

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