An odd couple: shop class and word-craft contra mundum

It does seem rather strange that for the past twenty or more years, although many people have been lamenting the decline of the liberal arts in both the secondary and collegiate levels in favor of more “useful” or career-driven pursuits, there has not necessarily been a comparable rise in techne or craft or apprenticeship in secondary schools. 

There are, at least, robotics classes or robotics after-school clubs, and there are art classes, which involve some kind of physical engagement with material things beyond pen and paper, but there are very few home-ec or shop class courses left in most schools. For all the hand-wringing over reducing classical education in the liberal arts to mere career-prep, one does wonder how useful many of the courses students take in this supposedly utilitarian educational era actually are. The liberal arts and classical education advocates among us may be missing the mark somewhat if we are lamenting an over-emphasis on the practical in education. 

The above musings are provoked by my reading of the first few chapters of Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work for a reading group I recently joined. From the back cover:

Those of us who sit in an office often feel a lack of connection to the material world and find it difficult to say exactly what we do all day. For those who felt hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, Shop Class as Soulcraft seeks to restore the honor of the manual trades as a life worth choosing.

Crawford intersperses personal narrative, detailed descriptions of grappling with stubborn motorcycles with history and philosophy as he diagnoses our dissatisfaction with abstracted office work.  But abstracted office work is often preceded by abstracted schoolwork.

In a chapter entitled “A Brief Case for the Useful Arts,” which paradoxically calls to mind many recent essays attempting to defend the liberal arts and humanities against the encroachment of more pragmatic areas of study, Crawford explains how “blue collar” trade and craftsmanship brings human beings into contact with a stubborn, material world that resists our manipulation and ideological interpretation.

In other words, shop class reorients us toward reality:

The craftsman’s habitual deference [unlike the consumer or typical student] is not toward the New, but toward the objective standards of his craft. However narrow in its application, this is a rare appearance in contemporary life–a disinterested, articulable, and publicly affirmable idea of the good. Such a strong ontology is somewhat at odds with the cutting-edge institutions of the new capitalism, and with the educational regime that aims to supply those institutions with suitable workers—pliable generalists unfettered by any single set of skills. (19, emphasis added)

That last phrase could be easily inserted into many a typical defense of the liberal arts: we aren’t reducing education to “any single set of skills” but are preparing our students for life itself

But when Crawford says “unfettered” here his tone is unmistakably ironic: it is this lack of tethering to concrete things that has unmoored us from reality, from ourselves. 

You could quibble a bit over his identification of man-made objects and tools with the natural, physical world that we did not make, but I see his point.

I wonder… perhaps there could be a rapprochement between the liberal and utilitarian (“servile”?) arts as mutually ennobling and distinctly human endeavors—and mutually resisting the fragmented mishmash of undergraduate ideological offerings at your typical university or the lock-step college-prep courses at your typical high school?

At the risk of stretching his ideas too far, I will say that I’ve been surprised by how so much of what Crawford says about working with cars and motorcycles applies to working with a different kind of reality; not material, but nevertheless stubborn and resistant if you take it seriously: the world of words—of poetry and literature. 

He observes, “The repairman has to begin each job by getting outside his own head and noticing things; he has to look carefully and listen to the ailing machine” (17).

I mean, that description could easily describe Elizabeth Bishop crafting one of her attentive, perceptive poems about a fishhouse or a moose (the latter actually took her twenty years to finish). Her poems, though personal and warm, are famously self-effacing– she “gets outside of her own head and notices things” with a kind of relentless dedication rare even for poets.

In a story about a coffee table he made as a young man, Crawford muses on that object in the same way that many a poet has mused upon the (im)permanence of his poems: “Shared memories attach to the material souvenirs of our lives, and producing them is a kind of communion, with others and with the future” (15). Crawford really sounds like a poet there, reflecting on the ability of his art(ifact) to outlast himself and to bring him into connection with others. One thinks of Keat’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, or Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
   So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

“This,” of course, being the carefully-crafted poem that we’re still reading four hundred years later. Communion with the future, indeed.

In this same section, Crawford quotes philosopher Hannah Arendt in order to explain the satisfaction a mechanic experiences in successfully fixing a particularly troublesome engine, but his reflection speaks just as beautifully to the poetic act:

“The reality and reliability of the human world rest primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced, and potentially even more permanent than the lives of their authors.” All material things turn to dust, ultimately, so perhaps ‘permanence’ isn’t quite the right idea to invoke here. The moral significance of work that grapples with material things may lie in the simple fact that such things lie outside the self. (16)

Later, he argues that shop class has the potential to cultivate the virtue of humility and a unique way of reading the world: “Piston slap may indeed sound like loose tappets, so to be a good mechanic you have to be constantly attentive to the possibility that you may be mistaken. This is an ethical virtue” (99).

And as he interweaves quotes from Iris Murdoch (this guy did get a Ph. D. in political philosophy from U Chicago), Crawford explicitly acknowledges the similarity between artist (poet?) and mechanic that I’ve been noting:

[…] to respond to the world justly, you first have to perceive it clearly, and this requires a kind of “unselfing.” […] “[V]irtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.” This attempt is never fully successful, because we are preoccupied with our own concerns. But getting outside her own head is the task the artist sets herself, and this is the mechanic’s task, too. Both, if they are good, use their imagination “not to escape the world but to join it, and this exhilarates us because of the distance between our ordinary dulled consciousness and an apprehension of the real.” (100, emphasis added)

There’s this strange overlap then, I think, between the “useful arts” and the “liberal arts”, between mechanics and poetics, between shop-class and word-craft—at least insofar as these human activities involve a wrestling with a reality that resists you, that calls you out of yourself and yet, in a way, gives you back to yourself. Both are deeply engaging, and, when done well, ennobling.

I included the phrase “contra mundum” (“against the world”) in this post’s title but maybe I ought to have said “pro mundo” (“for the world”). Both shop class and word-craft are very human activities that can orient us in a more humble attitude toward the world, yet against worldliness, and I think Crawford would agree with me there. It’s odd, isn’t it, to associate techne (practical knowledge) so closely with sophia (wisdom)?

But then again, Jesus was a carpenter.



2 thoughts on “An odd couple: shop class and word-craft contra mundum

  1. This post resonated with me as I re-read Frost (my current “kitchen book” when waiting for water to boil). So many of his poems celebrate farming and husbandry skills – useful to be sure – and erase the divide between doing and the contemplation of work being done in a larger context. Seamus Heaney also comes to mind with his poems involving peat digging. The people I know who do useful things really well and derive satisfaction from their craftsmanship view them in this larger context.

    1. So true. I guess perhaps not all poems are written in such a way, but I find this approach in the poets I love best. Yeats said something like if a poet’s work seems “more than a moment’s thought / all our stitching and unstitching has been for naught”–and I suppose I agree– but sometimes if you see a little bit of the stitching it’s just as moving. I guess that’s also why I really love Wilbur and other “formalists”– the sestina or sonnet or villanelle restrictions are boundaries the poet must continually bump up against, but some of the greatest poets seem so free even within these restrictions. I like free verse poems too, but I think many of them go off the rails without anything humble to tether them.

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