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.

In Defense of English Majors, Part III

I have written two other posts about this:

Part I

Part II

Yes. Yes yes yes.

Over at The New Criterion, Mark Bauerlein takes up the recent flurry of articles, blog posts, research studies and news stories about the decline of “the humanities” in education.

And he entices us with a fantastic title that I could not resist, and hopefully you can’t either:

“What Dido did, Satan saw and O’Keeffe painted.”

He very rightly points out that most of the people who are attempting to salvage or defend or praise the humanities are doing it in the wrong way. They say things like: studying the humanities makes us critical thinkers! The great books help us to be better businesspeople! The liberal arts “free” us and make us nicer! Companies are actually looking for English majors who can string a coherent sentence together! All this reading and writing pays off.

Perhaps you are already seeing the ridiculous mistake.

A taste of Bauerlein’s analysis:

In a word, the defenders rely on what the humanities do, not what they are. If you take humanities courses, they assure, you will become a good person, a critical thinker, a skilled worker, a cosmopolitan citizen. What matters is how grads today think and act, not what Swift wrote, Kant thought, or O’Keeffe painted. No doubt, all of the defenders love particular novels and films, symphonies and paintings, but those objects play no role in their best defense. Ironically, the approach resembles the very utilitarianism the defenders despise, the conversion of liberal education into a set of instruments for producing selected mentalities and capabilities. (Bauerlein, “What Dido Did,” The New Criterion)

Yes, this is the problem.


When I worked as a marketing intern in the Admissions Office at UD, I encountered it frequently. How can one possibly market a Catholic liberal arts education in this economy? How can we show parents that spending their money on us will be worth it? What accolades can we cite? What statistics do we have? What successful graduates can we laud?

Bauerlein also points out that not only are the anti-utilitarians making utilitarian arguments, they are also missing the real thing itself. What do they mean by “the humanities,” exactly? What subjects? What books? They avoid that rather obvious question altogether.

The paradox is this: They affirm, extol, and sanctify the humanities, but they hardly ever mention any specific humanities content. The American Academy report terms the humanities “the keeper of the republic,” but the names Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Bernini, Leonardo, Gibbon, Austen, Beethoven, Monet, Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Martha Graham never surface. (Ibid)

My guess is that this is because “the humanities,” if you sat down and tried to name the authors you meant by that euphemism, are mostly dead white men (with notable exceptions). And in today’s culture, it is very unpopular to extol the wisdom of dead white men.

Moreover, the “outcomes” these humanities defenders insist make the vague and undefined humanities worthwhile are also always too vague and undefined to be convincing. (“Critical thinking skills?” What is that anyway? And didn’t we learn that in high school? “Global citizenship?” “Being more human?”) Nobody will argue with these noble outcomes, but nobody will sacrifice a $100,000 a year paycheck for them either.

Pardon yet another quote, but I think Bauerlein just might be referring to UD students here:

People back the humanities with their feet and pocketbooks because they savored Monet’s seascapes, got a thrill when Frederick Douglass resolves to fight Mr. Covey, and relax after work with Kind of Blue or Don Giovanni. They had an 11th Grade English teacher who made Elizabeth Bennet and Henry V come alive, or they recall a month in Rome amid the Pantheon, St. Peter’s, the Trevi Fountain, and Apollo and Daphne as a high-point of their college days. (Ibid)

Although we spend a lot more than “a month” there. Ahem.

Interestingly enough, I think his main point here has a lot to do with the problem I was exploring in my Dissecting the Frog post. As English teachers, how do we balance inspiring our students to experience the mystery of the story, and at the same time demand rigorous analysis, while never turning that story into a mere specimen to be picked apart so that it is no longer recognizable? I don’t know how, exactly. I’m fumbling my way toward it.

Another part of the problem I have noticed is this: as Flannery says, “Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it” (Mystery and Manners, via The problem is that high school is democratic — it is for everybody. Increasingly, and perhaps for all practical purposes now, so is college. So how do you teach art to everybody? To the students who don’t want to be there and who could care less about art?

The wide-eyed optimistic teacher in me would say, “But they do care. They just don’t know it yet! Or maybe they don’t right now, but they will, once I show them how beautiful Homer is. Because they are human and they are drawn to goodness, beauty and truth.”

The first few months of teaching in ACE almost cured me of that delusion, though strangely I still cling to it.

In class, the other day, I was trying to get my kids to get beyond their hatred of reading anything remotely challenging so that they could see, for a moment, the horror of Achilles dragging Hector’s body around the walls of Troy. So I told them to stop, put their pens down, pick their heads up, and look at me. Then, silently calling upon the Muses to sing in me the wrath of Achilles, I described the scene to them in my own clumsy words.


In that fifth period class, there was a long silence afterward– especially because I tried to draw for them Priam and Hecube and Andromache with little baby Astyanax staring down from the wall, transfixed in horror.

Yet my words are not Homer’s — and they are not even Edith Hamilton’s. But what do you do when your students won’t even bother reading Hamilton’s?

“Exposure works better than explanation, participation better than entreaty” (Bauerlein).

Yet not all of them will choose to participate. Not all of them will care. Most of them will never bother with “the humanities” because they are “boring” and “I don’t get it” and “this is hard, Ms. Shea.” And maybe it is not even right of me to demand that they care. I am sure that God does not want everyone to be an English major. Scientists, politicians, and businessmen are noble professions too.

But perhaps some of my students will care, no matter to what vocation they are ultimately called — and these students may not always be the ones you (or I) would expect.

As Flannery says,

The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery. (O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose via