In Praise of Competence

In Praise of Competence

The information economy may render good old-fashioned craftsmanship a thing of the past.

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THE SOURCE: “Shop Class as Soulcraft” by Matthew B. Crawford, in The New Atlantis, Summer 2006.

The ­21st-century rat race

requires every warm body to go to college and from there to the cubicles where workers begin their ­career-­long glide through the supposedly crystalline air of the information economy, writes Matthew B. Crawford, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia. It is time to reconsider an ideal that has fallen out of favor: manual ­competence.

Skills that require the ability to perfect something concrete are derided as “jobs of the past.” While manufacturing jobs have flowed away from America like lava down a steep slope, manual work has not. If a deck needs to be built, or a car repaired, the Chinese are no help. They are in China. And one of the surest paths to a good living is the manual trades, although that is not the main reason to pursue them, Crawford writes. The principal reason to develop manual competence is intrinsic satisfaction.

As a teenager Crawford worked as an electrician, and after attending college he started a small firm. “In those years 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 had a social currency. The ­well-­founded pride of the trades­man is far from the gratuitous ­‘self-­esteem’ that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.”

Craftsmanship means learning to do one thing really well. It is the opposite of the modern profes­sional’s ­credo, which venerates ­the management consultant, for example, who can swoop into different companies and whip under­performing divisions into shape. Craftsmanship means dwelling on one task for a long time to get it right. In ­management-­speak, that culture is called “ingrown.” By contrast, the roving consultant has soaring ­freedom.

Yet thousands of years ago, Aristotle recognized the weaknesses of the virtual as opposed to the con­crete. Lack of experience diminishes our power to take a comprehensive view of the facts, the philosopher said. Those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena are better able to lay down principles of wide and coherent ­usefulness.

How did it happen that manual work, given its intrinsic richness, cognitively, socially, and psychically, became so devalued? Crawford attributes the decline to “scientific management,” the discipline that arose in the last century to boost the efficiency of factories. He quotes Frederick Winslow Taylor, an early evangelist of workplace efficiency, who called for managers to gather all the knowledge possessed by workmen and then classify it and reduce it to minute rules. “All possible brain work should be removed from the shop and centered in the planning or ­lay-­out department,” Taylor wrote. This made it possible to hire workers who were less skilled and less ­expensive.

With the degradation of manual labor on the factory floor, the decline accelerated. Now Crawford sees a similar trend in office work, as more people are employed as disseminators, rather than originators, of information. The rising tide of “knowledge work,” he says, will not lift all boats. “More likely is a rising sea of clerkdom.”

By all means, go to college, Crawford advises young people. But in the summers, and for life, many would be well advised to pursue a manual trade. Tomorrow’s craftsman will be less damaged and quite possibly better paid than the legions of ­cubicle-­dwelling tenders of information ­systems.

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