View Full Version : O/T (sort of): Reconsidering the manual arts

08-13-2009, 09:07 PM

While trolling the web recently I came across a link for an essay (and a book) that I think our readers would appreciate. Here it is: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/24/magazine/24labor-t.html

As you can see, the author has a Ph.D in philosophy from a prestigious school, but gave it up in preference for a vocation as a motorcycle mechanic. His reasoning, and his philosophical musings on the value and purpose of doing meaningful and productive work with one's hands, will strike a sympathetic chord with many of us.

I've been talking about these issues a lot with some of my local ex-pat friends here in China, one of whom has a prototype/model making shop next door to my office. He's in despair over the state of mechanical trades in his native England, and if he were the benevolent dictator he would institute a million new apprenticeships in the practical arts. In China hand-work is still practiced routinely, but it lacks a spiritual dimension. It is just labor, not craft. Anyway, food for thought about how a person chooses a livelihood.

Oh, did I mention: I went to the same University, studied the same subject, and when my time came to leave I drove away - on my 1000cc Yamaha, which I worked on in a shed in the same neighborhood as this guy. Small world.

08-13-2009, 11:51 PM
You might enjoy this book also. I did.



08-14-2009, 02:04 AM
Oh, of course I've read that book, several times in fact. Hell, all of us University punks had to carry one around with us wherever we went, as a sign of being intellectually hip. There were a few titles that conveyed to the world your spiritual status, like Catcher in the Rye, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Gravity's Rainbow, On the Road, Sidhartha, etc. This one was a big one for me, at one time.

Notice that the sub-title of Crawford's book is "An inquiry into the value of work". The sub-title for Zen and the Art is: "An inquiry into values". This is not a coincidence, as I'm sure that Crawford would have been very familiar with Pirsig's book. Plagiarism? No, I don't think so. More like a tip of the hat, I believe.

My favorite part of the article, and the larger essay that first appeared in the New Atlantis magazine, is a deft description of the "dark absurdities" of office cubicle life and the warped reality one has to live with in order to survive and thrive there. For a certain kind of person, it can be soul-destroying.

08-14-2009, 03:07 AM
Here are some of the responses in the NYT to the original NYT article.

You may (or may not) identify or relate to/with some of the comment:
http://community.nytimes.com/comments/www.nytimes.com/2009/05/24/magazine/24labor-t.html?scp=2&sq=the%20case%20for%20working%20with%20your%20hand s&st=cse

08-14-2009, 04:34 AM
I like the reply questioning the reasoning that all should go to University as in my mind all you will get is a dilution in the degree's value as in UK where the degrees have become so poor that employers are questioning if they have any value. For my own part I spent some 21 years in a research environment and met all manner of people with degrees , some whom had spent 9 years of their life at the same university obtaining 3 ever higher degrees, whom I would call thick but were very good at exams and had photographic memories.
The engineers and technicians all had to try and make sense of these whizz kids thoughts and ideas and some of which you would not credit to a 6 year old. One I rememeber being shown was a 3/4 " hole drilled into the edge of a 3/4" section of plate!
In the Uk all the old apprenticeships and technical colleges have all been given over to the churning out of students with ever lower quality degree's s this in combination the notion that all employment which involves the use of hands as well as thought is of lower value to society which is propagated by a government who only see value in paper qualifications.
It was nice to read about someone who has put enjoyment in doing a job a little higher than just bringing home the cash.


08-14-2009, 05:00 AM
Personally, I thought the article was a little biased and lacking. He basically had two types of experiences, one which is working with your hands in a field that doesn't require a college degree, and then as some overqualified office automaton. Well, yeah, he has a phd in philosphy, where the goal seems to be to write stuff and think about life or other deep things. I think he is missing the higher education in engineering and science, where you get to work with your hands (sometimes), think, and know that the work you do is useful. Perhaps then he would be less cynical.

The first part of the article was about the joys of "doing stuff" and thinking about problems and troubleshooting. That's pretty much what I did mostly during my graduate education as an experimentalist, so most of what he wrote was already subconscious to me, and probably to any other engineer. IOW, these processes are NOT exclusive to a higher education.

He then contrasts this to an office cubicle job he had. I don't know much about that environment, but I do acknowledge that the priorities are different. Part of his indignation and cynicism comes from being overqualified. One of my relatives has a job that he is somewhat overqualified for, and doesn't make the world a better place, but he has already learned to "shut up and take the money". At least it is well paying. That extra money goes towards his hobbies and standard of living improvement.

In short, I think the author should have been an engineer. It's this intermediate region where you sometimes work with your hands, often on the computer, and deal with office politics, but at least you get some idea why the politics are going on, and oh yeah, when large amounts of money are leveraged, some kinds of inefficiencies and injustice will occur.

08-14-2009, 07:23 AM
Well, as an amateur motorcycle mechanic all my adult life, I agree that there's a lot of joy in it and it certainly relates to the HSM world and welding too.

The only problem with all of this is that motorcycle mechanic's work is rather low-paying in our society. That has nothing whatever to do with the respect I have for the trade. It's just the way things are.

As a young fellow, when I was racing bikes, I worked in three shops as a mechanic on Indians, Harleys and British bikes. I had thought to make it my life's work but reality got in the way. I discovered early on, that it was a low-paying trade with few perks and little recognition.

The typical motorcycle mechanic, they call them technicians now, will be lucky to top out at $35,000 a year. While that used to be OK, it's barely above poverty now, in the U.S. anyway. It's also one of the first jobs to be thinned out when the economy fails. For example, the local Harley Dealer near me is closing one of his shops, something that's never before happened in my memory.

I'm sure that there are places where they make more, but they're few and far between. Had it paid more, enough to live on, might still be at it. Now I have to satisfy my urges with owning and maintaining a motorcycle. It's OK.


08-14-2009, 10:12 AM
I read both articles of his a few months ago, and quickly went out and bought the book. I was very disappointed with the book. The best parts of it was the stuff that was already in the articles he wrote. The rest of the book seemed like fluff, an opportunity for the author to show off how much he 'knows', which was really just grabbing random thoughts from various other authors and thinkers. There seemed to be very little structure to the flow of the book.

It was definitely no match for ZAMM, and I don't think I'll keep it (and I keep almost every book I buy).

He mentioned that he intended the book to originally have some content related to some organ makers that he observed, but that it was decided to put that into a new book. Maybe that book will be better, but I think this book would have been much better if he would have included that part.


08-14-2009, 11:30 AM
If this subject interests you I highly recommend you read
" The Nature and Art of Workmanship " by David Pye.
Pye was a woodworker, and a teacher at UK technical schools for 40 years or so, and this short book covers WHY we like handmade things, and how we make them, better than any I have read.

He covers both ends of the equation- how, like Crawford says, its intrinsically satisfying to work with your hands, but also, how, as a "consumer" we can intuitively tell the difference between hand and machine made, and we like the handmade better.

Handcraftsmanship, and the joy of doing it, never died. It had to hide for a while, after Modernist Architecture, the Industrial Revolution, and Planned Obsolescence all told us it was irrelevent, but in virtually every field of human endeavour, it has survived quietly.

Machining, to me, is a great example- Engineers seem to believe that all they have to do is buy a new $500,000 DMG VMC, and email it a DXF file, and finished parts will pop out the other end.
Which we all know is baloney- you STILL need a person who has learned, over 10 or 20 years, about the actual physical world- which metals act in which ways at which feed, and speed, which brand of inserts actually do what they say, when to clean a sump, or how to finesse software, how to save steps by doing it the "wrong way".
Some of this is even still a hand/eye thing.

There are more blacksmiths in the USA today than any time since about 1910, and many of them are as good as any blacksmiths who have ever lived.
There are probably more skilled custom luthiers out there now than ever before.

And the craftsmen (and women) today have such a broader education than in years past- we actually understand metallurgy and wood moisture percentages, we have debunked various "traditions" that worked for reasons other than what the maker believed- we have tools and technology that can make for better crafts.
I have a friend who is doing Titanium extrusions in mokeme-gane, for instance, that the greatest japanese craftsmen of all time couldnt touch.
He is a craftsman, in exactly the sense of the word that this book by Crawford discusses.

And, due to the current economy, and the fact that public universities in the USA are now often as much as $15,000 a year, plus room and board, the community college system in the USA, which offers technical training, is actually doing pretty well in many areas. My local schools offer really good welding, machining, autobody, and other metals crafts training, in modern facilities, with great teachers who are not academics, but come from industry.

08-14-2009, 05:09 PM
I read both articles of his a few months ago, and quickly went out and bought the book. I was very disappointed with the book. The best parts of it was the stuff that was already in the articles he wrote. The rest of the book seemed like fluff, an opportunity for the author to show off how much he 'knows', which was really just grabbing random thoughts from various other authors and thinkers. There seemed to be very little structure to the flow of the book.

It was definitely no match for ZAMM, and I don't think I'll keep it (and I keep almost every book I buy).

He mentioned that he intended the book to originally have some content related to some organ makers that he observed, but that it was decided to put that into a new book. Maybe that book will be better, but I think this book would have been much better if he would have included that part.

I'm struggling to finish Crawford's book as we speak. I had read an essay from it in the magazine, "The Week" and found that interesting, so bought the book. I too have been largely disappointed. The guy has his PhD in philosophy and his book sounds like his thesis. Lots and lots of fluff, quoting obscure philosophers, densely worded sentences and paragraphs and lots of nonsensical words.

I'm no slouch in the brains department (Masters in EE), but most of these obscure concepts went right over my head, even after rereading the paragraphs a few times. Crawford needs to take off his philosopher's hat and put the mechanics hat back on and bring his writing more down to earth. You have to really separate the wheat from the chaff in his writings. Pull out the salient parts and publish that in a few essays and forget the "head in the clouds" stuff.

I think most of us will agree, that the hands-on arts like machining are much more satisfying in many ways. There's nothing like using your hands to make or put something together to make a bigger whole. It's the earthy, visceral (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/visceral) feeling that we like, getting in touch with our base emotions <grunt, grunt>.

I think that's the whole point of Crawford's book Shop Class as Soulcraft - working with your hands satisfies the soul in ways most other work can't touch. A few years ago, I finished helping put a steam locomotive back together (not running though :( ). I was shaking my head just looking at her in wonderment. Wondering about the men that originally built her almost 100 years ago when most operations were done with manual tools. That was an extremely satisfying moment for me - too far and few in between lately. I spend my days banging out computer code that's becoming less & less satisfying as time goes on.


08-15-2009, 01:28 AM
I find the NYT article thought provoking. But I think that what he may present as a dichotomy is more of a continuum. I just retired from 30 years of university teaching in a field that requires strong contact with reality and the manual arts: photojournalism. When I began, black and white wet-darkroom photography and non-automatic cameras required much manual and technical skill, and making good documentary photos still requires technical skills as well as knowledge and sensivity beyond the photographer’s immediate world.

But at the institution* I was also able to see the entire range from the completely esoteric and obtuse to the immediately useful. I sat on committees populated with both the pompous and the practical; the English professor who, in response to my request for help getting students up to speed on basic language skills, told me, “We don’t emphasize mechanics,” to the old no bull---- sand crab who ran the now defunct university foundry. Most folks, and jobs, fall somewhere in between.

Two important learning experiences of mine were in my early 20s, first with a temporary job at the Post Office one Christmas sorting parcels and loading trucks. Manual work it was, but it also beat the brains out of anyone with a measurable I.Q. The second was during research for my M.A. thesis, when I encountered a reference work titled “Sociological Abstracts.” The titles of many of the dissertations indexed therein could be read as gag lines by Conan Obrien without any additions from his staff writers.

My final comment to my last class when I retired was to remind them of the images we had seen by photographers whose work had made an impact and perhaps had prompted some social change, and urge them to pursue work that, when they are ready to turn in their keys for the last time, will have mattered.


*My email sig line for many years included this:

They don’t call
This place
An institution
For nothing

07-15-2010, 12:47 AM
I have a grandfather clock that is over 200 years old. It still works. I have a mantel clock that is 160 years old and it keeps time to about +- 30 seconds for two weeks on a single winding. I have a wide variety of tools NOT made in China that work just fine after as long as 40 years.

I also buy cheap Chinese made tools to use in situations where I expect the tool to die since I will be seriously abusing it to get the job done. Sometimes I buy a cheap tool to do just one job and as long as it lasts for that it has paid for itself even though I haven't abused it. I spend good money on tools that I will depend on year after year. I hate changing measuring instruments because it leads to mistakes.

When I buy cheap tools I expect minimal utility, just enough to do the job at hand. Cheap electric drills are a good example. Canadian Tire has three quality levels, Jobmate, Mastercraft and Mastercraft Maximum. The Jobmate drill will burn out the motor if you stall it for more than 5 seconds. The Mastercraft drill won't burn out for a minute or more. The Maximum drill won't stall.

Mostly, you get what you pay for, but not all the time.

07-15-2010, 02:39 AM

I never dreamed that there were so many "victims", "losers", whiners and whingers with so much individual and collective hard luck in one country.

It can't be all that bad seemingly all the time - can it? Or is it?

Surely it isn't always someone or everyone else's fault all the time.

My guess is that its your own fault for at least part of it.