Work 2.0–smell the sawdust

May 24, 2009

“Knowledge workers,” according to the conventional wisdom, are America’s ticket to prosperity and happiness in the 21st century. Armed with graduate degrees in obscure scientific, technological and financial subjects, these new workers will sit at computers endlessly reinventing the world as we know it, adding “value” to products and services, and generating billions in new wealth.

Why then, are so many younger people jumping off the bandwagon and starting small handicraft businesses? Why has “homemade” music entered the lexicon of popular culture? Why do many sustainability gurus advocate low tech, handmade solutions?

To those of us who deal with craftsmanship and handwork as a matter of course, the answer is simple–people need to feel connected to the things they produce. This principle guided the leaders of the Arts & Crafts movement over a century ago. It has come to mean more to today’s disaffected workers as the bubble economy fades each week amidst concerns about job security. This week’s New York Times Magazine legitimized this trend with an article by Matthew B. Crawford, a young man with a Ph.D. who works as a motorcycle mechanic and loves his job.

“The trades suffer from low prestige,” he writes, “and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience.” Crawford’s positive experience is a revelation only because our society has so skewed the relationship between work and what John Dewey called “the materials of life.” As children proceed in school, their learning takes them further and further from the hands-on joys of things like gardening, woodworking, household arts, and mechanical repairs. By the time our children reach college, they have been brainwashed into believing that working with their hands is a low class option. Even when they see plumbers, stone carvers and woodworkers earning higher wages than they do, they persist in reaching for “knowledge work.”

This situation contributes to a sickness in our society. People in all walks of life are suffering from anxiety, low self esteem, despair over their future, and a general malaise in the workplace. Especially among the so-called working class and recent immigrants, the misplaced desire for betterment through “higher” education robs children of their natural intelligence when they are discouraged from working with their hands.

There is only one college in the United States devoted solely to the building trades–The American College of Building Arts in Charleston, S.C. Europe has myriad schools of this kind, and children there find alternative courses that lead to jobs in the culinary arts, handicrafts and other endeavors that do not require advanced degrees. It is time that American educators recognized the need for such avenues to self-fulfillment. Perhaps with the demise of Wall Street, we will wake up and smell the sawdust.

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