The Work at Hand

April 18, 2017

Our society is beset with so many problems it is sometimes difficult to know which to address first. This blog post isn’t about resisting the corrupt U.S. administration, or confronting global climate change, however. I want to discuss something far more basic about the nature of work, the work of thinking.

The expression, “the work at hand” is common in English, and I expect also in many other languages (though I haven’t looked at others except French and Italian). We seldom think about why we associate “work” with “hands,” or refer to intellectual work using this same expression, even though our mind isn’t engaged in manual labor. In past blogs I have  talked about the need for more education in hand skills and craftsmanship, but even that topic isn’t relevant to the present discussion.

The reason that humans use expressions that associate abstract thinking with “manual” or hand-centered activity is that our brains evolved long ago to monitor and control the  body, and never lost that vital connection. Mirror neurons, discovered in the 1990s, fire when we are looking at another human who is doing some kind of manual task such as stirring a pot of stew–the motor neurons in our brain that control the hand, arm, and wrist fire as if we, too, are doing the stirring. All of this is unconscious, of course.

There is in fact so much unconscious processing going on in our brains during waking hours that we seldom stop to reflect on what is going on behind the scenes. Neuroscientists have been looking on the other side of the curtain for the past decade or so, and now have some startling news about “grounded cognition” that are just reaching a popular audience. For them, the work at hand involves mapping functional areas of the brain in order to understand emotions, memory, behavior, perception, mental illnesses, and many other things that we all care about. There’s a real urgency to their research, though our government doesn’t seem to think so.

I want to remind my readers that brain science is, at this moment, more important than rocket science, economics, political science, or even physical sciences. Because if we don’t understand our brains, our work to improve the quality of life on Earth will not advance far enough to save us from the unconscious behaviors that have led us to the mess we’re in–all those nagging problems we confront every day. Let’s work on that.

Wang Shu, Anti-architect

August 13, 2012

China has made its position clear on how to develop new towns, cities, and campuses: hire expensive Western Starchitects to design prototype buildings and ensembles, then copy them ad infinitum until you have a Modernist nightmare. The 2008 Olympics set the tone, and Chinese have been complaining ever since.

Strange, then, that China’s only Pritzger laureate is Wang Shu, an architect who hates Western-style excess and lives in the middle of nowhere. Jane Perlez of the New York Times has visited him in Hangzhou, and observed that all of his buildings are “touched by old China” and that he “is an outlier in his profession.”

It’s hard not to like Mr. Wang, who with his wife Lu Wenyu runs a small studio with mainly part-time student help. He practices calligraphy like an old Chinese poet-scholar, and recycles all sorts of traditional building materials in his work. He drives an old station wagon and lives modestly. He took some time off to learn about traditional building craft from old masters. He is nothing like the high-flying darlings of the architectural media in the west.

Of course, once he won his Pritzger, Chinese officials embraced him as their new exemplar and Western academic architects claimed that he was solidly within the “modernist” camp that they espouse. That he finds both of their positions distasteful and hypocritical seems beside the point to the media. Brava to Ms. Perez for pointing some of this out in her article.

It’s hard to be a real revolutionary in a culture where everything is immediately consumed and labeled. Mr. Wang and Ms. Lu are clearly railing against the status quo in their quiet way. They are acutely aware of the effects of government corruption, land graft, and the alienation of Modernist urbanism. In a very real sense they are anti-architects, at least as the profession is currently practiced in China and almost everywhere else. Hurray for that.

Building Brains by Hand

April 1, 2011

A century ago John Dewey introduced a radical idea in American education, then dominated by instruction in the “Three Rs.” At his Chicago Laboratory School, teachers gave elementary school pupils “the materials of life” and asked them to work with their hands to learn skills that their parents had practiced as farm hands and laborers. In a modern industrial society the idea seemed counter-intuitive–why bother with old fashioned hand tools when the machine would make such labor obsolete?

Modern neuroscience has proved that learning through hand skills is fundamental to building the circuitry that young brains need to develop higher order reasoning. Moreover, society needs citizens who are capable of solving practical problems that require more than just a knowledge of Microsoft Windows. Children spend an increasing amount of their time in front of screens, meaning less and less exposure to the outdoors, to the pleasure of manual labor, and an increasing lack of practical knowledge that sustained previous generations. Faced with budget cuts, our public schools are giving up on courses in music, art, and hand skills–even basic auto mechanics and wood shop.

It should come as no surprise that parents in some affluent areas of the country are trying to enrich their children’s education with programs that have fallen by the wayside in most schools. More surprising, perhaps, is the trend toward bringing what used to called “manual trades” education back into the lives of younger kids. The New York Times Home Section on Thursday featured an article, “Big Tools for Little Hands,” that documents this phenomenon. It appears that Dewey’s methods are re-entering the mainstream.

I wrote a book on Gustav Stickley’s educational program at Craftsman Farms, and have written in this blog about hand craftsmanship. It makes sense to me that Americans, indeed most post-industrial citizens, are rediscovering the necessity of hand craftsmanship and so-called “manual” skills in education. I won’t go into all the reasons why this is so, but seeing children enraptured by making things out of wood at Construction Kids in Brooklyn fills my heart with joy.

It is  ironic that our society is dismantling an education system that was the envy of the world, while small groups of Americans rededicate their lives and careers to bring such wonderful experiences to the lives of young children. I am a believer that little things make a big difference. This is one seems to be doing just that. Hooray for hammers.

“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.