One antidote to the disengagement, disinterest and disruption of schooling: working with your hands

shop class soulcraft coverSunday’s NY Times Magazine had an article titled The Case for Working With Your Hands which is adapted from the new book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Mathew Crawford (available in downtown Northfield at Monkey See Monkey Read). I started getting interested in this topic back in March after reading the comments to my blog post, Whither the clocks of the Middle School Industrial Technology classes?  It was brought home to me last week when a guy in my motorcycle trials club, Jim ‘Bubba’ Blount, diagnosed my carburetion problems just by listening to my bike. (continued)

Crawford writes:

The imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. This has not come to pass. To begin with, such work often feels more enervating than gliding. More fundamentally, now as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses.

One shop teacher suggested to me that “in schools, we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement. Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.”

The shop teacher he links to is woodworker Doug Stowe, author of the Wisdom of the Hands blog (among others) and faculty member at the Clear Spring School in Arkansas.

Doug Stowe This blog is dedicated to sharing the concept that our hands are essential to learning — that we engage the world and its wonders, sensing and creating primarily through the agency of our hands. We abandon our children to education in boredom and intellectual escapism by failing to engage their hands in learning and making.

Stowe blogged about the 3 Ds (disengagement, disinterest and disruption) back in 2006.

It was somewhat disturbing to read So many classes, so little time in high school in the Northfield News last week:

“The hands-on practical stuff is what we’re losing out on,” said Mark Woitalla, a teacher in the Indy Tech department at the high school. Woitalla’s department lost .2 FTEs this year due to lower student enrollment, which he chalks up to the curriculum’s focus on core academics. “We’re just jamming them all into academic areas, and some of the students aren’t successful there,” Woitalla said.

On the other hand, it was encouraging to read the NY Times article Many Summer Internships Are Going Organic. “A new wave of liberal arts students are heading to farms this summer, in search of both work and social change.”


  1. Curt Benson said:

    This is a very interesting topic. I especially appreciated the Crawford article “The case for working with your hands”. The article was full of ideas I’ve found true in my life–the existence of the “Freds” of the world with lifetimes of wisdom they’re willing to share, the occasional hours or days with “bomb squad” like concentration, and the social aspects of the job.
    I believe that many people don’t understand the level of creativity there is in these jobs. Most problems have multiple solutions. One may not know until after the job is done, if a right solution was chosen.

    I didn’t relate to the “Many summer internships are going organic” article as well. I don’t understand agriculture. I felt some cynicism that the farm owners may have found a way to get cheap or free labor
    under the “internship” guise. Especially since the students are housed in trailers/tents etc. What I do understand is the lure of doing something in the real world, where one can see the fruits of one’s labor–in this case, the literal fruits of one’s labor.

    The last paragraph of the organic internship article is:

    “These are kids who are not used to living in a small trailer or doing any kind of work,” Ms. Knoll said. “Most of them are privileged and think they want to try something new. They need structure. We need farmhands.”

    That is interesting. How does one finish several years at elite colleges without ever doing any kind of work?

    May 28, 2009
  2. Griff Wigley said:

    Curt, re: the “bomb squad-like concentration” that you mention, I remember this scene from Robert Pirsig’s ZMM. The bit about the radio and ‘twiddling wrenches” stuck with me:

    I took this machine into a shop because I thought it wasn’t important enough to justify getting into myself, having to learn all the complicated details and maybe having to order parts and special tools and all that time-dragging stuff when I could get someone else to do it in less time…sort of John’s attitude.

    The shop was a different scene from the ones I remembered. The mechanics, who had once all seemed like ancient veterans, now looked like children. A radio was going full blast and they were clowning around and talking and seemed not to notice me. When one of them finally came over he barely listened to the piston slap before saying, “Oh yeah. Tappets.”

    Tappets? I should have known then what was coming.

    Two weeks later I paid their bill for 140 dollars, rode the cycle carefully at varying low speeds to wear it in and then after one thousand miles opened it up. At about seventy-five it seized again and freed at thirty, the same as before. When I brought it back they accused me of not breaking it in properly, but after much argument agreed to look into it. They overhauled it again and this time took it out themselves for a high-speed road test.

    It seized on them this time.

    After the third overhaul two months later they replaced the cylinders, put in oversize main carburetor jets, retarded the timing to make it run as coolly as possible and told me, “Don’t run it fast.”

    It was covered with grease and did not start. I found the plugs were disconnected, connected them and started it, and now there really was a tappet noise. They hadn’t adjusted them. I pointed this out and the kid came with an open-end adjustable wrench, set wrong, and swiftly rounded both of the sheet aluminum tappet covers, ruining both of them.

    “I hope we’ve got some more of those in stock,” he said.

    I nodded.

    He brought out a hammer and cold chisel and started to pound them loose. The chisel punched through the aluminum cover and I could see he was pounding the chisel right into the engine head. On the next blow he missed the chisel completely and struck the head with the hammer, breaking off a portion of two of the cooling fins.

    “Just stop,” I said politely, feeling this was a bad dream.

    “Just give me some new covers and I’ll take it the way it is.”

    I got out of there as fast as possible, noisy tappets, shot tappet covers, greasy machine, down the road, and then felt a bad vibration at speeds over twenty. At the curb I discovered two of the four engine-mounting bolts were missing and a nut was missing from the third. The whole engine was hanging on by only one bolt. The overhead-cam chain-tensioner bolt was also missing, meaning it would have been hopeless to try to adjust the tappets anyway. Nightmare.

    The thought of John putting his BMW into the hands of one of those people is something I have never brought up with him. Maybe I should.

    I found the cause of the seizures a few weeks later, waiting to happen again. It was a little twenty-five-cent pin in the internal oil-delivery system that had been sheared and was preventing oil from reaching the head at high speeds.

    The question why comes back again and again and has become a major reason for wanting to deliver this Chautauqua. Why did they butcher it so? These were not people running away from technology, like John and Sylvia. These were the technologists themselves. They sat down to do a job and they performed it like chimpanzees. Nothing personal in it. There was no obvious reason for it. And I tried to think back into that shop, that nightmare place, to try to remember anything that could have been the cause.

    The radio was a clue. You can’t really think hard about what you’re doing and listen to the radio at the same time. Maybe they didn’t see their job as having anything to do with hard thought, just wrench twiddling. If you can twiddle wrenches while listening to the radio that’s more enjoyable.

    Their speed was another clue. They were really slopping things around in a hurry and not looking where they slopped them. More money that way…if you don’t stop to think that it usually takes longer or comes out worse.

    But the biggest clue seemed to be their expressions. They were hard to explain. Good-natured, friendly, easygoing…and uninvolved. They were like spectators. You had the feeling they had just wandered in there themselves and somebody had handed them a wrench. There was no identification with the job. No saying, “I am a mechanic.” At 5 P.M. or whenever their eight hours were in, you knew they would cut it off and not have another thought about their work. They were already trying not to have any thoughts about their work on the job. In their own way they were achieving the same thing John and Sylvia were, living with technology without really having anything to do with it. Or rather, they had something to do with it, but their own selves were outside of it, detached, removed. They were involved in it but not in such a way as to care.

    Not only did these mechanics not find that sheared pin, but it was clearly a mechanic who had sheared it in the first place, by assembling the side cover plate improperly. I remembered the previous owner had said a mechanic had told him the plate was hard to get on. That was why. The shop manual had warned about this, but like the others he was probably in too much of a hurry or he didn’t care.

    May 29, 2009
  3. Griff Wigley said:

    Stanley Fish’s NY Times blog today: Fathers, Sons and Motorcycles.

    He compares 3 books:

    “Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values,” by Robert Pirsig.

    “Big Sid’s Vincati: The Story of a Father, a Son, and the Motorcycle of a Lifetime,” by Matthew Biberman.

    “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work,” by Matthew Crawford.

    June 15, 2009
  4. Thanks Griff for the post! Readers of BIG SID’S Vincati can email me at to tell me what they think! Feedback welcome!

    Matthew Biberman

    June 16, 2009
  5. Paul Fried said:

    Griff, thanks for all the good stuff here, esp. #2 and #4. I enjoyed reading ZMM years ago, am motorcycle-free now, but still believe in gardening and woodworking as hand-works.

    June 22, 2009

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