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householderI am not a fan of Ask This Old House, the spin-off of the PBS home improvement program, This Old House. Formerly the companion series to This Old House was The New Yankee Workshop, hosted by master carpenter Norm Abram of, you guessed it, This Old House. I enjoyed The New Yankee Workshop very much, partly for the avuncular Norm Abram, but also for the craftsmanship on display. I remember an episode in which Norm made a roll-top desk. If that did not impress you just thinking about it, you wouldn’t have enjoyed the show. A big part of the appeal for me was Norm’s tools. I thought more than once that if I had a hundred thousand dollars just sitting around with nothing better to do I’d buy a few of Norm’s tools—not all of them mind, a hundred grand wouldn’t get you there. I don’t know why, but the show was cancelled after 21 seasons—too intimidating I suppose. Ask This Old House replaced it.  On the new show the boys from This Old House go out to help with small home repairs, like changing a door knob, or fixing a squeaky floor, while some eager-beaver homeowner hands them tools and pretends to help. (I’m exaggerating, but not much.)  It’s a little disheartening to watch. And I never see Norm. I’ve wondered why. I have a guess.

Reviving a serious interest in the manual arts among the literati is what Matthew B. Crawford’s book, Shop Class as Soulcraft is for. It was a surprise best seller back in 2009 and many fine reviews of the book are readily available on the internet. With all that electronic ink, what more can I add? Well, not much perhaps—but I’ll give it a go. I think Crawford’s book has a lot to offer for anyone interested in home economics—and that would include me.

Crawford tells a story of diminishment, outlining how we went from a nation of independent tradesmen, farmers, and shop keepers to cubicle dwellers. He is well qualified for the job—not only is he an electrician and a motorcycle mechanic, he has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago.

My favorite sections in the book are the reflections on the epistemology of handicraft—yes, you read that correctly, the epistemology of handicraft. Craftsmen know the world differently, and in a way, more deeply than other people because they work with it. They know, for instance, that the world does not yield to our whims like Playdough, it comes with inherent characteristics that need to be reckoned with. The inner structure of things is not something to fight with but to ally oneself with. Here’s Crawford—

From its earliest practice, craft knowledge has entailed knowledge of the ways of one’s materials—that is the knowledge of their nature, acquired through disciplined perception. At the beginning of the western tradition, Sophia (wisdom) meant “skill” for Homer: the technical skill of the carpenter, for example.[p. 21]

Throughout the book this type of knowledge is contrasted with theoretical knowledge, the sort that cannot be bothered with the particularities of a material world. Crawford illustrates the other worldly character of theoretical knowledge by recounting a conversation with his father, a mathematical physicist. The conversation follows a particularly frustrating encounter with an old Volkswagen engine.

One day I came into the house filthy, frustrated, and reeking of gasoline, my dad looked up from his chair and said to me, out of the blue, ‘Did you know you can always untie a shoelace just by pulling on one end, even if it‘s in a double knot?’ I didn’t really know what to do with this information. It seemed to be coming from a different universe than the one I was grappling with.

Thinking about that posited shoelace now, it occurs to me maybe you can and maybe you can’t untie it in a stroke—it depends. If the shoelace is rough and spongy, and the knot is tight, it will be a lot harder to undo than if the knot is loose and the shoelace is made of something slick and incompressible, like silk ribbon. The shoelace might well break before it comes undone. He was speaking of a mathematical string, which is an idealized shoelace,….[p. 78f]

WileyHouseholder


C.R. Wiley in his self-built home study

In my experience the embedded character of practical knowledge is something many theoreticians resent. Knowledge that cannot be fully translated into human words lacks currency. Understanding that must be arrived at through practice leaves them with little to say and they hate that. But there is something more, a residue of disdain yet clings to manual labor for many. I recall an episode with a distinguished relative of mine (now deceased). He was a renowned translator of the Bible, a member of The International Who’s Who of Intellectuals, a former President of The Evangelical Theological Society, and the author of about 40 books. (I received a few of those signed, “To Chris, with affection, Uncle Ralph.”)  When I was working through graduate school as a carpenter my wife and I went over to his stately home (cared for by a gardener and a handyman) for a family gathering. He met my wife on her side of the vehicle to escort her into the house. (He was a Brahmin of the old school with an unyielding code of personal etiquette.)  Almost his first words to me were, “You drive a truck, how interesting.” I got the hint, scholars do not drive trucks.(He harbored hopes for me, I believe.)

Scholars these days tend to be more sympathetic, but no more capable—just envious in a way. Few manage to straddle the divide. The great man’s son—himself a Harvard graduate and a distinguished psychologist—said to me when we met for the first time at another family gathering, “I hear you’re a carpenter, that’s great.  I wish I could work with my hands.”

The Manual Arts, Independence, and Spiritedness

It would make for a neat and tidy story if we could blame all of this on the academe. But Crawford shows us that the true culprit is not the pasty academic, it is the ruddy man of business—the bottom line man. His business corporation is not looking for capable, independent, manually skilled men—it’s looking for Dilbert. It wants compliant cubicle dwellers.  Crawford lays the blame for this on Taylorism—aka “scientific management”—the brainchild of Fredrick Winslow Taylor. And it means breaking work down into simple and mindlessly repeatable tasks. Imagine turning the world of work into McDonalds—a place that can be operated by teenagers who can’t add—and you pretty much have it.

The enervating effects of Taylorism can be seen when Dilbert is out of a job. And what is such a person’s first and often last hope for employment? To sell back to his former employer (at less pay and no benefits) what the employer has already demonstrated it can live without. In such circumstances those with manual skills can fare better. Crawford recalls, “When I couldn’t get a job with my college degree in physics, I was glad to have something to fall back on, and went into business for myself,…”  The business was wiring houses. I had a similar experience. When I found myself in transition after being in the ministry for 17 years I initially sold commercial real estate but when that market dried up I still had my tools and my skills. I got my contractor’s license and in a matter of weeks I was making money again.

Being able to sell your skill on the open market is one benefit of manual competence. Thrift is another. In his chapter, “To Be master of Your Own Stuff” Crawford introduces us to the “spirited man”, the man who insists on keeping his possessions in good repair himself because in some sense they are an extension of himself. Early on in the book Crawford observes that many people who think they are independent are actually living a lie. Their autonomy is illusory. When the things that make life what it is break, many run straight to the phone and call the repair man.

“Opportunity cost” is sometimes used to rationalize a reluctance to look after your own stuff. According to the gods of efficiency one must focus on what one does best, leaving other things to other people. Crawford notes this assumes a fungibility of activities—that they are essentially interchangeable and money is the only matter to consider. It also assumes a constant and increasing demand for what one does best. As our jobless Dilbert demonstrates, that may be a bad assumption.

Autonomy verses Agency

Advocates of the business corporation sometimes resort to a rear guard action and make the absurd case that cubicle clusters are just the neighborhoods of the modern economy. The implication is that independence is un-neighborly as well as inefficient.

Only God is truly independent. We humans must eke out an existence as best we can. We all depend on something or somebody. Independent people are just a little closer to the things they depend upon than other people. By the way, you want to be one of them. People who think self-employment is risky and working for a large corporation is safe and secure have it backwards. That is not to say every form of self-employment is sound. It just means that when the hard times come, as they always do, the owner is the last to lose his job.

The marvelous serendipity of this is that it puts you in a position to trade profitably with others. When you know how to do things it raises your standing in a community. Knowing the difference between wattage and voltage may make you sound intelligent— but knowing how to wire a house makes you a person to turn to in time of need.

Crawford refers to this as agency. Large business corporations—the places that promise you a safe secure job with benefits—foster an illusion of autonomy while actually increasing your vulnerability to economic hardship. The paradox of the independence that Crawford promotes is that the skilled tradesman is a conscious social agent—he understands the contribution he makes to the lives of others and those others understand it too.

This is reflected in the demeanor of many tradesmen I know. Crawford has also seen it—

The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect upon the world. [p.15]

Many have mourned the loss of the republican spirit in our world. For a plupart of the citizenry self-reliance is almost inconceivable. When people see themselves in a Dilbert cartoon is it any wonder socialism is ascendant? If you wish people could be more capable and resourceful, Crawford is your man. Here he is again—

At this weird moment of growing passivity and dependence, let us publically recognize a yeoman aristocracy: those who gain real knowledge of real things, the sort we depend on every day. P.32

The Household and the Republican Spirit

WileyBuiltCabin

Cabin built by C.R. Wiley

This is great stuff—I’m fully on board. Still, there is something missing as I see it. Historically yeomanry had a material basis, a farm. While I strongly agree with Crawford that the manual arts help sustain independence, they don’t do the job alone. Not even a liberal education leavened with readings from Tocqueville and Seneca will get you there. What we need is something more, something real knowledge of real things can serve. While most of us cannot go back to the farm—something more fundamental is yet within reach—the household.  I’d like to take a little detour. I’d like to discuss the househoId for a bit—the functional household that Wendell Berry has talked about for so long. But it is not really out of the way—it is actually the best place to set up shop if you want to pursue Crawford’s vision.

Throughout modern history the functions once resident in the household moved away. Today they reside mostly in the bureaucratic state and the business corporation. Civic functions, that is to say political functions, once performed by a head of house are now considered anachronisms, or worse. When it comes to its economic functions the same could be said. But at least we have an etymological artifact to provide us with something to think about. The word economy—a word we now use to speak of productivity at a national or even global scale—comes from a Greek compound word: oikos, meaning house and nomos, meaning law or management. Once upon a time nearly all productive activity took place within households. For the vast majority of human history people worked from home—going to work meant going out to the barn, or downstairs to the shop, or out back to the smithy. Things are quite different now. Today a home is largely considered a refuge from civic and economic concerns—a haven in a heartless world, as Christopher Lasch pointed out. As such homes have been reduced to centers of consumption, places to sleep and watch television and shelter those little consumers we call children.

The typical homeowner, if asked to put his home on a balance sheet, would list it in the asset column. That’s because it can be sold. Of course, in most cases, you can no longer live in it unless you are willing to pay rent to the person who bought it. At that point a home would be considered a liability. Why? Because it costs you money each month. Many businessmen understand that nothing has really changed. Sure, there are some tax deductions available to homeowners, but before a sale the house costs you the interest on a mortgage (if you have a mortgage—if you don’t, good for you), and there are real estate taxes, not to mention all the costs of upkeep—utilities, maintenance, those things. (And while it is generally the case real estate appreciates in value over time—it doesn’t do so in a straight line. There are dips—as we have been painfully reminded of—and these dips can out last the owner. Some real estate may never come back. Ask the residents of some neighborhoods in Detroit about that.)

For these reasons the enlightened homeowner should list his home in the liability column. But when it comes to a business—a shop, or an office, or a retail building—these things can be considered assets even though there are costs associated with them. Why?  Because these buildings shelter productive activity. They can help produce more money than they consume on an on-going basis.

This is the difference between householding and home ownership. A physical house is a shelter and for that reason it has always been used as a metaphor for other kinds of shelter. An economic shelter is a house of sorts. It is the sort of shelter that shelters those who dwell in it from the economic vicissitudes of the world. It does so, paradoxically, by sheltering productive activity. This is the sort of house you can own without home ownership. It usually consists of the members of a family—at times a large and extended family—working productively together. And it is undergirded by traditions and legal provisions that sustain it over the generations. A household can include a house, of course, but it can also own and occupy other buildings, and those buildings can be spread out, even being located in different communities.

Today when people think of property they think of personal property since that is the only sort of property most people own. 99.9% of the time it rapidly depreciates and ends up in a landfill. Productive property is property used for productive purposes. What does it look like? An apartment building is an example of productive property when it comes to real estate.  For a farmer, his land and his livestock are productive property. And for the tradesman it is his tools. (Your tax return can help you identify it—if you can deduct it, or depreciate it, likely it is productive property.) This is what householders want to own and pass down to their children. And when it comes to productive property, its acquisition, and its upkeep and improvement, the manual arts are indispensable. It is only when the household makes a comeback that we will see manual competence come back.

Where to Begin?

WileyDeckBuilder

Study & deck by C.R. Wiley

Now let’s face it—tradesmen have an image problem—what I call the plumber’s butt problem. Shop Class as Soulcraft skips around it by giving the book a New Agey title and by using a photo of an old motorcycle on the cover. I wonder how book sales would have gone with a title like, “How to Fix Toilets and Do Other Necessary but Uncool Things While Thinking About What You’re Doing” accompanied by a photo of a rusty pickup truck? Probably not as well.

Many people would rather look sophisticated and be dependent, than be independent without the pretense of sophistication. Here are a few thoughts on this. First of all there is no necessary connection between manual competence and pants that don’t fit. What is more—you can be manually competent and an intellectual—Crawford demonstrates that. If you can manage that your standing actually rises in two worlds. Let me let you in on a secret—you may look down on tradesmen, but if you are not competent to care for your own stuff—what do you suppose the tradesman thinks of you? He may respect your money—but that’s about it. I’ve been in on sessions with a lot of laughter where we share with each other the crazy things people do to their stuff before we arrive. It’s like when a politician (typically a liberal one) goes out to throw the honorary first pitch on opening day and feebly throws it into the dirt. Everyone is polite, but no one is thinking polite thoughts. But above all this—you really need to get your priorities straight. If you want to relocate your economic interests and bring them more directly under your control, then you need to learn to work with your hands and to respect those who can.

With that out of the way we can begin with the matter of how to begin. When I bring this subject up with men of a certain age—say men born between the years 1945 and 1965—there is usually a guilty confession—“My father tried to teach me…” Those fathers were spurned. They had seemed so rigid, and parsimonious, and uncool. In those days the promise of industrial progress was evident everywhere. Why scrimp and save and repair when credit is cheap and next years model is always better than last years? As young men these men wanted to go into the future with clean hands. Now that they are older men they have seen the error of their ways. But now they’re intimidated, it seems too late to go back and learn. To be honest, the possibility of true craftsmanship probably has passed them by. The optimal age for being introduced to the trades seems to be from about 15 to 25. At that point you’re physically strong enough to handle materials and professional tools and you are still young enough to refine your skills enough to be considered a craftsman. Still, it is better to be a dilettante who can install a dishwasher (about a 4 on the 10 scale of difficulty) than the guy who hides in the television room while the repairman is working.

Crawford’s account of his baptism into handiwork is amusing and I could identify with some of it. Like him I am a son of an academic and in a sense we are the least likely of candidates for this sort of thing. There was something remarkable though about the 60s and 70s that I think may make our experiences less likely today. The more casual approach to parenting which was common then, even among highly educated people, left kids free to explore the world in a way that parents of similar education are loathe to allow now. Crawford experienced nothing remotely similar to helicopter parenting. Me neither. That meant there was a prospect of meeting a far greater range of people on a casual basis and of observing and learning to appreciate ways of life very different from what one experienced at home. For me it meant interacting with different sorts of men, some of whom I came to admire and want to emulate. Further, my family background provided me with an inoculation to purely academic pursuits. I am just not overly impressed by Ph.D.s  Sure, I respect scholarship—I hope it shows—but I came to respect the scholars of handicraft just as much. And I have felt no need to choose between fields of study. I find them to be mutually enriching. On the one hand, because of my background in handicraft, I can see things in my study of the Bible that my colleagues of the soft-hands tend to miss. On the other hand I can reflect upon and put into words aspects of handicraft that my friends of the calloused hands cannot emulate. My guess is that Crawford could say something similar. I find myself wishing my friends on either side of the divide could enjoy the side they’re missing. (My advice to bookish friends is, get a hobby that requires some manual skill; and my advice to my handy friends is, learn to read, preferably worthwhile things—Aristotle and Epictetus for starters, both are champions of common sense and Epictetus is pious and pithy.) And to top it all off, the ladies like it. There isn’t a woman alive that does not appreciate a man who can make useful things—and I’ve never run across one that doesn’t appreciate a man who can put his thoughts into words when he needs to—even when the words are muscular and to the point, like the words of Hemingway or London.

Once again, where do we begin? It would appear that the manual arts not only serve households, they may only be reliably passed on within households. What I see is closely held businesses in which men who are in the trades, bring their sons in—often before the legal age for paid employment—to help them out. I got my start working for a commercial contractor (steel and concrete) who also happened to be a member of the family (a different branch than the one mentioned earlier). There are programs, often sponsored by trade unions, with all the attendant group-think and subject to the pressures of political correctness. But the union is part of the problem in the sense that it interposes itself between the tradesman and his work. Many of the benefits of independence identified by Crawford are actually undermined by the trade unions. Generally public school teachers consider homeschoolers a threat, the same is true for union members when it comes to independent tradesmen. (You can usually tell the difference between the two by the bumper-stickers on the truck.)

I’ve had my sons work with me over the years—they’ve helped me on numerous construction projects. And annually they go with me to West Virginia to work on the homes of miner’s widows. But it is not enough. They lack the daily exposure, and the pressure to work up to standard, that a business would provide. I’m trying to get them summer jobs in the trades with men I know. I’m also pushing them into things that are introductory in character with the idea that perhaps a first step could lead to more steps—steps they would take on their own. For example I just signed my younger son up for a class on small engine theory and repair. Lest you think I am limiting him, he will be participating in his Shakespeare troupe after that. I want my sons to enjoy the benefits of both worlds–working with their minds and their hands–becoming masters in both forms of knowledge.

What if you are a repentant son of a scorned father? There is only one way to begin and that is by doing. Hopefully you’ve got some men in your network who are handy.  Get together with them for beers and tell your tale of woe. You’ll likely find they’re happy to help you get your start. Then get some second hand tools if you can—but of the highest quality you can. Then start small, watch videos, and remember every project is a lesson. And finally, pick up a copy of Shop Class as Soulcraft to keep your spirits up!

Here are a couple of videos I’ve thrown in for fun–examples in entertainment of the outlook I believe in.

From the Terry Gilliam film, Brazil (1985)–Harry Tuttle outlaw heating engineer.

Ron Swanson from NBC’s, Parks and Recreation making a ring for a date.

Books mentioned in this essay are available from The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay is a third in a series of essays he is writing on the recovery of householding. He hopes they will add up to a book someday. 

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13 replies to this post
  1. Just a few notes on the photos (in case you are wondering). The first is a shot of me in the study I built for myself. I’m wearing my tool-belt (the one I’ve owned for over 25 years) and the hammer is my old Estwing 22 oz. The second photo is of a cabin I built for an artist (a painter) in the woods not far from Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp here in CT. (I built it alone using a portable generator for power–it took me about 6 weeks.) The last shot is of me outside my study–and the attached deck.

    • My friend, this is fantastic. My entire adult life I have felt like a man in limbo, between the worlds of academe and craft, both of my halves disdained by those who reckoned themselves as members of the other. The lack of abstract thought and learning of the working man is a constant assault to the prospect of dismantling the nanny state, while the absence of practical, experiential knowledge of the “learned” class enable a licentious arrogance, pushing for ever further centralization. Your views and writing are a breath of fresh air for a young man who feels worn and aged beyond his years by the ignorance and arrogance plentifully found on both sides of the manual labor divide. God bless you.

  2. Thank you for your kind words, Skylar Book II. Ours is a small tribe, a tribe that shows little prospect of increasing soon. Of the two guilds, the academe is the more jealous–far more. It must be because it lacks the concreteness of the trades. Recognition too often depends on fashions in thought. In makes academics catty and turf-conscious, and very, very sensitive to any slight. When I was on a framing crew everyone knew who was top-dog–it was the guy who was fastest and most skilled. He was paid highest. I am reminded of the wily La Rochefoucauld and maxim 54, he was thinking of riches, but it applies to anything desirable–including self-sufficiency through mastery of the manual arts (or the servile arts), “The scorn for riches displayed by the philosophers was a secret desire to recompense their own merit for the injustice of Fortune by scorning the very benefits she had denied them,….”

  3. This is excellent advice–the kind that can be the basis for both happiness and an honest living. It’s wonderful to find it so well expressed on the Web.

    I was fortunate. I listened to my father when he taught me two trades, one mechanical, one intellectual, but both viewed as crafts, not as two separate classes of things. In particular, I was fortunate that the teaching began when I was quite small, about the same age that traditional farm children begin learning their family trade. Mine are both indoor crafts now, pursued at a computer, though I grew up with tools and machines, and gunk all over me. You really can’t start too early. And I don’t know if anything can substitute for learning a craft with your hands.

    Fifty years on, too old and out of fashion to be hired for a regular job, I still make an independent living at the trades my father taught me. (Also, it’s a whole lot easier to satisfy customers than it is to satisfy a modern management team. All that customers care about is results, and there’s nothing like a craftsman for results.)

  4. Chris, This is one of the best examples of Imaginative Conservatism I have ever seen. Of course, one reason I say that is its convergence with roughly the last sixty years of my life. I was trained, accidentally, during my early teenage years as a painter, carpenter, and farmer. Only later did it become apparent that God had put me on this earth to be a teacher, which I have now obediently done for over fifty years. In the years between 15-25, which you so correctly identify as household-formative, I learned that for some reason unknown to me I was poised between craft and scholarship, working the earth and thinking about it, and being a jock and hitting the books. Much later God tracked me down and put me in the Anglican priesthood–but mostly, and first, I was a teacher. Everything you say here resonates with me, including the corrections to Mr. Crawford, and the tribute to Norm Abram. In fact, Norm’s little book, Measure Twice, Cut Once, became the model for my little book, Teacher: Notes from an Old Professor. And an episode of New Yankee Workshop on building Adirondack chairs became a great source of joy that connected our family heritage lake place in the Finger Lakes to our patrimony in Hillsdale. Here are a few lines from Timothy Dwight’s epic poem, Greenfield Hill (he was, like you, a Connecticut Yankee):
    How blessed the sight of such a numerous train
    In such small limits, tasting every good
    Of competence,of independence, peace,
    And liberty unmingled; every house
    On its own ground, and every happy swain
    Beholding no superior, but the laws…
    Dwight’s word for your idea of the household is competence, which seemed to him to embody the New England soul, and which tied together my seemingly fractured life. Well, on and on we could go. I just want you to know that you have hit here something that neither the enterprisers nor the agrarians ever quite get to, and that any true understanding of conserving the permanent things must acknowledge. By the way, one of my former students who is now a lawyer, is also a competent locksmith; another, in medical school, is a good welder.

    • John, thank you for the marvelous thoughts. I knew of Dwight, but had not read the poem. I love that line, “Of liberty unmingled: every house/On its own ground…” We’re very far from that now. As I sit here at my desk the legislature of Connecticut is poised to once again treat us as untrustworthy children. My neighbor is expressing his displeasure–the report of his gun echos in our little valley as he takes target practice. We have a big summer planned at the Wiley household–in April we will put in a new bulk-head at one of the investment properties and repair the roof of the front porch, at home we will put in some new raised beds for the vegetable garden and install a new tub and shower surround in the kid’s bath. We’re heading back to West Virginia once again–about 50 of us from my church to work on the homes of coal miner’s widows. Then we’re going to wrap things up by building a cedar strip canoe before my oldest heads back to Wheaton. (On top of all that–both boys will be working jobs outside the home.) I’m thinking of my next installment in this series–I may write about selecting a wife–very important matter for me right now as my oldest son is getting of age. His mother has set him a fine example, still sometimes these things need to be stated plainly.

  5. I was raised by parents who who were children of the depression – the one in the 1930s. Both were born during the depression (1930 and 1932), so they were removed from the direct impact of the times, but both recalled the lingering effects of it well. Both were born to families who were, for the time, comparatively privileged, neither family having known real poverty.

    Despite their (relative) privilege, my parents were careful with money, by which they prospered, but more importantly, they were doers. They did things. They didn’t always start a task knowing exactly how to do it, but they figured the process out. Sometimes they called on resources to teach them, and sometimes brute-forced solutions through application of intellect and torque. It was, for a child, a bit awesome – I saw my parents doing things that other kids’ parents couldn’t/wouldn’t do, and saw both sides of the results – esteem for their ability and willingness to solve their own problems, and derision because they were willing to take on tasks which were so clearly ‘beneath them,’ a phrase which rankles to this day.

    AS an adult, I’ve followed in their footsteps. My father was a scientist, part of the generally-reviled intellectual class – but he helped put people – and a great many satellites – into space; some of his legacy is contained in the body of photographs taken by the Hubble space telescope. My mother was a nurse, one of the earliest RNs to have a college degree.

    They taught themselves how to garden, and fed us well from it.
    They taught themselves how to build stone walls and other stonework.
    They could fix cars – both of them – and both could cook.
    They made Shaker furniture, plain of style but sturdy after fifty years of use.
    They learned enough basic welding to fix metal objects – I well recall their learning to use a torch and burning holes in metal. But they persevered and became proficient.
    Dad could fix electronics. Mom could suture wounds or do fine field diagnostics when needed.

    They imparted this ethos, this perspective, to us, their children – entirely, it should be noted, without platitudes or piety, but with encouragement and the understanding that mastery was, as Voltaire noted, achieved in slow degrees, with the hand of time. They thought that human beings were infinitely adaptable, capable of learning new things, and that it was a shame to waste a good mind and hands by dismissing manual tasks as demeaning or for ‘those people,’ where ‘those people’ were defined as something despisable.

    They didn’t take it to foolish extremes – shoe repair was left to cobblers, because the equipment was specialized and accuracy was important. Carpentry and framing were do-able, but they would bring in extra hands to augment, because framing and sheathing are very hard on middle-aged bodies. So they had common sense.

    To this day, we their kids fix things. Washer not working? The exploded diagram is out there, probably, thanks to the Internet. If it’s not? Take apart the offending item. Take pictures. Look at parts as they come off and see if they’re sacrificial – a plastic shoe used as a bearing will wear, and sometimes the effects of that wear aren’t clear; you may have to formulate hypotheses and experiment.

    Above all, though, their creed was ‘share what know – teach people.’ Only by showing by doing, by drawing others in to participate, will we overcome the ‘oh, I could never do that’ objection.

    We would do well to examine that objection. Seldom can it be taken at face value – it doesn’t really mean that the person saying it doubts their own ability. More often, it’s a tacit admission that they consider the task at hand somehow demeaning, that if they do it, it will besmirch their middle-class credentials.

    To get around this, I’ve decided that I don’t give a fig for middle-class respectability if it means that I am not allowed to fix the things around me that I can fix. If propriety requires employing tradesmen simply to keep my hands clean and provide social cover, then propriety can go to the devil. And it’s amazing what happens when people who make middle-class objections to work have their objections called out – sometimes, they see that they are capable, that there’s no shame in using their hands, and that sometimes what looks like grunt work requires both a functioning body and brain.

    Sometimes it doesn’t work. But those people never will change. The ones who are willing to hear – albeit being dragged into it – are the ones who are our future.

    mh

  6. Excellent article, I’ve been thinking many of the same thoughts but hadn’t the clarity or focus (or some of the experiences you’ve had) to put them all together like this. I went to college for a BA in history then went on to law school and after graduation the career prospect of being in a sterile office for 30-40 years followed by golfing for 10-20 years didn’t resonate with me. One of my grandfathers was a skilled steel-roller and the other was a true country yeoman – a farmer, hunter, or high school principal depending on what time of the year it was. I would like to get into the trades but am not sure where to start. Right now I have started offering myself locally for demolition & junk removal with my truck and a trailer, and work part-time in asphalt paving. Eventually I’d like to pick a skilled trade but not sure what yet. Thanks Mr. Wiley.

    • Bill, good for you. This is an excellent time to get into the trades–there is strong demand and not much interest on the part of many younger people. (I think the demand will only grow as the population ages.) You won’t have the glamour of Wall Street, but you’ll have meaningful work, a clean conscience, and the satisfaction of seeing the fruit of your work before your eyes.

  7. well what about the fact everybody and his brother is now making their own beer if not opening a brewery! i think the author makes some points but am not sure what the author pines for is likely to appear given the current state of public education. when i was in high school Shop was the destination of all those students who would not be joining the rest of us at college. i take issue with the authors prejudice against unions since they were fighting to retain apprenticeship programs which companies wished to do away with and finally did. if the author thinks his kids will learn craftsmanship in construction he hasn’t visited a building site of late. buildings are thrown up in a week or two with as many prefab items as possible. not too far removed from an assembly line which he hates. my friend is one of the last journeymen butchers at his big box store and there are no more in the pipeline. when he retires there will be just one guy left but most of the cutting and packaging is now done at the packing houses so they have taken most of the equipment away. as he says the corporate guys hate skill trades. anyone who doesn’t have an MBA cannot have any skill or knowledge worth knowing.

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