Wednesday 22 August 2012

Shop Class as Soulcraft

Matt Crawford's Masterpiece...
It might sound very tech-specific, but this book contains many education related thoughts.  Here are some of my favorite bits from Shop Class As Soulcraft, along with some observations (book quotes in white, comments in yellow):

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 - Doug Stowe (Wisdom of the hands Blog)

"We have a generation of students that can answer questions on standarized tests, know factoids, but they can't do anything" - Jim Aschwanden

I never failed to take pleasure in the movement, at the end of a job, when I would flip the switch. "And there would be light."

I too feel this whenever I finish building a computer.  I call it 'first light' (a term I stole from astronomy for when a telescope is first turned  to the sky and used).  I get a thrill every time, when all of those complex components work together for the first time, and attain a kind of dim intelligence.  If AI ever happens, I would happily propogate it, it feels like birth!

Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect on the world.  But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible  judgement of reality, where one's failures or shortcomings cannot be interpretted away.  His well founded pride is far from the gratuitous 'self-esteem' that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.

This focus on student self-esteem seems cart before the horsish to me.  You develop self esteem as a by-product of making your way in the world under your own steam.  It is one of those things that cannot be given to you, yet so much education theory revolves around building self esteem in classrooms.  Unless you allow failure, self esteem is meaningless.  My soccer players gain more self esteem in a draw against a better team that should have crushed them than they ever got in a classroom designed to hand it to them.

The craftsman is proud of what he has made, and cherishes it, while the consumer discards things that are perfectly serviceable in his restless pursuit of the new. - Richard Sennett, The Culture of the New Capitalism

You won't find a better description of modern, globalized capitalist consumerism than in these two quotes.  Why this is a standard for economics, let alone ethics, is completely beyond me.  I've always believed that if you can't build it, you shouldn't get to use it.  Can't build a working computer?  You don't get to use one.  Can't build a car?  You don't get to drive.  Were this the case, we'd have far fewer incompetents operating equipment they are far too dim to be using.

Since the standards of craftsmanship issue from the logic of things rather than the art of persuasion, practiced submission to them perhaps gives the craftsman some psychic ground to stand on against fantastic hopes aroused by demagogues, whether commercial or political.

On of my greatest frustations... trying to have a rational discussion with fanboys (and girls) about technology.  Mac users are the worst... though AMD fanboys aren't far behind.  I'm interested in the brilliance of the engineering, not whether or not you've been convinced by witty advertising, though many people make their technology (all?) purchases based on little other than a cult of personality.

Persig's mechanic is, in the original sense of the word, an idiot.  Indeed, he exemplifies the truth about idiocy, which is that it is at once an ethical and a cognitive failure.  The Greek idios means "private," and an idiotes means a private person, as opposed to a person in their public role - for example, that of motorcycle mechanic.  Pirsig's mechanic is idiotic because he fails to grasp his public role, which entails, or should, a relation of active concern to others, and to the machine.  He is not involved.  It is not his problem.  Because he is an idiot...  At bottom, the idiot is a solipsist. (p98)

Many a student I've seen be idiotic in the truest sense of the word.  They fail to grasp what being a student is, and then create all sorts of social tension as a result.  I once has a student in media arts who was having a rough time.  She stormed out of class one day and another student wondered aloud at all the drama.  This troubled student didn't do anything, failed everything, and otherwise used an disproportional amount of school resources to keep them from wreaking even more havoc.  I asked the questioning student why she was here, at school.  She said, "so I can get good grades, do post-secondary and get a satisfying job" (which I thought was a brilliant answer from a 15 year old).  I told her that other student has no idea why she is here.  This is a cruel, jail-like torture for her.  She sees no value in it for herself (likely because her life isn't full of parental role models that demonstrate the advantages of a good education).  The whole class stopped to listen to our conversation, I suspect many of them wondered why this student was this difficult.

Management:  a "peculiarly chancy and fluid" character (Robert Jackall)  ... vulnerability of managers in managing abstract, non-objective work develop a highly provisional way of speaking and feeling.  Staking out a position on all sides of a situation, so you always have plausible deniability of a failure (that's not what I meant).  Vague language to protect a vague job.  Managers are always on probation, constantly vulnerable and anxious about the essentially meaningless role they play in a fickle corporation that could shift the ground under their feet at any moment.

Up in the air for a poignant look at this kind of management in the middle of the 2008/9 1% money grab... and one of the reasons I never worked well in business.  Also one of the reasons I'm fairly relentless with people when they start talking about private business/corporate work ethics, organization and effectiveness.  I worked in a number of private companies before I became a teacher, I was lucky to find one in five run competently, let alone effectively.

A last, favorite piece, and a brilliant analysis of the apprenticeship process:
Often someone working at a speed shop spent his younger days lingering around the counter, then, as he penetrated the social hierarchy, in the back, allowed now to pull his car around and perhaps use a floor jack to install some shock absorbers purchased at the counter. Such an exposure to injuury liability would give a lawyer fits; implicit in the invitation to the back is a judgement of the young man's character and a large measure of trust.  He will get some light supervision that is likely to be disguised as a stream of sexual insults, delivered from ten feet away by someone he cannot see (only his shoes) as he lies under his car.  Such insults are another index of trust.  If he is able to return these outrageous comments with wit, the conversation will cascade toward real depravity; the trust is pushed further and made reciprocal.  If the young man shows promise, that is, if he is judged to have some potential to plumb new depths of moral turpitude, he may get hired: here is someone around whom everyone can relax. p 183

That sense of relaxation and trust is something I really miss from mechanics.  The education environment, so focused on political correctness, is the antithesis of shop culture; even justified swearing is a real no-no.  

When I showed this to my wife she just shook her head and said, "I have no experience in this."  This sort of environment is created in groups of males.  I see it in hockey change rooms, on shop floors, and in warehouses where I've worked.  It's not that women are incapable of working in that environment, I've known a number who have successfully done it, it's that the vast majority of women see this as cruel, degrading and pointless.

This is a complicated issue, one that I'm still working out myself.  There is a direct roughness, a kind of honesty, to how men socialize that has been squeezed out of business (education being a subset of that culture).  Boys in school respond to it.  If we're playing soccer and player goes down having been kicked in the groin, I go ballistic at the ref and get a warning.  I then attend to the kid on the ground.  He's hurting.  I say, "how did that feel?"  The kid laughs despite the pain.  He knows I've just almost been removed because of what happened, he has no doubt of my stance on what's happened, and the flippancy helps him deal with the agony.  Those opportunities don't come up in class; another reason to protect extracurriculars, they let you create a more genuine bond with your students.

In Crawford's brilliant analysis above, he emphasizes the honesty and familiarity that can come out of this kind of ribbing, a real sense of camaraderie.  It's the kind of thing that makes Fight Club resonate with boys, and men, who read/watch it.  You can't relax around someone who tells you to trust them.  You can relax around someone who is able to display real 'moral turpitude' in response to your own baiting.  The lack of understanding of how this works separates many men from developing a close working relationship in feminized work environments.

Whether you agree, disagree or simply want to try and understand, Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft makes a compelling argument for value of skilled manual labour, and the culture that surrounds it.