SPOTLIGHT: The Philosopher Who Wants to Bring Back Shop Class
If Dr. Matthew B. Crawford were introduced to you as a political philosopher with a PhD from the University of Chicago, you might think, “The guy’s a brain.” Your assessment would likely be cemented when you learned that he is a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.
But if Matthew Crawford were first introduced to you as the owner and operator of Shockoe Moto, a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Va., you might have a different reaction. “The guy must be good with his hands,” you might think; traditional “brain power” probably would not enter in your judgment.
That’s probably what I would have thought, until I read Crawford’s book “Shop Class as Soulcraft.” It is a powerful argument in favor of the trades and a new way of looking at the value of work and how American schools prepare young people to become adults.
Crawford argues that the American education system wrongly gave up on teaching young people how to build and maintain things with their hands because it was perceived to be a lesser sort of enterprise than traditional school studies. He said, in fact that he often finds manual work more intellectually stimulating than what he calls “knowledge work.”
It is time to not only bring back shop class (which some schools around the country are doing) and instruction in other trades, he says, but for educators to rethink the life tracks into which they guide students. Office work isn’t for everybody. As you guide your own children into decisions that will affect their adult work lives, it makes sense to listen to Crawford.
Here is a Q & A with Crawford:
Q) How do schools start teaching young people a different notion of valuable work?
A) The place to begin is by interrogating the attitudes that sort of underpin the current educational regime.
You know, I think we have developed the kind of educational monoculture in this country where anyone with halfway decent test scores is getting hustled into a certain track where you end up working in an office.
I think some people, including some who are very smart, would rather be learning how to build things or fix things. Why not honor that?
Q) Why don’t we?
A) One reason we don’t is that we have this dichotomy of knowledge work vs. manual work--as though they are two very different things. So I think one way to begin is by pointing out that the thinking that goes on in the trades is genuinely impressive if we stop to notice it. ..... This isn’t just a school thing. It’s about the culture.
The point of honoring the trades is not so we can pat ourselves on the back for being good egalitarians, but rather noticing what is really there. This [kind of work] does take some real skill and judgment and sort of adaptability and improvisation--and these are all of the kind of features that all of us are looking for in work. But we are looking in the wrong place.
Q) You mean the office?
A) In fact white-collar work can get quite dumbed down in the same way assembly line work did years ago. Everybody was pulling levers. But the work of a plumber, an electrician, or a mechanic can never be procedural. The circumstances to do those jobs changes too much to be reduced to rule following... Sometimes we romanticize white-collar work by presuming it has more intellectual content than it really does. Lots of genuine ‘knowledge work’ gets concentrated in an ever-smaller elite, leaving the rest of us to be clerks. Or it gets installed in some kind of automated process.
Q) Schools do seem to try to push everybody into what you call ‘knowledge work” and the learning environments can become really sterile.
A) Kids themselves sense that it is a fairly contrived learning environment studying for standardized tests. They know a love of learning doesn’t get engaged. For some it does but for many it doesn’t.
The tragedy is that someone who is kind of a mediocre student who goes on to be a C student in college ends up working as a telemarketer. That same guy might have become a crack electrician, more engaged in what he is doing, and probably making more money. But that course isn’t really presented as an option.
Q) Today there is an education push for more people who are good in math and science to become engineers.
A) The push is always more math and science. But it seems like tinkering is what brings a kid alive. At some point you realize you need to learn the math and science in order to get to the bottom of things. But the initial fascination comes from taking things apart. Schools don’t let kids do that.
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| September 2, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories: Learning | Tags: Matthew Crawford, shop class, the trades
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