Bicycle Diaries: Work with your hands

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Work with your hands

and think with your head

I recently came across a fascinating article, Shop Class as Soulcraft, in the Summer 2006 issue of The New Atlantis. Matthew B. Crawford left his think tank job to repair bikes. It reminded me of the nine months when I was a barista at Intellingentsia, a locally owned coffee house here in Chicago. Although I took the job primarily because I was in-between gigs I looked on it as an adventure in skilled manual labor.

Crawford isn't some nostalgic idealist celebrating skilled manual labor. Nor is he a lefty intellectual slumming with the toiling classes. Instead, he writes about the kind of thinking craftsmen do and the importance of passing on to the next generation. He also explains the same joys I have gotten from learning how to work on my Raleigh, that which rolls. Here are some excerpts that I think illustrate his points. If you want to read the whole article, go here.
…Socially, being the proprietor of a bike shop in a small city gave me a feeling I never had before, or since. I felt I had a place in society. Whereas “think tank” is an answer that, at best, buys you a few seconds when someone asks what you do, while you try to figure out what it is that you in fact do, with “motorcycle mechanic” I got immediate recognition. I bartered services with machinists and metal fabricators, which has a very different feel than transactions with money, and further increased my sense of social embeddedness. There were three restaurants with cooks whose bikes I had restored, where unless I deceive myself I was treated as a sage benefactor. I felt pride before my wife when we would go out to dinner and be given preferential treatment, or simply a hearty greeting. There were group rides, and bike night every Tuesday at a certain bar. Sometimes one or two people would be wearing my shop’s T-shirt. It felt good.

At the turn of the last century, the manufacture of automobiles was done by craftsmen recruited from bicycle and carriage shops: all-around mechanics who knew what they were doing. In The Wheelwright’s Shop, George Sturt relates his experience in taking over his family business of making wheels for carriages, in 1884, shortly before the advent of the automobile. He had been a school teacher with literary ambitions, but now finds himself almost overwhelmed by the cognitive demands of his new trade. In Sturt’s shop, working exclusively with hand tools, the skills required to build a wheel regress all the way to the selection of trees to fell for timber, the proper time for felling them, how to season them, and so forth.

… [A]n engineering culture has developed in recent years in which the object is to “hide the works,” rendering the artifacts we use unintelligible to direct inspection. Lift the hood on some cars now (especially German ones), and the engine appears a bit like the shimmering, featureless obelisk that so enthralled the cavemen in the opening scene of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Essentially, there is another hood under the hood. This creeping concealedness takes various forms. The fasteners holding small appliances together now often require esoteric screwdrivers not commonly available, apparently to prevent the curious or the angry from interrogating the innards.

So perhaps the time is ripe for reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen out of favor: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world. Neither as workers nor as consumers are we much called upon to exercise such competence, most of us anyway … but we might pause to consider just how hard-headed these presumptions are, and whether they don’t, on the contrary, issue from a peculiar sort of idealism, one that insistently steers young people toward the most ghostly kinds of work.

… [W]ork is toilsome and necessarily serves someone else’s interests. That’s why you get paid. Thus chastened, we may ask the proper question: what is it that we really want for a young person when we give them vocational advice? The only creditable answer, it seems to me, is one that avoids utopianism while keeping an eye on the human good: work that engages the human capacities as fully as possible. What I have tried to show is that this humane and commonsensical answer goes against the central imperative of capitalism, which assiduously partitions thinking from doing. What is to be done?

…So what advice should one give to a young person? By all means, go to college. In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences. In the summers, learn a manual trade. You’re likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems. To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, as it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable.

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