Approaching college in a spirit of craftsmanship
As routinely admitted this time of year by seemingly everyone who has ever slow poked in a flowing gown under a shaky cap, they don’t remember a single thing said by keynote speakers at their graduation ceremonies — never mind they don’t remember who their featured talkers were in the first place.
Thinking back, I cannot recall a single nugget at any of my own commencements. And if my memory proves correct (it frequently doesn’t), I recall snappy or profound comments from only two addresses at anyone else’s commencement ceremony. The first was a speech by Yogi Berra (really) at St. Louis University in 2007, when he said things like, “It is wonderful to be here in St. Louis and to visit the old neighborhood. I haven’t been back since the last time I was here. Everything looks the same, only different. Of course, things in the past are never as they used to be.” And on and on, around famous bases, Yogi went.
The other instance was a gem last year, 2016, at the University of Texas by Naval Admiral William H. McRaven, which when taken out of adequate context, as is the case here, might sound trivial, which it is not.
“If you make your bed every morning,” he said, “you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. . . . Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.”
More recently, in doing research for American Experiment’s new project, “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree,” I came across some educational and career advice, which while not in any commencement speech I know about, could readily star in one — and on top of that, be remembered.
One reason for these recommendations’ potential staying power is that they might, or might not, be warmly received by the parents of the high school students to whom they are specifically offered. They are found on page 53 in “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work,” a fascinating book by Matthew Crawford, a distinctive writer.
With young men and women in Minnesota and across the country only days and weeks away from processing into auditoriums and gyms to Edward Elgar’s most famous work, I’m curious about how many people find the following excerpt, in a chapter titled “The Separation of Thinking from Doing,” as intriguing as I do.
One of Crawford’s main arguments is that “doing” blue-collar things such as plumbing and fixing intricate engines routinely requires more actual “thinking,” more cognitive firepower than do many white-collar jobs. Hence the chapter title. He is right, by the way.
“So what advice,” Crawford asks, “should one give a young person? If you have a natural bent for scholarship; if you are attracted to the most difficult books out of an urgent need, and can spare four years to devote yourself to them, go to college. In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences. But if this is not the case; if the thought of four more years sitting in a classroom makes your skin crawl, the good news is that you don’t have to go through the motions and jump through the hoops for the sake of making a decent living.”
Before finishing the quotation, it’s useful to note that Crawford owns a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia, where he is very much hands-on. It’s likewise useful to note that he also holds a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago.
He sums up:
“Even if you do go to college, learn a trade in the summers. 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 or low-level ‘creative.’ To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, at it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable.”
Parents: Might this sound like sound advice to you? Or a little too quixotic and disconcerting for your tastes?
Students, especially new graduates: What say you?
Mitch Pearlstein is founder of Center of the American Experiment. His most recent book is Broken Bonds: What Family Fragmentation Means for America’s Future.