The Educational Value of Beautiful and Physically Demanding Things

What follows is propelled by Center of the American Experiment’s multi-year project “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree: Good News for Students, Parents, and Employers.”

As a rule, I stay miles away from proposing that high schools expand their curricula to address assorted lists of societal problems.  I’ve been in meetings, for instance, when participants have said it’s essential that students take a required course regarding the personal and societal benefits of marriage.  An avid proponent of marriage as I may be, I’ve argued against these suggestions on two grounds: Such additions would further clutter what frequently are overstuffed curricula already.  And much of what would be taught inevitably would run radically counter to what people around the table wanted advocated on the subject.

Despite those objections, let me suggest, certainly not a full-fledged course of any kind, but rather modest reading assignments; homework which would cover barely a chapter or two of one or two books.  All of which would consume no more than a period or two of an English, art or some other course.  Recommended are no more than useful tastes for most students, albeit conceivably life-changing ones for a few.

The first book is a distinctively original effort I’ve written about in the past: Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, by Matthew Crawford.  The second, complementary book is one I just finished: Why We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman, by Peter Korn.  My intent with both is to modestly, very modestly fill voids caused by the widespread elimination of shop classes across Minnesota and the nation in recent decades.  Much more frequently than is now the case, young people once had opportunities in high school (and earlier) to make and fix things; tangible things made of wood or metal or fabric.  As the two authors convincingly argue in their respective ways, there is deep value in such experiences; learning experiences that are now frequently extinct.

As a high-end motorcycle mechanic (who also holds a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago), Crawford’s focus is on the trades.  As a high-end furniture maker (who graduated from the ivy-enriched University of Pennsylvania) Korn focuses on the arts and crafts.  Here are a few telling excerpts from each book worth reading in full.

Peter Korn: “It was not just making furniture that I loved, but also being a furniture maker.  I liked being self-employed, working hard to meet my personal standards, and trusting in the skill and strength of my hands.  Having a storefront location meant having a public presence.  Mary the butcher, Mike across the street, the Dominicans who frequented the social club two doors down, and the local artists all knew me first and foremost as a furniture maker.”

“[I]t would be difficult to overemphasize the degree to which the materiality of craft in particular, and creative work in general, are effective sources of fulfillment, meaning, and identity . . . . We think with materials and objects at least as much we think with words, perhaps far more.  They are conduits through which we construct our selves and our world.”

“I was becoming aware that a good life was not some Shangri-La waiting to be stumbled on.  One constructed it from the materials at hand.”

And Matthew Crawford, more abstractly: “The special appeal of the trades lies in the fact that they resist this tendency toward more remote control, because they are inherently situated in a particular context.  In the best cases, the building and fixing they do are embedded in a community of using.  Face-to-face interactions are still the norm, you are responsible for your own work, and clear standards provide the basis for solidarity of the crew, as opposed to manipulative relations of the office ‘team.’ . . .

“Aristotle begins his Metaphysics with the observation that ‘all human beings by nature desire to know.’  I have argued that real knowledge arises through confrontations with real things.  Work, then, offers a broadly available premonition of philosophy.  Its value, however, does not lie solely in pointing to some more rarefied experience.  Rather, in the best cases, work itself may approach the good sought in philosophy, understood as a way of life: a community of those who desire to know.”

Given their high-end, higher-education credentials, it might seem ironic to have Korn and Crawford make strong cases, in effect, for educational tracks that end a few years short of four years.  But the validity of their arguments and testimonies are inherently potent and stand on their own, whoever might voice them.

As my colleagues Kathy Kersten, John Hinderaker, and I have been writing since last fall and before, there are many avenues to great jobs and solid middle-class careers in Minnesota and the United States, with a four-year degree being but one of them.  This is happily the case since no more than 35 percent of Americans, if that, wind up with one anyway.

For many young people who truly do not want to seek a B.A. – for whatever academic, financial, personal or other reason – it generally makes more sense for them to consider paths such as apprenticeships, one-year and two-year certificate programs, A.A. degrees, and job training in the military among others.  Routes that lead to skills and jobs that are satisfying, well-paying, and often particularly important to our personal well-being at home and away (think electricians, x-ray technicians, and hair stylists), as well as to the prosperity of our businesses and economy overall (think sophisticated toolmakers, construction workers, and farmers).

This is all reinforced by how we are still early in the retirements of immense numbers of often highly skilled baby boomers.  Highly trained younger men and women must succeed them.

But beyond economic and similar considerations, Crawford and especially Horn emphasize the intrinsic worth and beauty of men and women knowing how to expertly use their thumbs, along with their hearts and minds, for endeavors other than texting.  Reading a handful of pages or chapters in their two books, compelling as they are, cannot equate with sculpting real maple or fixing intricate engines hands-on.  Yet for huge numbers of current students who know very little about such molding or restoring, a few brilliant pages about physically demanding and beautiful things can be exquisitely educational.