On May 21,2009, Matthew B. Crawford published an article in The New York Times Magazine titled, “The Case for Working With Your Hands.” Later that month, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work arrived on my desk at work.
Three paragraphs down in the New York Times piece, Crawford describes our situation:
“High-school shop-class programs were widely dismantled in the 1990s as educators prepared students to become “knowledge workers.” The imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. This has not come to pass. To begin with, such work often feels more enervating than gliding. More fundamentally, now as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses.”
The deeper issue he addresses here is this: we used to be a nation of makers. In the 1950s our country was heralded for the quality of the cars we produced. Our ________’s (insert your product/s of choice) were considered the best in the world. We made clothes and we consumed them. We made products and exported them.
However, at some point along the way, we began to view these maker/manufacturer occupations as unglamorous and undesirable. This was reflected by the de-emphasis of hands-on learning programs, like shop classes.
Crawford writes in his article:
“The trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid.”
I believe that dirty work makes us smarter. I believe in the art of making. Granted, I am a child of the 1960s—that era when all things seemed possible. I am born of a time when we were a nation of makers—and proud to make. Alabama Chanin, The School of Making, our artisans, our employees, and our community, we believe in action; we still believe in the act of making. In the coming weeks, we will announce details of a new partnership with Nest that centers on how the act of making can be used to foster wide-sweeping change in communities—starting right here in our own building.
Shop Class as Soulcraft isn’t Alabama Chanin’s story—and our point of view doesn’t always align with Crawford’s. But, the book gave me a framework to talk about my belief in making—at a very important time in my own journey. It gave credence to the idea that I was advancing worthwhile cause—and it continues to do so today. To me, the book is a poem about understanding the physical world around me and embracing the process of learning and DOING.
And while the act of repairing a motorcycle is the basis for this story, the book is not Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; however, it is an inquiry into what we value and why.
Over the next months we will continue to add our essential reads at Alabama Chanin to the Studio Books selection. If you haven’t had the chance to read Shop Class as Soulcraft, get started today. It might just change how you look at your world (and the products in your world).