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The Thinking Man's Grease Monkey

I recently finished Matthew B. Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. He articulates some things that I've been feeling for sometime: namely, that the "information revolution" isn't all it's lauded to be. In fact, he asserts that much "knowledge work" isn't much removed from factory drudgery. Part of the problem has been the way we approach education. He writes,
Today in our schools, the manual trades are given little honor. The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into "college prep" and "vocational ed" is overlaid with another: the fear that acquiring a specific skill set means that one's life is determined. In college, by contrast, many students don't learn anything of particular application; college is the ticket to an open future. Craftsmanship entails learning to do one thing really well, while the ideal of the new economy is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement. Somehow, every worker in the cutting-edge workplace is now supposed to act like an "intrpreneur," that is, to be actively involved in the continuous redefinition of his own job. Shop class presents an image of stasis that runs directly counter to wht Sennett identifies as "a key element in the new economy's idealized self: the capacity to surrender, to give up possession of an established reality."
This is reminiscent of the call for more people to go to college (especially here in Blue-collar Michigan) because we need 21st Century Workers! What no one seems to notice however, is that the university is much like a mining operation: it takes the precious resources from a particular location i.e. our children, and then encourages them to get the hell out of Dodge. You'll never flourish in your hometown--Go Elsewhere, Young Man or Woman! Much like the mining company that takes the ore and ships it elsewhere almost never to be seen again from whence it was unearthed.
Crawford writes about his own college experiences, then being hired by a think tank, and finally opening his own motorcycle repair shop. He points out various stops along the way, including a soul-deadening stint with a corporation that produces abstracts for databases. Lest one thinks he's completely one-sided, he doesn't completely crap on the corporate model in America, but he does have many harsh things to say about it. He also doesn't rule out the need for college. What he prescribes, however, is balance.
So what advice should one give to 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 in to 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 hoops for the sake of making a decent living. 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, as it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable.
Someone please notify the president, governor, and most economists!

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