Sunday, May 24, 2009

academia and the art of motorcycle repair

my lovely fiance passed along a great article to me from nytimes magazine about work with your hands, by matthew crawford, a PHD graduate from chicago (and postdoc fellow for the committee on social thought) who now works in a motorcycle repair shop.

one of his starting points is the dismantling of shop classes in the 90s:

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.

i remember this dismantling. by the time i took "tech ed" at my school, the equipment had become run down (not to mention out of date), and the teachers were demoralized to the point of idiocy. tech ed had become a required anacronism in our scheduling. crawford continues:

when we praise people who do work that is straightforwardly useful, the praise often betrays an assumption that they had no other options. we idealize them as the salt of the earth and emphasize the sacrifice foro thers their work may ential....but what if such work answers as well to a basic human need of the one who does it?

crawford continues with some very interesting anecdotes about the work he's done actually using his degrees, and as you might expect, how unfulfilling it was, even denigrating. our attitude that we might be able to "take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy" seems to have wreaked much havoc in this most recent generation. all you have to do is watch a few middle schoolers send hundreds of texts and hour (seriously), and then wail in literal pain if their parents take their cell phones away to see the damaging sway of information's constant stream.

but the larger point of crawford's is work and economy. what has our economy turned our work into? this, of course, all seems to connect to a wendell berry article i've been reading lately, "racism and the economy." he starts with this same attitude towards work that crawford identifies and ties it to issues our country has been struggling with for years:

the root of our racial problem in america is not racism. the root is in our inordinate desire to be superior--not to some inferior or subject people, though this desire leads to the subjection of people--but to our condition. we wish to rise above the sweat and bother of taking care of anything--of ourselves, each other, or our country. we did not enslave african blacks because they were black, but because their labor promised to free us of the obligations of stewardship, and because they were unable to prevent us from enslaving htem. they were economically valuable and militarily weak.

it makes a lot of sense to me that racism could be our quickest excuse out of history. we think, we are much superior, we believe, because we are not racist. we have solved the essential problem of slavery, which was hatred because somebody looked different. yet we have progressed beyond that irrational contempt, we have moved forward and will continue to move forward.

but what if berry's right, that there is something more fundamental at stake, something that is still motivating us, something, indeed, that motivates our very idea of progress? is it possible that the issue berry identifies is responsible for both slavery and affirmative action? berry says so:

the problem of race, nevertheless, is generally treated as if it could be solved merely by recruiting more blacks and other racial minorities into colleges and then into high-paying jobs. this is to assume, simply, that we can solve the problems of racial minorities by elevating them to full partnership in the problems of the racial majority. we assume that when a young black person acquires a degree, puts on a suit, and achieves a sit-down job with a corporation, the problem is to that exten solved. the larger, graver, more dangerous problem, however, is that we have thought of no better way of solving the race problem.

i forget who it was that said something to the effect of to be well adjusted in a profoundly sick society is no virtue. the problem is not a race problem, berry says, or even an economic one, but a moral and spiritual problem. we have not actually solved the problem of slavery, we only got a better slave: technology, powered by oil (or some future magical boundless green energy). we live in a society that seeks to escape what is aptly summed up in the curse of genesis:

so the Lord God said, the woman, "you will bear children with intense pain and suffering. and though your desire will be for your husband, he will be your master." and to adam He said "because you listened to your wife and ate the fruit i told you not to eat, i have placed a curse on the ground. all your life you will sturggle to scratch a living form it. it will grow throns and thistles for you, though you will eat of its grains. all your life you will sweat to produce food, until your dying day. then you will return ot the ground from which you came. for you were made from dust, and to the dust you will return."

you don't have to be a fundamentalist christian to see the whole of human history and struggle encased in that statement. foretold there is the last 200 years: slavery, energy dependency, patriarchy and the feminist movement, communism, its fall, out of control markets. scary.

1 comment:

Kool Kat said...

being a future educator, I always held the opinion that not everyone is meant to be enlisted in in college after high school. you can contribute some of the competivitveness in the job market today because every college graduates 5000 kids from a business-like major.