May 22, 2009 AT 2:33 pm

The case for working with your hands….

24Labor-600
The case for working with your hands…. @ The NY Times…

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.

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 for others their work may entail. Such sacrifice does indeed occur — the hazards faced by a lineman restoring power during a storm come to mind. But what if such work answers as well to a basic human need of the one who does it? I take this to be the suggestion of Marge Piercy’s poem “To Be of Use,” which concludes with the lines “the pitcher longs for water to carry/and a person for work that is real.” Beneath our gratitude for the lineman may rest envy.


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7 Comments

  1. without a doubt, I need to work with my hands. To have a tangible result of my efforts, something that persists after I’m done. I’ve done cubicle style work in my day, as well as traditional blue collar work, and I feel the disregard towards trades in the educational system does our youth a huge disservice.

    It’s certainly not for everyone, but shop classes in school gave students valuable insight into what may really work for them. The world will always need people to actually make things work, and that’s not a fallback job for, errr, those not smart enough to do something else. As technology progresses, these jobs require ever more knowledge and skill.

  2. I prefer to use my beak and tentacles, but understand what the author is trying to say.

  3. My first love was electronics, but there was no chance for an education or a career there, so I went through the industrial mechanics program. During the early 80’s they were trying to eliminate vocational classes in my high school here. A good portion of the student body marched en-masse to the office areas, demanded if that were true and offered to immediately drop out to either persue blue-collar/agricultural careers they had already chosen or enter the local community college to get the education they needed, not the “corporate replaceable part education” that the school management droids determined was the future. This one action staved off for about eight years the inevitable.

  4. @Cthulhu: Made my day :D

  5. Ironically I chose to become a journalist because I saw the job as being hands-on. That is running around town with a notebook taking shorthand, interviewing contacts in the pub and dashing back to the newsroom to type it all out.

    That’s what it was like when I was first sucked into the industry at the tail end of the 1970s. Pretty quickly it turned into a largely deskbound, knowledge worker job.Now of course, the newspaper industry is a tail spin so those hands-on jobs are starting to look like fun again.

  6. What continually amazes me is the fact that most people don’t know even know how to work on bicycles.

  7. @dr2chase

    The worst was being on a Habitat for Humanity project and having to teach a teenager how to basically use a shovel, something I’d been doing since I could walk. It was painful seeing the poor kit flail around, trying hard but accomplishing little. By the end of the week he was teaching his buddies which was totally cool.

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