I am not a fan of Ask This Old House, the spin-off of the PBS home improvement program, This Old House. Formerly the companion series to This Old House was The New Yankee Workshop, hosted by master carpenter Norm Abram of, you guessed it, This Old House. I enjoyed The New Yankee Workshop very much, partly for the avuncular Norm Abram, but also for the craftsmanship on display. I remember an episode in which Norm made a roll-top desk. If that did not impress you just thinking about it, you wouldn’t have enjoyed the show. A big part of the appeal for me was Norm’s tools. I thought more than once that if I had a hundred thousand dollars just sitting around with nothing better to do I’d buy a few of Norm’s tools—not all of them mind, a hundred grand wouldn’t get you there. I don’t know why, but the show was cancelled after 21 seasons—too intimidating I suppose. Ask This Old House replaced it. On the new show the boys from This Old House go out to help with small home repairs, like changing a door knob, or fixing a squeaky floor, while some eager-beaver homeowner hands them tools and pretends to help. (I’m exaggerating, but not much.) It’s a little disheartening to watch. And I never see Norm. I’ve wondered why. I have a guess.
Reviving a serious interest in the manual arts among the literati is what Matthew B. Crawford’s book, Shop Class as Soulcraft is for. It was a surprise best seller back in 2009 and many fine reviews of the book are readily available on the internet. With all that electronic ink, what more can I add? Well, not much perhaps—but I’ll give it a go. I think Crawford’s book has a lot to offer for anyone interested in home economics—and that would include me.
Crawford tells a story of diminishment, outlining how we went from a nation of independent tradesmen, farmers, and shop keepers to cubicle dwellers. He is well qualified for the job—not only is he an electrician and a motorcycle mechanic, he has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago.
My favorite sections in the book are the reflections on the epistemology of handicraft—yes, you read that correctly, the epistemology of handicraft. Craftsmen know the world differently, and in a way, more deeply than other people because they work with it. They know, for instance, that the world does not yield to our whims like Playdough, it comes with inherent characteristics that need to be reckoned with. The inner structure of things is not something to fight with but to ally oneself with. Here’s Crawford—
From its earliest practice, craft knowledge has entailed knowledge of the ways of one’s materials—that is the knowledge of their nature, acquired through disciplined perception. At the beginning of the western tradition, Sophia (wisdom) meant “skill” for Homer: the technical skill of the carpenter, for example.[p. 21]
Throughout the book this type of knowledge is contrasted with theoretical knowledge, the sort that cannot be bothered with the particularities of a material world. Crawford illustrates the other worldly character of theoretical knowledge by recounting a conversation with his father, a mathematical physicist. The conversation follows a particularly frustrating encounter with an old Volkswagen engine.
One day I came into the house filthy, frustrated, and reeking of gasoline, my dad looked up from his chair and said to me, out of the blue, ‘Did you know you can always untie a shoelace just by pulling on one end, even if it‘s in a double knot?’ I didn’t really know what to do with this information. It seemed to be coming from a different universe than the one I was grappling with.
Thinking about that posited shoelace now, it occurs to me maybe you can and maybe you can’t untie it in a stroke—it depends. If the shoelace is rough and spongy, and the knot is tight, it will be a lot harder to undo than if the knot is loose and the shoelace is made of something slick and incompressible, like silk ribbon. The shoelace might well break before it comes undone. He was speaking of a mathematical string, which is an idealized shoelace,….[p. 78f]
In my experience the embedded character of practical knowledge is something many theoreticians resent. Knowledge that cannot be fully translated into human words lacks currency. Understanding that must be arrived at through practice leaves them with little to say and they hate that. But there is something more, a residue of disdain yet clings to manual labor for many. I recall an episode with a distinguished relative of mine (now deceased). He was a renowned translator of the Bible, a member of The International Who’s Who of Intellectuals, a former President of The Evangelical Theological Society, and the author of about 40 books. (I received a few of those signed, “To Chris, with affection, Uncle Ralph.”) When I was working through graduate school as a carpenter my wife and I went over to his stately home (cared for by a gardener and a handyman) for a family gathering. He met my wife on her side of the vehicle to escort her into the house. (He was a Brahmin of the old school with an unyielding code of personal etiquette.) Almost his first words to me were, “You drive a truck, how interesting.” I got the hint, scholars do not drive trucks.(He harbored hopes for me, I believe.)
Scholars these days tend to be more sympathetic, but no more capable—just envious in a way. Few manage to straddle the divide. The great man’s son—himself a Harvard graduate and a distinguished psychologist—said to me when we met for the first time at another family gathering, “I hear you’re a carpenter, that’s great. I wish I could work with my hands.”
The Manual Arts, Independence, and Spiritedness
It would make for a neat and tidy story if we could blame all of this on the academe. But Crawford shows us that the true culprit is not the pasty academic, it is the ruddy man of business—the bottom line man. His business corporation is not looking for capable, independent, manually skilled men—it’s looking for Dilbert. It wants compliant cubicle dwellers. Crawford lays the blame for this on Taylorism—aka “scientific management”—the brainchild of Fredrick Winslow Taylor. And it means breaking work down into simple and mindlessly repeatable tasks. Imagine turning the world of work into McDonalds—a place that can be operated by teenagers who can’t add—and you pretty much have it.
The enervating effects of Taylorism can be seen when Dilbert is out of a job. And what is such a person’s first and often last hope for employment? To sell back to his former employer (at less pay and no benefits) what the employer has already demonstrated it can live without. In such circumstances those with manual skills can fare better. Crawford recalls, “When I couldn’t get a job with my college degree in physics, I was glad to have something to fall back on, and went into business for myself,…” The business was wiring houses. I had a similar experience. When I found myself in transition after being in the ministry for 17 years I initially sold commercial real estate but when that market dried up I still had my tools and my skills. I got my contractor’s license and in a matter of weeks I was making money again.
Being able to sell your skill on the open market is one benefit of manual competence. Thrift is another. In his chapter, “To Be master of Your Own Stuff” Crawford introduces us to the “spirited man”, the man who insists on keeping his possessions in good repair himself because in some sense they are an extension of himself. Early on in the book Crawford observes that many people who think they are independent are actually living a lie. Their autonomy is illusory. When the things that make life what it is break, many run straight to the phone and call the repair man.
“Opportunity cost” is sometimes used to rationalize a reluctance to look after your own stuff. According to the gods of efficiency one must focus on what one does best, leaving other things to other people. Crawford notes this assumes a fungibility of activities—that they are essentially interchangeable and money is the only matter to consider. It also assumes a constant and increasing demand for what one does best. As our jobless Dilbert demonstrates, that may be a bad assumption.
Autonomy verses Agency
Advocates of the business corporation sometimes resort to a rear guard action and make the absurd case that cubicle clusters are just the neighborhoods of the modern economy. The implication is that independence is un-neighborly as well as inefficient.
Only God is truly independent. We humans must eke out an existence as best we can. We all depend on something or somebody. Independent people are just a little closer to the things they depend upon than other people. By the way, you want to be one of them. People who think self-employment is risky and working for a large corporation is safe and secure have it backwards. That is not to say every form of self-employment is sound. It just means that when the hard times come, as they always do, the owner is the last to lose his job.
The marvelous serendipity of this is that it puts you in a position to trade profitably with others. When you know how to do things it raises your standing in a community. Knowing the difference between wattage and voltage may make you sound intelligent— but knowing how to wire a house makes you a person to turn to in time of need.
Crawford refers to this as agency. Large business corporations—the places that promise you a safe secure job with benefits—foster an illusion of autonomy while actually increasing your vulnerability to economic hardship. The paradox of the independence that Crawford promotes is that the skilled tradesman is a conscious social agent—he understands the contribution he makes to the lives of others and those others understand it too.
This is reflected in the demeanor of many tradesmen I know. Crawford has also seen it—
The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect upon the world. [p.15]
Many have mourned the loss of the republican spirit in our world. For a plupart of the citizenry self-reliance is almost inconceivable. When people see themselves in a Dilbert cartoon is it any wonder socialism is ascendant? If you wish people could be more capable and resourceful, Crawford is your man. Here he is again—
At this weird moment of growing passivity and dependence, let us publically recognize a yeoman aristocracy: those who gain real knowledge of real things, the sort we depend on every day. P.32
The Household and the Republican Spirit
This is great stuff—I’m fully on board. Still, there is something missing as I see it. Historically yeomanry had a material basis, a farm. While I strongly agree with Crawford that the manual arts help sustain independence, they don’t do the job alone. Not even a liberal education leavened with readings from Tocqueville and Seneca will get you there. What we need is something more, something real knowledge of real things can serve. While most of us cannot go back to the farm—something more fundamental is yet within reach—the household. I’d like to take a little detour. I’d like to discuss the househoId for a bit—the functional household that Wendell Berry has talked about for so long. But it is not really out of the way—it is actually the best place to set up shop if you want to pursue Crawford’s vision.
Throughout modern history the functions once resident in the household moved away. Today they reside mostly in the bureaucratic state and the business corporation. Civic functions, that is to say political functions, once performed by a head of house are now considered anachronisms, or worse. When it comes to its economic functions the same could be said. But at least we have an etymological artifact to provide us with something to think about. The word economy—a word we now use to speak of productivity at a national or even global scale—comes from a Greek compound word: oikos, meaning house and nomos, meaning law or management. Once upon a time nearly all productive activity took place within households. For the vast majority of human history people worked from home—going to work meant going out to the barn, or downstairs to the shop, or out back to the smithy. Things are quite different now. Today a home is largely considered a refuge from civic and economic concerns—a haven in a heartless world, as Christopher Lasch pointed out. As such homes have been reduced to centers of consumption, places to sleep and watch television and shelter those little consumers we call children.
The typical homeowner, if asked to put his home on a balance sheet, would list it in the asset column. That’s because it can be sold. Of course, in most cases, you can no longer live in it unless you are willing to pay rent to the person who bought it. At that point a home would be considered a liability. Why? Because it costs you money each month. Many businessmen understand that nothing has really changed. Sure, there are some tax deductions available to homeowners, but before a sale the house costs you the interest on a mortgage (if you have a mortgage—if you don’t, good for you), and there are real estate taxes, not to mention all the costs of upkeep—utilities, maintenance, those things. (And while it is generally the case real estate appreciates in value over time—it doesn’t do so in a straight line. There are dips—as we have been painfully reminded of—and these dips can out last the owner. Some real estate may never come back. Ask the residents of some neighborhoods in Detroit about that.)
For these reasons the enlightened homeowner should list his home in the liability column. But when it comes to a business—a shop, or an office, or a retail building—these things can be considered assets even though there are costs associated with them. Why? Because these buildings shelter productive activity. They can help produce more money than they consume on an on-going basis.
This is the difference between householding and home ownership. A physical house is a shelter and for that reason it has always been used as a metaphor for other kinds of shelter. An economic shelter is a house of sorts. It is the sort of shelter that shelters those who dwell in it from the economic vicissitudes of the world. It does so, paradoxically, by sheltering productive activity. This is the sort of house you can own without home ownership. It usually consists of the members of a family—at times a large and extended family—working productively together. And it is undergirded by traditions and legal provisions that sustain it over the generations. A household can include a house, of course, but it can also own and occupy other buildings, and those buildings can be spread out, even being located in different communities.
Today when people think of property they think of personal property since that is the only sort of property most people own. 99.9% of the time it rapidly depreciates and ends up in a landfill. Productive property is property used for productive purposes. What does it look like? An apartment building is an example of productive property when it comes to real estate. For a farmer, his land and his livestock are productive property. And for the tradesman it is his tools. (Your tax return can help you identify it—if you can deduct it, or depreciate it, likely it is productive property.) This is what householders want to own and pass down to their children. And when it comes to productive property, its acquisition, and its upkeep and improvement, the manual arts are indispensable. It is only when the household makes a comeback that we will see manual competence come back.
Where to Begin?
Now let’s face it—tradesmen have an image problem—what I call the plumber’s butt problem. Shop Class as Soulcraft skips around it by giving the book a New Agey title and by using a photo of an old motorcycle on the cover. I wonder how book sales would have gone with a title like, “How to Fix Toilets and Do Other Necessary but Uncool Things While Thinking About What You’re Doing” accompanied by a photo of a rusty pickup truck? Probably not as well.
Many people would rather look sophisticated and be dependent, than be independent without the pretense of sophistication. Here are a few thoughts on this. First of all there is no necessary connection between manual competence and pants that don’t fit. What is more—you can be manually competent and an intellectual—Crawford demonstrates that. If you can manage that your standing actually rises in two worlds. Let me let you in on a secret—you may look down on tradesmen, but if you are not competent to care for your own stuff—what do you suppose the tradesman thinks of you? He may respect your money—but that’s about it. I’ve been in on sessions with a lot of laughter where we share with each other the crazy things people do to their stuff before we arrive. It’s like when a politician (typically a liberal one) goes out to throw the honorary first pitch on opening day and feebly throws it into the dirt. Everyone is polite, but no one is thinking polite thoughts. But above all this—you really need to get your priorities straight. If you want to relocate your economic interests and bring them more directly under your control, then you need to learn to work with your hands and to respect those who can.
With that out of the way we can begin with the matter of how to begin. When I bring this subject up with men of a certain age—say men born between the years 1945 and 1965—there is usually a guilty confession—“My father tried to teach me…” Those fathers were spurned. They had seemed so rigid, and parsimonious, and uncool. In those days the promise of industrial progress was evident everywhere. Why scrimp and save and repair when credit is cheap and next years model is always better than last years? As young men these men wanted to go into the future with clean hands. Now that they are older men they have seen the error of their ways. But now they’re intimidated, it seems too late to go back and learn. To be honest, the possibility of true craftsmanship probably has passed them by. The optimal age for being introduced to the trades seems to be from about 15 to 25. At that point you’re physically strong enough to handle materials and professional tools and you are still young enough to refine your skills enough to be considered a craftsman. Still, it is better to be a dilettante who can install a dishwasher (about a 4 on the 10 scale of difficulty) than the guy who hides in the television room while the repairman is working.
Crawford’s account of his baptism into handiwork is amusing and I could identify with some of it. Like him I am a son of an academic and in a sense we are the least likely of candidates for this sort of thing. There was something remarkable though about the 60s and 70s that I think may make our experiences less likely today. The more casual approach to parenting which was common then, even among highly educated people, left kids free to explore the world in a way that parents of similar education are loathe to allow now. Crawford experienced nothing remotely similar to helicopter parenting. Me neither. That meant there was a prospect of meeting a far greater range of people on a casual basis and of observing and learning to appreciate ways of life very different from what one experienced at home. For me it meant interacting with different sorts of men, some of whom I came to admire and want to emulate. Further, my family background provided me with an inoculation to purely academic pursuits. I am just not overly impressed by Ph.D.s Sure, I respect scholarship—I hope it shows—but I came to respect the scholars of handicraft just as much. And I have felt no need to choose between fields of study. I find them to be mutually enriching. On the one hand, because of my background in handicraft, I can see things in my study of the Bible that my colleagues of the soft-hands tend to miss. On the other hand I can reflect upon and put into words aspects of handicraft that my friends of the calloused hands cannot emulate. My guess is that Crawford could say something similar. I find myself wishing my friends on either side of the divide could enjoy the side they’re missing. (My advice to bookish friends is, get a hobby that requires some manual skill; and my advice to my handy friends is, learn to read, preferably worthwhile things—Aristotle and Epictetus for starters, both are champions of common sense and Epictetus is pious and pithy.) And to top it all off, the ladies like it. There isn’t a woman alive that does not appreciate a man who can make useful things—and I’ve never run across one that doesn’t appreciate a man who can put his thoughts into words when he needs to—even when the words are muscular and to the point, like the words of Hemingway or London.
Once again, where do we begin? It would appear that the manual arts not only serve households, they may only be reliably passed on within households. What I see is closely held businesses in which men who are in the trades, bring their sons in—often before the legal age for paid employment—to help them out. I got my start working for a commercial contractor (steel and concrete) who also happened to be a member of the family (a different branch than the one mentioned earlier). There are programs, often sponsored by trade unions, with all the attendant group-think and subject to the pressures of political correctness. But the union is part of the problem in the sense that it interposes itself between the tradesman and his work. Many of the benefits of independence identified by Crawford are actually undermined by the trade unions. Generally public school teachers consider homeschoolers a threat, the same is true for union members when it comes to independent tradesmen. (You can usually tell the difference between the two by the bumper-stickers on the truck.)
I’ve had my sons work with me over the years—they’ve helped me on numerous construction projects. And annually they go with me to West Virginia to work on the homes of miner’s widows. But it is not enough. They lack the daily exposure, and the pressure to work up to standard, that a business would provide. I’m trying to get them summer jobs in the trades with men I know. I’m also pushing them into things that are introductory in character with the idea that perhaps a first step could lead to more steps—steps they would take on their own. For example I just signed my younger son up for a class on small engine theory and repair. Lest you think I am limiting him, he will be participating in his Shakespeare troupe after that. I want my sons to enjoy the benefits of both worlds–working with their minds and their hands–becoming masters in both forms of knowledge.
What if you are a repentant son of a scorned father? There is only one way to begin and that is by doing. Hopefully you’ve got some men in your network who are handy. Get together with them for beers and tell your tale of woe. You’ll likely find they’re happy to help you get your start. Then get some second hand tools if you can—but of the highest quality you can. Then start small, watch videos, and remember every project is a lesson. And finally, pick up a copy of Shop Class as Soulcraft to keep your spirits up!
Here are a couple of videos I’ve thrown in for fun–examples in entertainment of the outlook I believe in.
From the Terry Gilliam film, Brazil (1985)–Harry Tuttle outlaw heating engineer.
Ron Swanson from NBC’s, Parks and Recreation making a ring for a date.
Books mentioned in this essay are available from The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay is a third in a series of essays he is writing on the recovery of householding. He hopes they will add up to a book someday.