I am married to a man who can make, build, or fix anything. He has built candlesticks, footstools, a laundry hamper, several acoustic guitars, and a sports car. Yes, a real car. Once, during one of my band rehearsals, he fabricated an aluminum music holder for a digital keyboard while we waited.
When I mention his skills in conversation, I’m often met with a mixture of envy and amazement that a person could actually not just possess the skill to fix things, but be able to conceptualize how to do it in the first place. I am bewildered that so many people view his skills as out-of-the-ordinary. Why would that be?
Matthew Crawford, in his excellent book Shop Class As Soulcraft, neatly summarizes an answer this way:
“…A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our mode of inhabiting the world: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them [emphasis mine]. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves installing a pre-made replacement part.”
At what point did we as a culture deliberately choose to be less self-reliant? Surely we must understand that the more we know about the world around us, and the more we understand how things are made, the more confident we feel and the more we can pass on to our children. Who would choose to give up that feeling of knowledge and empowerment?
I think we went wrong when we eliminated, for lack of a better term, vocational education from schools. In the early 1980s, schools began to assert that without a college degree, graduates wouldn’t be able to get a job. That impetus spelled the end of vocational ed, and with it died a generation of future mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, fabricators, machinists, cobblers, and tailors. The few American textile firms in this country struggle because they can't find anyone who knows how to operate a sewing machine.
Coincident with the end of shop class, the rapid shift from the mechanical to the digital in the last quarter of the 20th century has increasingly served to separate us from the very appurtenances we have come to rely upon. Nowhere is this shift from the mechanical to the digital more apparent than in the automotive industry. Our cars have become more about computing than conveyance, no more able to be tinkered with, modified, or simply repaired than a particle accelerator. Dashboards feature error codes which can’t be read without a special digital diagnostic device. An oil change, once the entry point for aspiring mechanics, is now a proprietary service which can only be performed by your dealer. I feel like the automotive industry has reduced me in some essential way because I can no longer tinker with my own damn car.
The current Maker movement is ripe for revisiting our “vocational” education. With all our hindsight and all the knowledge we now have about multiple kinds of intelligence, it’s an easy leap to broaden the definition of “make” to include “craft.” Imagine the kind of workshop that could exist in your school, with a 3-d printer for printing prototypes side by side with a wood shop for a full-sized build. Or a computer equipped with a CAD program to visualize a fuse box and circuit system for a car along with the actual wiring harness, crimp tools and pliers.
As children, we are proudest when we master basic skills: Tying our shoes; combing our hair. We are programmed for self-preservation by a deep sense of satisfaction that we feel when we are self-reliant, which recalls Crawford’s statement about the spiritedness we feel when we take things in hand for ourselves. But as we continue to have to rely on others to fix the things we surround ourselves with, we are not modeling self-reliance for our children. We’re modeling helplessness.
Let’s not make the same mistake we made in the early 80s and eliminate one entire course of study because another is in favor at the moment. Let's build a curriculum that addresses all our learners in all their flavors, both digital and mechanical. In the meantime, go fix that squeaky door. A little WD-40 should do it.