30 Days to a Better Man Day 23: Learn a Manual Skill

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I read an interesting
in Sunday’s New York Times where the editors asked 8
artists to draw a portrait of their fathers and name one thing that
their dad can/could do, but they can’t. The answers were interesting
and made me think of the things that my dad can do that I can’t.
Like clean a gun. And skin a deer. While it’s not universally
true, among people my age, it seems our dads are a lot handier than
we are. Sometimes I imagine what would happen if there was a terrorist
attack or natural disaster that wiped out our electricity and disrupted
society. How many of us would be standing on our lawns, scratching
our heads, absolutely clueless about what to do next?

Learning hands-on
skills is about more than survival, however. Men are made to be
productive, to create things with our hands, to enjoy the manly
satisfaction of taking things apart, seeing how they work, and putting
them back together. Manual skills have stopped being passed down
from father to son. And in our digital age, much of what we do for
both work and pleasure is often conducted in an intangible realm
with intangible results.

You might think
that the need for craftsmanship has become irrelevant in our high-tech
times. But while working with your hands may no longer be necessary
for your livelihood, it doesn’t mean it not necessary for you
soul. The need for craftsmanship spring eternal. To put into words
why this is, I turn to Mathew B. Crawford, whose new book, Shop
Class as Soulcraft
, makes the argument for craftsmanship
far better than my humble writing skills ever could. This excerpt
comes by way of The
New Atlantis:

in the market for a good used machine tool should talk to Noel Dempsey,
a dealer in Richmond, Virginia. Noel’s bustling warehouse is
full of metal lathes, milling machines, and table saws, and it turns
out that most of it is from schools. EBay is awash in such equipment,
also from schools. It appears shop class is becoming a thing of
the past, as educators prepare students to become “knowledge

At the same
time, an engineering culture has developed in recent years in which
the object is to “hide the works,” rendering the artifacts
we use unintelligible to direct inspection. Lift the hood on some
cars now (especially German ones), and the engine appears a bit
like the shimmering, featureless obelisk that so enthralled the
cavemen in the opening scene of the movie 2001:
A Space Odyssey
. Essentially, there is another hood under
the hood. This creeping concealedness takes various forms. The fasteners
holding small appliances together now often require esoteric screwdrivers
not commonly available, apparently to prevent the curious or the
angry from interrogating the innards. By way of contrast, older
readers will recall that until recent decades, Sears catalogues
included blown-up parts diagrams and conceptual schematics for all
appliances and many other mechanical goods. It was simply taken
for granted that such information would be demanded by the consumer.

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. 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.

So perhaps
the time is ripe for reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen
out of favor: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward
the built, material world. Neither as workers nor as consumers are
we much called upon to exercise such competence, most of us anyway,
and merely to recommend its cultivation is to risk the scorn of
those who take themselves to be the most hard-headed: the hard-headed
economist will point out the opportunity costs of making what can
be bought, and the hard-headed educator will say that it is irresponsible
to educate the young for the trades, which are somehow identified
as the jobs of the past. But we might pause to consider just how
hard-headed these presumptions are, and whether they don’t,
on the contrary, issue from a peculiar sort of idealism, one that
insistently steers young people toward the most ghostly kinds of

the rest of the article

11, 2010

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