I hate to begin a blog post with a quote from Wendell Berry—lest I disturb the fragile peace at the Cardus dinner table—but I’m going to do it anyway. Berry offers this nugget:
One of the most important resources that a garden makes available for use, is the gardener’s own body. A garden gives the body the dignity of working in its own support. It is a way of rejoining the human race.
Yes, you read that right: gardening makes you more human.
Berry is not alone in saying that labour helps you become more human. While he emphasizes the importance of physical labour in the context of producing food, there have been a spat of books recently which expand on that premise and suggest that all labour—physical labour—is good for the soul. And not only books. The popularity of shows such as Dirty Jobs, the Deadliest Catch and Undercover Boss—not to mention the increased investment in trades by the Canadian federal government—indicate that there is afoot something of a renaissance of appreciation for manual labour.
Manual labour is good for the soul. I’m an avid gardener who’s waxed eloquent at least once about the joys of gardening. I’ve also worked closely with tradespersons who daily use their bodies to ensure that the streets of our cities are free of garbage, that our drinking water comes out of the tap clean and that the lights go on when you flip the switch. I’ve also seen, many times, the type of snobbery described by Nicholas Wolterstorff in a recent review, “Thinking with Your Hands,” in Books & Culture:
If you use your hands or teach those who use their hands—”hands” being used both literally and metaphorically here—you are inferior to those who use only their heads: practicing musicians are inferior to musicologists, painters are inferior to art historians, teachers of business are inferior to economists, teachers of preaching are inferior to theologians. The basic attitude was stated crisply by Aristotle at the opening of Metaphysics: “We think the master-workers in each craft are more honourable and know in a truer sense and are wiser than the manual workers.”
But, at the risk of stirring the pot, might the reverse also be true? Is there not also something wrong when we teach the trades without requiring tradespeople themselves to ask the big questions? Is there inherent snobbery in the way in which trades schools are set up? Can we be fully human without a deep appreciation for both physical labour and the life of the mind?
Hannah Arendt&mdas;hwho flirts with the question asked by Wolterstorff in the quote above—says no. In her book The Human Condition, she argues that labour is not enough. One must speak and argue about the meaning of life in public in order to be fully human. I agree.
Perhaps it’s time to re-examine not only the way that we understand the trades, but the way we teach them. Perhaps Arendt and Berry should get married. Perhaps a liberal arts trades school is what is required for our day and age?