Learning with Your Hands

What short order cooks and organ makers tell us about being human.
Appears in Spring 2015 Issue: The Work of Our Hands
March 1st, 2015
What if we have it all backwards? What if the trades—long seen as a last resort for the dull and intellectually incapable—actually provide us with the most holistic model by which we can know? What if the shop class actually has more to teach the academy and broader society about what it means to be fully human than vice-versa?

Matthew Crawford has been in both the upper echelons of the academy and the grease-filled back rooms of a motorcycle shop. What he's discovered is that if we want to overcome the anxieties of our distracted age, we'd be better off learning a trade than almost anything else. Ours is an age obsessed with overthrowing the yoke of tradition, of freeing ourselves from the bonds of community, and, most of all, of not judging. But Crawford makes the case that if you want to become the type of person who is competent enough to be truly free—to be an individual who is able to stand her ground in the face of myriad claims on her attention— you need to immerse yourself in communities with long experience in the material world. The implications of this for education, for politics, and for shaping lives are profound.

Matthew Crawford owns a shop in Virginia where he fixes (mainly old) motorcycles, and fabricates parts. He also has a PhD in philosophy from the University of Chicago. This seemingly unusual background brings a vitality and a rare sensibility to his books. His first book, Shop Class as Soul Craft, part philosophical memoir, part trades manual, made the case for manual competence as a way of recovering human agency in a world where many can't see the effects of their work on the world. His new book, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, looks at short order cooks, hockey players, and organ makers to extend that argument. He shows how attention — our ability to attend to things in the real world — shapes our selves and our society.

Cardus hosted Crawford for a keynote public lecture in November 2014 in Ottawa, ON, which capped a national research tour (see www.buildingmeaning.com).

Comment senior editor Brian Dijkema had a chance to talk with Crawford earlier this month.

—The Editors

Brian Dijkema: Can you tell us why you wrote Shop Class as Soul Craft and your new book The World Beyond Your Head?

Matthew Crawford: In Shop Class I talked about how the experience of seeing a direct effect of your actions in the world — agency — has become elusive for many people in the affluent West, despite our ever-expanding freedoms, maybe even because of them. Those who work in an office all day might find it hard to say exactly what the upshot of their actions has been at the end of the day. The chain of cause and effect can be a bit obscure. I also noted that our material possessions — our cars, our phones, our washing machines — have become opaque to us and unintelligible. Increasingly they are reliant on software that you can't see and they might be all sealed up. Your things don't invite your intervention; you can't tinker with them.

Distractibility might be the mental equivalent of obesity

This encourages a kind of passivity and dependence. In that condition we are missing out on something that is really fundamental to being human, which is individual agency: being master of your own stuff. What I'm getting at in the new book is that agency is fundamental to how we actually perceive the world; how we know. It's by having to deal with things in a concrete way, by handling things and being pragmatically engaged, that we apprehend the world.

It's not as pure spectators that the world shows up for us. It's as beings who have bodies and act in the world. Except that now our encounter with the world is mediated increasingly by representations, which are addressed to us as spectators.

BD: Can you explain that a bit more? What do you mean by representations?

MC: What I mean is that we find ourselves having experiences that are manufactured for us by others. And these experiences are displacing a more original or direct experience of the world. The thing about these manufactured experiences is that they are engineered so as to be hyperpalatable — think of video games or porn. I draw an analogy between fast food and hyper-palatable mental stimuli. Food engineers have figured out how to manipulate levels of fat, salt, and sugar in ways we just find irresistible.

BD: Yeah, trust me, I have a problem just eating one chip. I really can't.

MC: Right. And they've worked very hard to make that the case. Broccoli just can't compete with Cheetos right? There is no way!

By analogy, the real world begins to seem bland and tasteless compared to the kind of manufactured experiences that are available to us. Distractibility might be regarded as the mental equivalent of obesity.

And the thing that I worry about is the consequences of this for human diversity. In other words if we're enthralled by these irresistible things then we get a homogenization of experience. Because individuality emerges as something hard-won through applying your cultivated powers of concentration to things that aren't immediately gratifying. Think about sitting down and trying to read Aristotle; or learning how to play the guitar. That becomes hard to do when it's Tuesday night and Sons of Anarchy is on.

BD: Can you talk about that a bit more? I mean, sure, reading Aristotle or doing skilled work doesn't provide the same sort of immediate pleasure as watching Sons of Anarchy or whatever else is on Netflix. But why should we care about attention?

MC: To attend to anything in a sustained way requires that you actively exclude everything else that is making a claim on your attention. And attention is intimately bound up with the capacity not only to self-regulate but to know who we are. Take childhood development: the way a kid begins to develop a coherent sense of self is that he begins to narrate his experiences to himself; to tell a story about them and try to impose coherence on them retrospectively. To do that, he has to be able to suppress the immediate claims that the environment is making on his attention. Human beings are thought to be the only animals who can recall a memory that's not cued by the environment.

BD: If you're a zebra and you see something tan-coloured moving that means there is a lion about to eat you. You better get out of there.

MC: Yeah, right, but zebras don't sit around day-dreaming about lions. The idea here is that our ability to suppress the environment has been technologically and culturally traumatized. There are so many hyper-palatable stimuli demanding our attention that we have trouble suppressing the environment. What that means is that the conditions for achieving a coherent self are at risk. And it's not only in childhood development. The lifelong task of carving out the space for reflection, for self-narration, or for self-articulation requires being able to get free of the present, free of the environment. And this is increasingly difficult.

BD: You spend a lot of time in your book, The World Beyond Your Head, talking about sustained attention to real things, and you give examples of this: short order cooks, hockey players, organ makers, motorcycle mechanics. Tell us how trimming little bits of saw dust off an organ pipe, or fixing motorcycles, or gardening relates to the question of individuality.

MC: Skilled practices like those are important because they provide these narrow and highly structured "ecologies of attention," as I call them.

To be engaged in a skilled practice is to be pulled out of your own head, but in a way that is very different from what happens when your attention is claimed by stimuli that are engineered for that purpose. You're joining yourself to the world, and this requires a kind of submission to hard realities, the kind that are not addressed to you.

In Shop Class I talked about carpenters and electricians and mechanics. In The World Beyond Your Head I talk about jazz and bluegrass musicians who improvise. The same goes for classical Indian music. They attend to one another and they do this within these received genres, certain melodic and harmonic forms. In other words: tradition.

I think it's impossible to understand that kind of creativity under the rubric of freedom. The musical ideas that they're expressing are their own, but they are not simply their own. It's like the forms of their art have sort of seeped into them as musicians and become the genetic material for their own improvisation.

BD: Are you saying that, if you actually want to become an individual, if you want to dare to know, you also have to dare to immerse yourself in a tradition complete with the tensions of community, hierarchy, and judgment?

MC: Yes, exactly. That is well put. And what this means is that the ideal of autonomy is in tension with education. It's in tension with the process by which you grow into an earned independence of judgment. That's because the idea of autonomy literally means giving a law to yourself. The idea that you yourself can be the source of the norms by which you orient yourself is in tension with education which literally means "to be led out." I think to be educated is to be led out from yourself.

This is most beautifully captured by Iris Murdoch when she talks about learning Russian. She talks about being led out from herself to submit to this authoritative structure that resists being swallowed up by the self. In learning a language — and I think this is very similar to learning music — you're becoming competent in something that is inherited; that you didn't simply invent yourself. Genuine human agency arises in the context of submitting to something that is not of your own creation.

This goes against the common notion of creativity as invention ex nihilo which is really kind of a crypto-theological concept, as though every artistic act is like a miniature big bang coming out of nowhere. If you go to the Picasso Museum in Barcelona it goes chronologically by floor. The early stuff looks like it was painted by a full-on Dutch master. His early paintings were classical looking before he broke through with the new stuff that we know him and love him for.

BD: This is a very different perspective on innovation than we hear from business schools, isn't it? You talk about the need to immerse yourself in a tradition but you also speak of the presence of a rebellious spirit of those engaged in communities of practice. Can you describe what you mean by that?

MC: I explore this in my book with a case study of the organ shop. The people in this shop are building baroque pipe organs. So they are working with forms that are several hundred years old. What you might expect is that this long tradition would burden them or constrain them in a way that it would become a kind of antiquarianism. That they would try to reproduce something from the past. But what you find is that what they really care about is building the best possible pipe organs.

They are looking to the baroque period because there are certain musical qualities in those instruments that they value. They are engaged in this ongoing conversation with the ancients that takes the form of a friendly quarrel.

If you think about it, a good conversational partner is not someone who simply parrots your words back to you. The organ makers are engaged in a dialectic with tradition. Their critical faculties are fully intact and in fact it's through their engagement with the building practices, materials, and techniques of the ancients, and their interrogation of the same, that they've oriented themselves towards the same goal as the ancients, which was musicality, as opposed to preserving something that is valued merely because it is old. They're making their own best effort.

It keeps progressing. That's what makes it a living tradition, not a dead tradition.

BD: Let me pick up on that. We are focused on what it means to be an individual, but you're also talking socially here. At the end of the book you're sort of saying, "I'm making a political argument." You're also making a broader cultural point.

MC: Well, attention is just so fundamental to our mental lives and we have a finite amount of it, no matter what our economic standing. I think people have woken up to the fact that their attention is a scarce resource. But we're not very articulate in making a claim for our attention against efforts to appropriate it. What we need I think is a political economy of this resource.

BD: What you mean by a political economy of attention?

MC: A few years ago I was in a supermarket and swiped my bank card to pay for groceries. I then watched the little screen intently, waiting for its prompts. During those intervals between swiping my card, confirming the amount, and entering my PIN, I was shown advertisements. Clearly some genius realized that a person in this situation is a captive audience. The intervals themselves, which I had previously assumed were a mere artifact of the communication technology, now seemed to be something more deliberately calibrated. These haltings now served somebody's interest.

Over the last ten years a new frontier of capitalism has been opened up by our self-appointed disrupters, one where it is okay to dig up and monetize every bit of private mindshare. And very often this proceeds by the auctioning off of public space; it is made available to private interests who then install means for appropriating our attention. When you go through airport security, there are advertisements on the bottoms of the bins that you place your belongings in. Who decided to pimp them out like that? If my attention is a resource, and it is, then the only sensible way to understand this is as a transfer of wealth. It is an invisible one, but the cumulative effects are very real, and a proper topic for political reflection. Maybe for political action too.

BD: And people who want to guard their inner life are forced into themselves. It forces you to put a book in front of your face.

MC: Right, that's one of the hidden costs. What's lost is the space for sociability in our public spaces. Like you say, we're driven into ourselves with sort of an arms race between private attention technologies versus the public ones.

Of course there's another solution. If you have the means you can go to the business class lounge which in some countries like France is silent, there's just nothing. That's what makes it so incredibly luxurious. When you think about the fact that it's the marketing executives in the business lounge who are using that silence to think — to come up with their brilliant schemes which will then determine the character of the peon lounge — you begin to see this in a political light. When some people treat the minds of other people as a resource, to be harvested by mechanized means, this is not "creating wealth," as its apologists like to say. It is a transfer of wealth.

BD: Let me transition here. . . One person that kept coming to my mind as I read you on communities of practice was Alasdair MacIntyre. I kept finding resonances between your call to recover these practices and what many call the "Benedict Option" offered by MacIntyre and others. Was that intentional?

MC: I wrote the bulk of the organ maker material back in 2007, 2008 and at that time I was immersed in MacIntyre. I kept coming back to him and reading more, because it seemed like his account of practice and tradition just fits so well with what I was seeing at the organ shop.

BD: You seem to hint that what we need in order to revive our economic and political prospects is for people to say, "Look. I'm not going to go to Wall Street, I'm going to make knives for a living." That in order to recover a healthy sense of the public we need to retreat a little bit. Is that an accurate reading?

MC: Let's leave aside fantasies of making a living through artsy craftsy stuff (unless there is a real market for it, as with the organ makers I describe; in that case have at it). I am not making a case for retreat from the world, but really the opposite. Here is the irony: being a trader on Wall Street is apparently a lot like playing a video game. There is an anthropologist who got a job doing that, Caitlin Zaloon, and she reports that traders get rapt in these screens of numbers, and seek a kind of high that is like a drug. The representations they are dealing with — derivatives and whatnot — are removed from the economic realities they track by so many layers of abstraction that it really is like playing a game. I would call that retreat from the world. Of course this self-contained game has massive effects in the shared world, sometimes destructive, but they play out somewhere else, beyond the screen. There is no immediate feedback from the world, and this cultivates a certain irresponsibility that is systemic. Building baroque pipe organs starts to look pretty hard-headed by comparison, grounded in a shared reality. Who is living in a fantasy world?

I do think there is a natural economy of scale to human attachments, and to the kind of communities where our capacities can really be developed. Hockey is a game constituted by rules. It's a highly specific, circumscribed practice that is what it is because of a certain history. They don't change the regulation size of the rink every six months or such. Those types of limits are indispensable for the cultivation of our power as humans.

Let's take a different example: scientific practice, and scientific apprenticeship. It's inherently progressive, it's about discovery of a new. But how does that happen? I'm convinced by [the philosopher and scientist] Michael Polanyi. He found that scientific knowledge is really best understood as a species of craft knowledge, in a sense that knowing is a skill and it's a skill that you have to learn, and you have to learn it from particular people, within a kind of mentorship.

What that means is that as a beginning scientist you have to submit to authority, the authority of your teachers. You don't fully understand why one does things this way rather than that way. It's in the course of doing it that you begin to get habituated into the characteristic judgment of a competent scientist. That element of personal involvement is absolutely necessary.

BD: Right, you talk about the movement of a practice of science that resulted when emigrés left Europe for America during the war. They brought the expertise, they became the masters who travelled from Europe to the United States and that is how American science progressed.

MC: Right. It was the Manhattan project. Polanyi points out that there were other countries that had plenty of money for research and they had access to all the same textbooks. But the practice of scientific enquiry hadn't yet taken root. Science and all knowledge are passed on from one generation to another through personal contact. And what he was worried about it is the fact that if you break that train of transmission it only takes one generation for a lot of knowhow to be lost forever. He talks about how we, with all the techniques of modern science, can't reproduce a Stradivarius violin.

BD: What type of implications does this have for educators who are concerned with the transmission of the arts and sciences?

MC: Well, let's take MOOCs [massive online open courses]. They're attractive for obvious economic reasons: you can more widely disseminate the content of a course. It's cheaper for people, which of course is good. But there is something about tacit knowledge that can't be rendered fully explicit. We are mechanizing instruction on the premise that there is this ideal of perfect clarity that is both possible and desirable. And that if we can achieve that, then any knowledge could be transmitted in this impersonal way.

But Polanyi's whole point about making the analogy between science and craft is that there is this personal element that is in-eliminable, that knowledge depends on a set of experiences that you have, not simply explicit doctrine that you have to become competent in. If that's the case then we have to worry about the survival of our traditions of intellectual inquiries, both humanistic and scientific. That's one reason to temper our enthusiasm for replacing the apprenticeship model — where there is an authoritative teacher — with a massive online mode of instruction.


Matthew Crawford is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. Hestudied physics at U.C. Santa Barbara and then turned to political philosophy, earning a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He has published articles on ancient Greek philosophy, neuroscience, and philosophy of science and a book entitled Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (Penguin 2009), translated into seven languages. His current work is on the topic of attention and brings together cognitive science, phenomenology, and moral philosophy. His new book on this subject, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, is forthcoming in April 2015.


Brian Dijkema is Program Director, Work and Economics at Cardus and senior editor with Comment. Prior to joining Cardus, Brian worked for almost a decade in labour relations in Canada after completing his master's degree with Cardus Senior Fellow, Jonathan Chaplin. He has also done work on international human rights, with a focus on labour, economic, and social rights in Latin America and China.


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