Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
25Jan/130

Labor of Love

China has embraced the idea of a Western college education in a big way.  As the NY Times reported recently, the country is making a $250 billion-a-year investment designed to give millions of young Chinese citizens a college education. “Just as the United States helped build a white-collar middle class in the late 1940s and early 1950s by using the G.I. Bill to help educate millions of World War II veterans, the Chinese government is using large subsidies to educate tens of millions of young people as they move from farms to cities.”

But for most of these newly minted college graduates, jobs are scarce. One reason is that these graduates often have few marketable skills and they refuse to take the jobs that actually exist. What China needs are people to work in factories. But for college graduates, factory work has little or even no allure.

Forbes Conrad for the New York Times

Consider the case of Wang Zengsong.

Wang Zengsong is desperate for a steady job. He has been unemployed for most of the three years since he graduated from a community college here after growing up on a rice farm. Mr. Wang, 25, has worked only several months at a time in low-paying jobs, once as a shopping mall guard, another time as a restaurant waiter and most recently as an office building security guard.

But he will not consider applying for a full-time factory job because Mr. Wang, as a college graduate, thinks that is beneath him. Instead, he searches every day for an office job, which would initially pay as little as a third of factory wages.

“I have never and will never consider a factory job — what’s the point of sitting there hour after hour, doing repetitive work?” he asked.

This story is actually not unique to China. In the United States too, we here repeatedly that small businesses are unable to expand because they cannot find qualified workers. The usual reprise is that high school graduates don’t have the skills. Rarely asked is why college graduates don’t apply? I assume the reason is the same as in China. College graduates see production work as beneath them.

Plenty of college graduates, many with debt, are interning for free or working odd jobs that pay little; yet they do not even consider learning a skill and taking a job that would require them to build something. Just like their comrades in China, these young people identify as knowledge workers, not as fabricators. For them, a job making things is seen as a step down. Something that is beneath them.

Disdain for manual labor combined with respect for cognitive work is the theme of Matthew B. Crawford’s book Shop Craft as Soul Craft, based on his article by the same name that appeared in 2006 in The New Atlantis. Crawford’s writing is rich and his thinking profound. But boiled down, I took three main points from his book and article.

First, there is a meaningful and thoughtful component to manual labor. To make something is not thoughtless, but requires both skill and intelligence. This is true if you are building a table, where you must think about the shape, functionality, and aesthetics of a table. But even in factory work, there is the challenge of figuring out how to do something better. And in the modern factory, labor demands technical skill, problem solving, and creativity.  Whether you are building a house or making a battery, making things requires thought. What is more, it is good for the soul. Here is how Crawford writes about the soul benefits of craft:

Hobbyists will tell you that making one’s own furniture is hard to justify economically. And yet they persist. Shared memories attach to the material souvenirs of our lives, and producing them is a kind of communion, with others and with the future. Finding myself at loose ends one summer in Berkeley, I built a mahogany coffee table on which I spared no expense of effort. At that time I had no immediate prospect of becoming a father, yet I imagined a child who would form indelible impressions of this table and know that it was his father’s work. I imagined the table fading into the background of a future life, the defects in its execution as well as inevitable stains and scars becoming a surface textured enough that memory and sentiment might cling to it, in unnoticed accretions. More fundamentally, the durable objects of use produced by men “give rise to the familiarity of the world, its customs and habits of intercourse between men and things as well as between men and men,” as Hannah Arendt says. “The reality and reliability of the human world rest primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced, and potentially even more permanent than the lives of their authors.”

Arendt values those who make things, especially things that last, because lasting objects give permanence to our world. And such workers who make things are above all thinkers in her understanding. Work is the process of transfiguring the idea of something into a real and reliable object.

But even laborers who make consumable goods are, for Arendt, doing deeply human activity. To be human has been, for time immemorial, also to labor, to produce the goods one needs to live. A life without labor is impoverished and “the blessing of labor is that effort and gratification follow each other as closely as producing and consuming the means of subsistence.”  Granted, in repetitive factory labor these blessings may seem obscure, but then again, Dilbert has taught us much about the supposed blessings of office work as well.

Second, Crawford tells the story of how schools in the U.S. have done away with shop classes, home economics, and auto-repair, all classes I and many others took in junior high and high school. In the pursuit of college preparation, education has ceased to value the blessings of labor and work.

Third, Crawford argues that in a global economy it will be work with out hands and not just work with our brains that pays well. When legal analysis can be outsourced or replaced by robots as easily as phone operators, the one kind of job that will remain necessary for humans is repair work, fixing things, and building things. Such work requires the combination of mental and physical dexterity that machines will unlikely reach for a very long time. Thus, Crawford argues that by emptying our schools of training in handwork, we are not only intellectually impoverishing our students, but also failing to train them for the kinds of jobs that will actually exist in the future.

Many of my students might now agree. I have former students who have written excellent senior theses on Emerson and Heidegger now working on Organic farms or learning the trade of gourmet cheese production. Others are making specialty furniture. One is even making a new custom-built conference table for the Hannah Arendt Center here at Bard. These students love what they do and are making good livings doing it. They are enriching the world with meaningful objects and memories that they are producing, things they can share as gifts and sell with pride.

Many of the best jobs out there now are in the specialty craft areas. These jobs require thought and creativity, but also experience with craftsmanship and labor. Crawford does not argue against training people well in the liberal arts, but he does raise important questions about our valuation of intellectual over manual labor. We here in the U.S. as well as our friends in China should pay attention. Perhaps we need to rethink our intellectual aversion to production. Maybe we should even begin again to teach crafts and skills in school.

Crawford will be speaking at the next Hannah Arendt Center Conference “The Educated Citizen” on Oct. 3-4, at Bard College. We invite you to join us. Until then, I commend to you his book or at least his essay; Shop Craft as Soul Craft is your weekend read.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
10Sep/121

The Gap in American Skilled Labor

I flew back from Germany Friday and sat next to a young woman from Berlin. The young woman was attending Humboldt University and was studying to be a teacher. Like many in Germany, her undergraduate education was a professional one. On another plane between Zürich and Berlin I met a young man in a technical university, studying to be an electrician. This is one of the things that most strikes one about the differences between young people in Germany and the United States. In the U.S. both these young people would be pursuing liberal arts degrees, delaying concerns about a job or a career until after college. In Germany, they are aiming at a technical education preparing them for specific jobs.

The liberal arts can be and often are an extraordinary opportunity for young people to embrace the complexity and richness of human life on earth. A liberal arts education can transform one's life, helping a young man or woman to find meaning in life, in art, and in nature. As someone who dedicates himself to liberal arts writing and teaching, I have an enormous faith in and love for the determination to teach young people broadly and widely.

And yet, as much as I value and believe in the liberal arts, we should not think that it is a necessity for everyone. This has been one of our mistakes, to insist, against all good evidence, that a liberal arts education is the path to being both a good citizen and a successful person. Many have come to think that only someone with a B.A. or a liberal arts degree is educated, a prejudice that defies human history as well as our own experience.

I had a good friend who grew up in Switzerland and learned to build organs. He could walk through a forest and hear the wood play in the wind and pick precisely that tree whose fibrous inners would produce the most vibrant tones demanded of professional organ players. To think such a person uneducated would be folly. He was in tune with the natural world and with music in a way that few musicians ever would be. And yet it is precisely people who are skilled at doing things—from building organs to fixing pipes, from fixing electronics to growing food, and from cooking dinner to building a deck—that are increasingly absent in our modern society.

A number of years ago Matthew B. Crawford wrote a book Shop Class as Soulcraft. The book had two simple theses. First, that skilled work was deeply important. It teaches judgment, mastery, and engagement with the world around us, with the things that in Hannah Arendt's sense, make up our physical world. Second, that American high schools increasingly do not teach shop classes or home economics classes or auto repair classes, classes that used to instruct young people in the art of fixing and understanding the mechanical world around us. Crawford argued that while high schools were ditching shop class in favor of college prep, it was actually the case that more and more of the jobs available in our society were ones that required a physical skill at building and fixing things. Not only were we losing out economically, but also our educated elite was increasingly separated from those who know how to do things.

Crawford is right. And one result of the bias against skilled labor he highlights is the persistent disconnect between sky-high unemployment and increasing job openings. Businesses report a shortage of qualified workers. There is, in other words, a skills gap. Jobs are available, but they are not the jobs young people want to do.

Mike Rowe, host of "Dirty Jobs" on the Discovery Channel, has written open letters to both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama expressing his thoughts on the grounds for the skills gap.  (Hat tip to Glenn Reynolds) This skills gap is but a symptom of what Rowe believes to be a fundamental problem facing this country – the growing emotional disconnect between the general American population and skilled labor.

“We have embraced a ridiculously narrow view of education,” wrote Rowe in his open letter to Governor Romney this past Labor Day."

Any kind of training or study that does not come with a four-year degree is now deemed ‘alternative.’ Many viable careers once aspired to are now seen as ‘vocational consolation prizes,’ and many of the jobs this current administration has tried to ‘create’ over the last four years are the same jobs that parents and teachers actively discourage kids from pursuing.

The irony underlying the emotional disconnect with skilled labor is that these jobs are just what they claim to be – skilled – and require diverse education across a number of fields, a far cry from the bleak picture transfixed in the minds of many parents and teachers concerning these careers. In the manufacturing industry, for example, machinists are typically required to be adept at computer programming and geometry. These jobs are not avenues for opting out of an engaged and intelligent lifestyle, rather, they represent in many ways the beautiful symbiosis that may exist between education and practice.

Far from the “alternative” label given careers in skilled trades today, these professions were once described as possessing qualities uniquely apt for democratic peoples. Alexis de Tocqueville has a chapter in Democracy in America dedicated to the question of why Americans are drawn to the practice of science (such as skilled trade jobs), and writes that “In America the purely practical part of the sciences is cultivated admirably, and people attend carefully to the theoretical portion immediately necessary to application; in this way the Americans display a mind that is always clear, free, original, and fertile…” A far cry from the “vocational consolation prizes” these professions are deemed today.

Hannah Arendt also decried the "lost contact between the world of the senses and appearances and the physical world view." And Arendt understands that it is practical persons—plumbers and technicians—who will better be able to re-establish that lost contact that many educated people and scientists feel in the face of the physical world.

There is no doubt about our disconnect from physical and skilled labor, there is only the question of what to make of it. Mike Rowe writes,

Forty years ago, people understood that sweat and dirt were the hallmarks of important work. Today, that understanding has faded. Somewhere in our economy’s massive transition from manufacturing to financial services, we have forsaken skilled labor, along with many aspects of our traditional work ethic.

Skilled laborer positions are still financially lucrative. Many machinists, for example, make about $60,000 a year and some have the opportunity of making as much as $100,000 a year with overtime, but these jobs are no longer celebrated as worthwhile and honorable positions, and this, Rowe argues, is why so many Americans fail to consider these careers.

Rowe argues that we need to confront the social stigmas and stereotypes attached to skilled-labor so that we may begin to reevaluate the jobs which for years now have been underappreciated despite their necessity. There was “a time when Work was not seen as a thing to avoid,” Rowe wrote in his concluding remarks to President Obama, “When skilled tradesmen were seen as role models, and a paycheck was not the only benefit of a job well done. We need to recapture that sentiment. We need to celebrate, on a bigger scale, the role models right in front of us.”

—RB (with assistance from David Breitenbucher)

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.