For two years I taught literature, reading and writing at a public university in one of New York City’s outer Boroughs. Of course having come out of a liberal arts “thinking” institution what I really thought (maybe hoped) I was teaching was new perspectives. Ironically, the challenge that most struck me was not administrative, nor class size or terrible grammar and endless hours of grading, the most pressing obstacle lay in creating a case for the value of “thinking.”
I state “case” because I regularly felt like my passions and beliefs, as well as my liberal arts education went on daily trial. I had originally come from a hard-scrabble immigrant reality, but my perception of reality had been altered by my education experience, and as an educator I felt the need to authenticate my progressive (core text) education with my students.
I was regularly reminded that the immediate world of the “average” student (citizen) with all its pressing, “real” concerns does not immediately open itself to “thought” in the liberal arts sense. We are a specialization, automation, struggling and hyper competitive society. The “learning time” of a student citizen is spent in the acquisition of “marketable,” and differentiating skills, while their “free time” is the opportunity to decompress from, or completely escape the pressures of competitive skill acquisition. The whole cycle is guided by an air of anxiety fostered in our national eduction philosophy, as well as the troubled economy and scattered society at large. I don’t think one can teach the humanities without listening to their students, and listening to the students calls for a deep inventory on the value of “thought” in the humanities sense, and then ultimately in how to most truthfully communicate this value to the students.
I need to add here that my students were quite smart and insightful. This made it even greater of a challenge. Their intelligence was one of realism. I needed to both acknowledge and sway their perspective, as well as my own.
Each semester I began with a close-reading of David Foster Wallace's commencement speech at Kenyon College, “What is Water.” He begins his speech with the parable of two fish swimming by an older fish which as it swims by asks, How is the Water?” The little ones swim on and only later ask each other, “What is water?” Didactic parable, cliche -- yes -- but Wallace goes on to deconstruct the artifice of commencement speeches, parables, and cliches, and then rebuilds them. Having so skillfully deconstructed them he has invited his listers into the form making, and as he communicates the truth beneath what had earlier seemed lofty or cliche, the listers follow him towards meaning making. Ultimately Wallace states that education is “less about teaching you how to think, and more about teaching you of the choice in what to think about.” To have agency is to be a meaning maker. And as more and more cultural institutions artfully vie for the citizens devotion and loyalty -- politics, religion, but even more so, corporate houses and pop culture designs, in the ever growing noise of institutional marketing the call to choose seems ever more muted.
The choice, for so many students today, is simply in how to most skillfully compartmentalize themselves and their lives in the face of the anxieties of their immediate world. The choice for many young teachers, facing their own set of related anxieties, is in how far are they willing step away from the ideal of learning-living-teaching integration model -- so easy is it today as an educator to simply become disenchanted, frustrated and aloof. Sometimes, “thinking” is the process of choosing what to keep and what to give away.
Wallace's insightful, no b.s, humorous and sincere tone resonated with my students, that is of course until they found out that Wallace killed himself. Then, that’s what everyone wanted to focus on. I can not blame them. There is a ‘text’ to ‘personal’ mystery, a ‘content’ to ‘context’ disjunction that opens itself at such a revelation, a mystery that the “thinking” mind wants to explore. The modern “thinking” mind draws little separation between the lofty and the sublime, the public and the personal. Such is a byproduct of a generation raised on reality television and celebrity stories. I, in all sincerity cannot judge this. My generation, the X’s who came of age on the cusp of the Millennials, were culturally educated by MTV, The Real World and Road Rules, and thus we crave hip, colorful, appropriately gentrified spaces to occupy -- think of artist collectives, or Facebook and Google working environments (bean bags, chill and chic prescription sunglasses, lounge happy hour with juice bars, untraditional working hours, colorful earth tones). I digress, I meant to make some observation of “thinking.”
I was excited to teach what excited me: I began with Wallace, then Kafka, O’Connor (Flannery or Frank), Platonov, Carver, Babel, Achebe Kundera, Elliot, etc... It is, essentially, the seven sisters freshmen reading list, a popular catalogue of classic stories peppered with some international obscurity. It is the “cool” thing in liberal arts. But, over and over my students came to me complaining that they could not find this relevant to their lives. After such reports I would tweak my lesson plans to give a greater introduction to the works, going deeper into the philosophical tenets of the stories, and into the universal reward of being able to utilize the tools of the thinking, writing mind. Induct, deduct, compare, contrast, relate, “give it greater shape,” I would say. “Breath life into it.”
To have the skills to decipher plot, to record the echo of a narrative, to infer characterization from setting, to understand the complex structure of a character, to be invited to participate in the co-creation of a narrative which gently guides you through action but leaves the moral implications up to the reader. These are “indispensable,” I would advise my students. “Indispensable for human agency.” Some would slowly gravitate to my vision, as I prodded further and further into their motivations for being in school, career, and other ‘relevant’ choice. Yet, they often felt only like visitors in my library, preparing to check out and return to the “default” education thinking mode as soon as the quarter, mid, or end semester exam periods began. The pressures of what they call “the real world” are much stronger then the ghosts of books and introspective thought -- vague, powerless, intangible.
“The real world:” Here I am reminded of the scene from the Matrix when Morpheus unveils to Neo “the desert of the real.” A barren waste land of human energy as only a power source nourished for consumption. The Matrix, I will add here, is based on a work by Jean Baudrillard, a french philosopher who warns of a modern society as a place existing in consumption and entertainment, devoid of meaning making -- the urge towards agency, in hibernation; the map towards meaning, defunct. In describing this new world he coined the phrase “the desert of the real.” Again, I fall into tangental thought.
I needed to find a way to invite, seduce, capture my students. I tried using myself as a conduit.
I pride myself on the fact that I am an immigrant, a former “at risk” student, that my tattoos all have mythological meaning and thought behind them, that I am a high-school drop out with credentials to my name, a top tier education, a masters degree, etc... I felt like these could help me bridge for my students the platforms of reality-setting discourse and humanistic thought. I had, and still do, believed that real “thinking” is indispensable in being human, in being free, and in the ability to have fun and play with the world.
Again, my students would, at times, meet me in the middle space I wanted to create, though rarely did this space become living for them, instead they lay their heads to the sound of another’s palpitation and breath, and then moved on. Maybe I planted a seed, I like to think. But then, maybe, they were bringing me somewhere as well.
They could not recklessly follow me, or I them. It was an issue of pragmatic bonds. For a moment, my class, or an individual student I was reading with would delve into the power of words with me and the ending of Andrei Platonov’s “Potudon River” would finally break through the events of the page: “Not every grief can be comforted; there is a grief that ends only after the heart has been worn away in long oblivion, or in distraction amidst life’s everyday concerns.” And my students would draw new understanding of the passage, enter it through a word or phrase that could unlock that middle space between their worlds and the world of literature, philosophy, metaphor. “Grief,” “long oblivion,” life’s everyday concerns,” all the sudden my students would give these new meaning, now only slightly guided by the story and letting their lives find a grip to the reigns. They would find new connections, and again they would return to the “real” world.
More and more I struggled to make thinking relevant. “Will this help me get a better job?” I was asked.
Thinking about it I had to encounter my own struggles with this question. I know the answers. I know the programed liberal arts answer, and the “real” answer. I know that the liberal arts answer exposes the “real” as something at best lacking, at its worst empty. I also know that the real, is real; it happens in real time, removed from the concerns of literature, poetry, and philosophy which concern themselves with the work of mans eternity.
“Unlikely,” I would answer. For gods sake, though I was teaching all these things I cared so deeply about, I also worked nights as a bartender to satisfy the demands of the real. I had to produce something consumable and all of my learning and thoughts on thinking are not that.
Here I acknowledge that this answer is not entirely true. We can find jobs which call for liberal arts skills, but these are few and far between and rarely afford a comfortable standard of living. We may also posit the argument that liberal arts skills will contribute to ones ability to perform better and have a greater understanding of ones job, but this argument does not lend itself to substantial evidence, no matter how much I may actually believe it. This was the litmus test of my “thinking,” and it only survives in embracing the privacies of my world, that I chose my private world despite and above the “real.”
“Unlikely.” And where does that leave us?
Ultimately, all I have as a conscious being is the ability to tell stories, to choose and create my narrative from the scattered world I am provided. Ultimately, after deconstructing both the “real” and the “lofty” I could only encourage my students to choose their own themes. To the question of “what is water?” I could only answer, “the desert.”
Oddly enough, and as “unlikely” as it may seem, when I answered with honesty, to them as well as myself, they followed. -- we could talk.
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.
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.