02 June 2009

On Growing Competent Hands

Some people are hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, against their own inclinations and natural bents, when they would rather be learning to build things or fix things. One shop teacher suggested to me that “in schools, we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement. Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.” _NYT
Political science graduate Matthew Crawford quit his job at a think tank to become a motorcycle mechanic. Here are his words, from an NYT Magazine extract of his new book.
The trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience. I have a small business as a motorcycle mechanic in Richmond, Va., which I started in 2002. I work on Japanese and European motorcycles, mostly older bikes with some “vintage” cachet that makes people willing to spend money on them. I have found the satisfactions of the work to be very much bound up with the intellectual challenges it presents. And yet my decision to go into this line of work is a choice that seems to perplex many people.

After finishing a Ph.D. in political philosophy at the University of Chicago in 2000, I managed to stay on with a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at the university’s Committee on Social Thought. The academic job market was utterly bleak. In a state of professional panic, I retreated to a makeshift workshop I set up in the basement of a Hyde Park apartment building, where I spent the winter tearing down an old Honda motorcycle and rebuilding it. The physicality of it, and the clear specificity of what the project required of me, was a balm....

...in the spring I landed a job as executive director of a policy organization in Washington. This felt like a coup. But certain perversities became apparent as I settled into the job. It sometimes required me to reason backward, from desired conclusion to suitable premise. The organization had taken certain positions, and there were some facts it was more fond of than others. As its figurehead, I was making arguments I didn’t fully buy myself. Further, my boss seemed intent on retraining me according to a certain cognitive style — that of the corporate world, from which he had recently come. This style demanded that I project an image of rationality but not indulge too much in actual reasoning....

...After five months at the think tank, I’d saved enough money to buy some tools I needed, and I quit and went into business fixing bikes. My shop rate is $40 per hour. Other shops have rates as high as $70 per hour, but I tend to work pretty slowly. Further, only about half the time I spend in the shop ends up being billable (I have no employees; every little chore falls to me), so it usually works out closer to $20 per hour — a modest but decent wage. The business goes up and down; when it is down I have supplemented it with writing. The work is sometimes frustrating, but it is never irrational.

And it frequently requires complex thinking. In fixing motorcycles you come up with several imagined trains of cause and effect for manifest symptoms, and you judge their likelihood before tearing anything down. This imagining relies on a mental library that you develop. An internal combustion engine can work in any number of ways, and different manufacturers have tried different approaches. Each has its own proclivities for failure. You also develop a library of sounds and smells and feels. For example, the backfire of a too-lean fuel mixture is subtly different from an ignition backfire....

...Some diagnostic situations contain a lot of variables. Any given symptom may have several possible causes, and further, these causes may interact with one another and therefore be difficult to isolate. In deciding how to proceed, there often comes a point where you have to step back and get a larger gestalt. Have a cigarette and walk around the lift. The gap between theory and practice stretches out in front of you, and this is where it gets interesting. What you need now is the kind of judgment that arises only from experience; hunches rather than rules. For me, at least, there is more real thinking going on in the bike shop than there was in the think tank.

Put differently, mechanical work has required me to cultivate different intellectual habits. Further, habits of mind have an ethical dimension that we don’t often think about. Good diagnosis requires attentiveness to the machine, almost a conversation with it, rather than assertiveness, as in the position papers produced on K Street. Cognitive psychologists speak of “metacognition,” which is the activity of stepping back and thinking about your own thinking. It is what you do when you stop for a moment in your pursuit of a solution, and wonder whether your understanding of the problem is adequate. The slap of worn-out pistons hitting their cylinders can sound a lot like loose valve tappets, so to be a good mechanic you have to be constantly open to the possibility that you may be mistaken. This is a virtue that is at once cognitive and moral. It seems to develop because the mechanic, if he is the sort who goes on to become good at it, internalizes the healthy functioning of the motorcycle as an object of passionate concern. How else can you explain the elation he gets when he identifies the root cause of some problem? ...

...There is good reason to suppose that responsibility has to be installed in the foundation of your mental equipment — at the level of perception and habit. There is an ethic of paying attention that develops in the trades through hard experience. It inflects your perception of the world and your habitual responses to it. This is due to the immediate feedback you get from material objects and to the fact that the work is typically situated in face-to-face interactions between tradesman and customer....

...The good life comes in a variety of forms. This variety has become difficult to see; our field of aspiration has narrowed into certain channels. But the current perplexity in the economy seems to be softening our gaze. Our peripheral vision is perhaps recovering, allowing us to consider the full range of lives worth choosing. For anyone who feels ill suited by disposition to spend his days sitting in an office, the question of what a good job looks like is now wide open.
And so on. Crawford's writing career is apt to eclipse his mechanical career, particularly if he begins to get invitations for speaking engagements and his book sales take off. But those who span the two worlds -- the intellectual and the practical -- have a duty to point out when society goes badly wrong in neglecting a vital pillar.

Children need to learn "hands-on competence" at the earliest possible age. That is the best way to instill genuine self-confidence, and the courage to push ahead to gain more real world expertise and achievement. Instead, children are taught by the products of an effete, incompetent university system of education that neglects the competence of the hands in favour of the indoctrination of the mind. The worst of both worlds, manifesting itself in hapless markets and worthless elected officials.

Some will wake up, but most will slumber and slide down the slope into the common pit. There, they will find politicians, community activists, social workers, and a mob of other publicly funded vampires, assuring the thrashing hapless incompetents that the government is there to help them. It really is.

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Blogger yamahaeleven said...

I left college before graduating while taking mechanical engineering. There wasn't enough "engineering" going on there, even in the early 1980's. Within a month of leaving, I was doing more engineering in a day than the entire 4 years enduring "higher" education. Now I work with KW class lasers and can crank out numerous complex mechanical components and assemblies before most engineers can warm up their analysis software.

I strongly believe people should become very proficient at a rather narrow specialty, and have the broad skill of learning something new very quickly. Eyes up to the horizon to see if the specialty you are in is going away, it may only be around for a year or two.

Tuesday, 02 June, 2009  
Blogger Bruce Hall said...


Tuesday, 02 June, 2009  

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