Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Another Argument for Real Skills


The New Atlantis features a fine piece by Matthew B. Crawford lamenting the decline of craftsmanship in the modern consumer society, and the decline of any ethic of manual production. It’s an interesting meditation on our present culture’s inclination away from concrete skills and towards generalized uselessness and a high-end argument for vocational education.

Today, in our schools, the manual trades are given little honor. The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into “college prep” and “vocational ed” is overlaid with another: the fear that acquiring a specific skill set means that one’s life is determined. In college, by contrast, many students don’t learn anything of particular application; college is the ticket to an open future. Craftsmanship entails learning to do one thing really well, while the ideal of the new economy is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement. Somehow, every worker in the cutting-edge workplace is now supposed to act like an “intrapreneur,” that is, to be actively involved in the continuous redefinition of his own job. Shop class presents an image of stasis that runs directly counter to what Richard Sennett identifies as “a key element in the new economy’s idealized self: the capacity to surrender, to give up possession of an established reality.” This stance toward “established reality,” which can only be called psychedelic, is best not indulged around a table saw. It is dissatisfied with what Arendt calls the “reality and reliability” of the world. It is a strange sort of ideal, attractive only to a peculiar sort of self—gratuitous ontological insecurity is no fun for most people.

Sounds about right. His description of the Degradation of Blue-Collar work reads more than a little like the destruction of the Loom Weavers in The Making of the English Working Class, but provides a penetrating perspective on the relation of the rise of Scientific management and the decline of skilled labor.

And “gratuitous ontological insecurity” is the best description I’ve yet seen for the condition of most of my recent fellow liberal-arts college graduates – not one of us with any practical skills. The description has something of a better ring than “washed-up.” 


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