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On College and Cubicles
May 22, 2009 9:46 AM   Subscribe

The Case for Working With Your Hands.
In the boardrooms of Wall Street and the corridors of Pennsylvania Avenue, I don’t think you’ll see a yellow sign that says “Think Safety!” as you do on job sites and in many repair shops, no doubt because those who sit on the swivel chairs tend to live remote from the consequences of the decisions they make. Why not encourage gifted students to learn a trade, if only in the summers, so that their fingers will be crushed once or twice before they go on to run the country?
posted by Chinese Jet Pilot (88 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
wonderful and a bit depressing. thanks.
posted by docpops at 9:51 AM on May 22, 2009


As long as Vocational schools are marketed as the place where the dumb kids/ jocks go there will be no attraction to the smarter kids who may not want the cubicle life, but are shown no options. Try and find a plumber at 3:00AM. You know they're all fast asleep in their second homes, whereas the typical knowledge worker may be sitting at a computer surrounded by diet cokes and energy drinks trying to make some ridiculous deadline imposed by know-nothing managers.
posted by Gungho at 9:53 AM on May 22, 2009 [17 favorites]


Additionally Vocational schools are seen as a dead end to education. There aren't too many colleges that offer plumbing as a major.
posted by Gungho at 9:54 AM on May 22, 2009


One interesting thing I learned about Asplundh is that it's very much a family run business. However, for family members to work their way into the board room, they're required to spend some time working out in the field, doing the dangerous hands-on work, actually cutting down trees, etc. Thought that was pretty neat.
posted by inigo2 at 9:54 AM on May 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


My grandfather was a farmer. My grandmother, his wife, had majored in Radio and Television at the University of Kentucky (this was the early 50s, and the Television part of the department was brand spanking new), before becoming a high school English teacher. Her best friend from college, Libbye, moved to New York (where she could use her Radio and Television degree) and eventually ended up living on Park Avenue with her husband.

Once, my grandparents came to visit Libbye and her husband, and a shmancy New York cocktail party was thrown in their honor. During the party, my grandfather got into a conversation with a professor from Columbia about some aspect of current events (it was the late 70s—let's say they were discussing the Shah of Iran). After a while, the professor asked, "So, Pat, what is it that you do?"

"I'm a farmer," he said. "We grow corn, soybeans, and winter wheat."

The professor stood there, dumbfounded. "You mean— you mean—" he stuttered. "You mean you actually work with your hands?"
posted by ocherdraco at 9:55 AM on May 22, 2009 [8 favorites]


Working with your hands: Yes, at least part time or on your own.
The "college makes you a pansy" vibe in this article: Stupid anti-intellectualism.
posted by DU at 9:55 AM on May 22, 2009 [6 favorites]


Reminds me of this scene, from Office Space...

Sometimes I'm all like just because I was born with an above average analytical capability doesn't mean I can't be a landscaper or something. I'm so sick of my office.
posted by gagglezoomer at 9:56 AM on May 22, 2009


Why not encourage gifted students to learn a trade...

Students? There are a lot of current Wall Street and F500 execs that need this.

(Give them a couple hours alone with a bandsaw and Jesse Ventura, and they'll confess to the Tate murders.)
posted by rokusan at 9:58 AM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]



Working with your hands: Yes, at least part time or on your own.
The "college makes you a pansy" vibe in this article: Stupid anti-intellectualism.


I think it's closer to "college makes you smug and superior, and injects a false sense of 'upper class' that makes you feel as though you deserve to be above the real workaday world."

Which sounds pretty spot-on to me, at least for some professions (medicine, law) and probably every Ivy League school.
posted by rokusan at 9:59 AM on May 22, 2009 [10 favorites]


I'm not sure why this essay is called The Case for Working With Your Hands. It seems like two stories:
1. Motorcycle repair job was good for me.
2. Middle manager job was not good for me.

From my perspective, I like fixing things, but I do it on the computer. I would not be happy with a gardening job.
posted by demiurge at 10:01 AM on May 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


There are a lot of current Wall Street and F500 execs that need this.

Yeah -- and soon some of them will be stamping out license plates in the prison shop.
posted by ericb at 10:02 AM on May 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


I think it's closer to "college makes you smug and superior...

That's a view that many people have, but not a view expressed in this article. In the article, it's about "shoving bodies into college and then cubicles" as though the only worth of an education is the monetary payback. (What are people who work with their hands manufacturing? Hugs?)
posted by DU at 10:05 AM on May 22, 2009


Additionally Vocational schools are seen as a dead end to education.

They sure as hell aren't priced like a dead-end. A 12-15-month program at a tech school can easily saddle a kid with as much, or more, debt as a stint at a 4-year college.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:06 AM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Fuck community college. Let's get drunk and eat chicken fingers.
posted by rokusan at 10:12 AM on May 22, 2009 [9 favorites]


That's a view that many people have, but not a view expressed in this article.

Yeah, on second skim, you're probably right on that. I think I've been poisoned by dealing with so many annoyingly-stupid guys in expensive suits taking up the air in my downtown bar.

I need a new bar.
posted by rokusan at 10:15 AM on May 22, 2009


A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic rather than to accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not self-destructive.

Most of the folks I spend time with don't seem to have this attitude. It seems to be more along the lines of "If he's happy doing it, great! Even better if it means he can support himself and not sponge off us."

Both my parents went to college as did I, my older brother did not, but he could of if he had wanted to. There was never any great pressure to go to college, my parents want us to be happy (and self-supporting).

Thinking about my opening statement, I could name very few people I know who HAD to go to college because that is what their family did. But, among most of the people I hang around with, I'm sometimes known as college boy.

In my current job I move a lot of electrons around, and a massive amount of paper. I'm happy we have major projects we finish, they get distributed and actually used every day by elected officials and government workers. I sometimes wish I had a trade though. I have some job skills, but it's a pretty narrow field. I used to run a printing press (before desktop publishing and laser printers) and that was a very portable skill, I could always get a job.

I was just telling my boss this morning how much I like my job so I'm going to sit here, eat cheddar cheese goldfish, and be happy.
posted by marxchivist at 10:18 AM on May 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think it's closer to "college makes you smug and superior, and injects a false sense of 'upper class' that makes you feel as though you deserve to be above the real workaday world."

To me, it sounds more like "change is bad. I wish things were more like in the old days." As if the greenness of grass can be measured.
posted by daniel_charms at 10:20 AM on May 22, 2009


To me, it sounds more like, "Doing physical work like fixing motorcycles can be pretty cool and satisfying -- a lot of people don't realize that as they plod along established paths to a desk job."
posted by brain_drain at 10:32 AM on May 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


Those who are intellectually inclined by nature have few options but to either join the scholastic rat race or opt out completely. The latter option should be made more palatable, and I think this article is driving at that. One thing that needs to be done is to disassociate one's ultimate sense of self-worth from one's job. The other thing is to seek alternative opportunities for intellectual growth outside of mainstream scholasticism. If you can do both these things, then a job involving physical labour can be a source of joy and well-being.
posted by No Robots at 10:37 AM on May 22, 2009 [4 favorites]


There's a typo in the NYT.

".... before they go on to ruin the country."
posted by vers at 10:38 AM on May 22, 2009 [4 favorites]


A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic rather than to accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not self-destructive. There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions.

This is, of course, not true for everyone in the US. There are plenty of communities where becoming a mechanic is what kids aspire to, and where the idea of going to a university is the eccentric choice. At my shitty inner-city highschool, bright kids were encouraged to enroll in one of the district's many trade programs, to get a head start on learning to weld or style hair. There were classroom presentations where they told us that we weren't going to go to college anyways, and wouldn't want to-- college is expensive and look at your teachers, they went to college and they're stuck here at this shitty school working for shit pay. You've got to learn a trade.

It worked out pretty well for a lot of kids, although not, by any means, for all of them.
posted by bookish at 10:41 AM on May 22, 2009


> I think it's closer to "college makes you smug and superior, and injects a false sense of 'upper class' that makes you feel as though you deserve to be above the real workaday world."

I had a friend at school who was more or less ordered by his parents to go into the engineering program, even though he didn't want to. Why? Because it was what his dad did, and because it sounded good when they told their friends about it down at the country club. Sure enough, he flunked out. When he told them he was considering going back to school to become a chef, they refused to help pay for it and more or less threatened to disown him. Why? Because chef wasn't a "prestigious" enough job.

This sort of class-based snobbery, along with certification creep (my father, who graduated from high school by the skin of his teeth and was a pipefitter for most of his working life, told me shortly before he retired that new hires for his position were required to have at least a college chemistry degree), is why we're so short of plumbers and mechanics.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:43 AM on May 22, 2009 [5 favorites]


Also:

> I taught briefly in a public high school and would have loved to have set up a Ritalin fogger in my classroom.

I loved this line. In terms of economical storytelling it's right up there with "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:47 AM on May 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


Richard Sennett has a lovely book called The Craftsman that would be a good in-depth followup to this article.
posted by ikahime at 10:49 AM on May 22, 2009


LEGO
posted by downonthebayou at 10:52 AM on May 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


Banker, part time academic here, I share this guys enthusiasm for physical and tangible labour. Almost all of my day jobs are about ideas; creating and communicating ideas. Well, I like making things, either tangible or intangible, but creating stuff I can poke and prod and pound and shape really turns me on.

I suspect some of this is because I grew up in the country, either living on or near a farm but always working one. By this I mean either doing unpaid chores or labouring to make a bit of extra money. That gave me an incredibly solid (compared to some folks) work ethic as, and this will be familiar to anyone who has worked a farm before, cows, chickens and pigs don't eat just five days a week. There is always something to do on a farm, and long days seven days a week was my first introduction to the world of work.

I also gained lots of manual skills from my family as well as taking loads of shop classes in high school (early 70's, not sure if they still do this). Those skills have served me well across a variety of dimensions. During my life I've owned seven cars but did as much of the work on them as I could, including rebuilding an engine once and replacing an automatic transmission another time (Chilton's shop manuals, a good set of tools and 1970's cars were a tinkers dream). I've rebuilt much of our flat, of course laying floors and painting but also creating two walk in closets from adajacent smaller closets, and crafted several cabinets into specific niches.

Even though I don't make my living doing manual labour, I deeply respect those who have decided to support themselves that way. What really disturbs me is seeing how some folks disrespect people for their choise of profession; doesn't seem appropriate to look down on anyone who is making an honest living and I'm never at a loss for words when I run across such a tradesman. Generally I pester them to death with all sorts of questions and queries about what they're doing and why. They almost always seem to appreciate the opportunity to explain their craft to someone who is interested.

I suspect deep down inside even though I don't make my living doing manual labour, I'm envious of those who do.
posted by Mutant at 10:55 AM on May 22, 2009 [8 favorites]


my father, who graduated from high school by the skin of his teeth and was a pipefitter for most of his working life, told me shortly before he retired that new hires for his position were required to have at least a college chemistry degree

what
posted by DU at 11:01 AM on May 22, 2009


In the article, it's about "shoving bodies into college and then cubicles" as though the only worth of an education is the monetary payback.

Well... isn't that the *primary* value of a formal education? I don't think most people would go into so much debt (and through the--imho--hell of academia) if it weren't for the perk of monetary payback. Let's not deceive ourselves.
posted by symbollocks at 11:02 AM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


> my father, who graduated from high school by the skin of his teeth and was a pipefitter for most of his working life, told me shortly before he retired that new hires for his position were required to have at least a college chemistry degree

what


NEW hires. Back in his day, pretty much anyone could walk off the street and into the plant and get a job. Now you need a college degree to get the same job he landed with a high school diploma. Hence, certification creep.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:06 AM on May 22, 2009


I once crushed my hand during a Maoist sex orgy at my college, which tended to break out after film classes about Goddard, so I know where the author of the article is coming from, man.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:10 AM on May 22, 2009


Damn! Apparently I took Film Studies at the wrong school.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:15 AM on May 22, 2009


The "college makes you a pansy" vibe in this article: Stupid anti-intellectualism.

believe me, you don't have to be an intellectual to get a college degree these days - in fact, i've met graduates who made me wonder if you have to be functionally literate
posted by pyramid termite at 11:17 AM on May 22, 2009 [12 favorites]


Why not encourage gifted students to learn a trade, if only in the summers, so that their fingers will be crushed once or twice before they go on to run the country?

You know, come to think of it, this is a great idea. I do, however, have a few suggestions for 'streamlining' this process a bit. Why spend an entire summer on something like this - and waste invaluable human resources that could be put to much better use in this time? My suggestion would be to limit this to a single day at a factory, letting the students observe how different jobs are done and perhaps "get their fingers dirty" as well, working at a bench in turns for a couple of minutes or so, as the schedule allows. After that, they would be led to a special room where the pinkie fingers of their left hand (or right hand, if they're left-handed) would be ceremoniously crushed, after which they would be handed their licenses for running the country.
posted by daniel_charms at 11:22 AM on May 22, 2009


Ceremoniously or ceremonially?
posted by Mister_A at 11:29 AM on May 22, 2009


> My suggestion would be to limit this to a single day at a factory...

My grade 11 machine shop class went on a day-long field trip to a variety of factories in and around my hometown. Prior to this I was seriously considering becoming a welder, because I enjoyed that class and hated school and couldn't think of a reason why I'd want to sit in a classroom for another four years after high school ended. Without exception, every single one of the facilities we visited was loud, hot, badly lit and depressing. Most of the workers seemed pretty morose, and one of the guys who gave us a tour was quite obviously drunk and/or high. That was the day I decided to go to university. However, I can't say this decision led to much in the way of satisfaction with my career, so I sometimes wonder if I'd be a happier person if my shop teacher had chosen better places for us to visit (and I worked at my dad's plant one summer during university, so I know they were out there).
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:29 AM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


You know, come to think of it, this is a great idea.

Someone seems a wee bit sensitive about the subject...
posted by maxwelton at 11:30 AM on May 22, 2009


> My suggestion would be to limit this to a single day at a factory...
certainly is a more suitable idea for the adderall crowd.
posted by msconduct at 11:41 AM on May 22, 2009


My dad forced me to take shop classes in high school because he went to votech and all his brothers went to votech and then my older brother went to votech. I worked summer trade jobs from 9th grade straight through my second year in college because those were the kinds of jobs friends and family could get me. I cleaned grease traps, hauled maxipads out of clogged toilets and stared at this plumber dude's gnarly ass crack all summer when I was like 14. It fucking sucked. Watching blood arc into the air with every heartbeat because I sliced my hand open on a piece of jagged sheet metal while doing HVAC work when I was 20 neither cool nor fun. And this while most of my college classmates were globe hopping or working cushy internships. Fuck that, man. And after all that I practically still can't even turn a screw.
posted by The Straightener at 11:47 AM on May 22, 2009


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I wonder if this guy read it?
posted by indiebass at 11:50 AM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's a false dichotomy. I have a Master's and work at a computer all day (yes, in a cubicle), but I can still install floors; fix my motorcycle; and do basic electrical work, plumbing, and carpentry.

Yet I've known TONS of people who "work with their" hands in factories (where I spent my college summers) who can't fix anything. And house painters who are deathly afraid of anything mechanical. And mechanics who call an electrician to install a light switch.

It's really a question of what constitutes a well-rounded education, as well as why we feel the need to pigeon-hole ourselves into working in a single field forever upon turning into a grown up. My Master's doesn't stop me from occasionally working as a handyman part-time, and it certainly hasn't stopped me from renovating houses for $$. I would imagine there are a fair number of plumbers out there who program in their spare time as well.

It's just a shame that our ingrained 40-hour-work week only allows for a single "profession" for most people.
posted by coolguymichael at 11:55 AM on May 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


I worked in a kayak factory for almost a year. On the one hand it was really interesting. On the other, it was incredibly demeaning. Not the labor part of it -- that was just fine. But the little and varied ways in which management continually tried to screw us over, ranging from big things like vacation time to little things like buying us the shittiest of instant coffee and not hiring someone to clean the toilets once in a while. The unrelenting games of divide and conquer they used to play us grunts off against each other were insane as well. I guess my liberal arts degree gave me enough insight to realize what was going on from day one. Some of the old-timers had no idea that the wool was being pulled over their eyes. The others just didn't care since they were happy to have a job even though they had a criminal record.

Yeah, there's nobility in manual labor. But there's also a ton of bullshit. Just mention the word "union" to someone in a non-union shop in America, even in a neutral way, and you'll be gone by the end of the day. I saw it happen. And this company was voted highly in one of those "Best Place To Work ZOMG" polls for a major magazine.

Did I mention that those polls are also bullshit?

I've got a bitchin' scar on my right forearm, however. Those industrial ovens for roto-molding plastic? They're hot. Don't touch them until the cooling cycle is over, OK?
posted by bardic at 11:58 AM on May 22, 2009 [7 favorites]


Anyone seeing this article as anti-intellectual must have read something different than I did. The author has a PhD, and used to run a Think-Tank for a brief amount of time.

What he's saying is that the problem solving and intellectual rigors of fixing motorcycles is more honest and moral than the kinds of mental lies and dishonesty he faced at the think tank, or writing abstracts of articles.

In some ways, it seems to me that what he's objecting to is that the idealistic, honest thinking processes that you may engage in during college, for instance, gets subverted by bureaucracy into a kind of Orwellian/Soviet thinking-two-opposite-things-at-once process in the corporate world, because the corporate mission statements don't focus on intellectual honesty, but rather a process which must be followed by workers. He said he felt more like a prole working a "white collar job" than he did as an electrician.

For him, what he's advocating is not just working with his hands in a stupid way. He seems most energized by the intellectually honest problem solving aspects to it, which I respect.

In my read, he's arguing fixing motorcycles as intellectually challenging, and more mentally rewarding than "white collar" work.
posted by MythMaker at 11:59 AM on May 22, 2009 [4 favorites]


Can you dig it, man?

No, seriously, can you dig that trench over there? Thanks, pal.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:00 PM on May 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


Mister_A: Ceremoniously or ceremonially?

Both, I would think.
posted by daniel_charms at 12:01 PM on May 22, 2009


There's a typo in the NYT.

That's like saying there's snark on MetaFilter.
posted by oaf at 12:03 PM on May 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


On the one hand it was really interesting. On the other, it was incredibly demeaning. Not the labor part of it -- that was just fine. But the little and varied ways in which management continually tried to screw us over, ranging from big things like vacation time to little things like buying us the shittiest of instant coffee and not hiring someone to clean the toilets once in a while.

This is definitely not limited to manual labor. I'm a programmer and my employers pull crap like this all the time.
posted by symbollocks at 12:12 PM on May 22, 2009


Talking about the value of trades seems to be a growing trend: I think on some previous thread in MeFi I read about a talk Mike Rowe gave at TED where he advocated work and getting more people into the trades.

My own little anecdote is my father. He started out paying his way through college by putting up drywall and painting. Now that he's retired from office work he has decided to go back to construction and build himself a house. Since he started (6 months ago) he seems a lot happier and satisfied than anytime before when he was in the cubicle farm.
posted by selenized at 12:19 PM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


selenized, ditto. My father retired after thirty-five years in avionics, and now he spends his time building water features, gazebos, and other ornamentations, and I've never seen him so happy.
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 12:52 PM on May 22, 2009


As I think about the article more, it seems to me the preoccupation with "the knowledge worker" and the joy of doing things with your hands is, in some ways, a modern twist on a 20th century invention.

Maybe I'm just being banal or incoherent, but wasn't a big part of the labour movement of the early 20th century a reaction to the removal of the knowledge from labour? The transition from the skilled labourer to the unskilled assembly-lineman was a much discussed thing 100 years ago. These current arguments from the knowledge worker side seem like the flip-side of that.
posted by selenized at 1:45 PM on May 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


Rokusan, that is community college.
posted by clockzero at 1:50 PM on May 22, 2009


Students? There are a lot of current Wall Street and F500 execs that need this.

Yes. And when I see "their fingers will be crushed once or twice before they go on to run the country", I imagine something more out of the movie Casino than high school metal shop.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:55 PM on May 22, 2009


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.

Yes, yes, yes.

He is missing an important point about manual labor, though. He chose to do this, and he brings his education with him when he does. Owning your own shop and setting your own hours is a hell of a lot different than being low man on the totem pole at an oil change station, where you spend all day doing the same mechanical motions. I also can't help but suspect that it's a lot easier to make a living off repairing exotic motorcycles if you have connections and social capital, or at least the knowledge of how to generate connections.

That is not to say that his point about the disrespect of manual labor is incorrect. My father has a graduate degree in English, but he doesn't use it. He farms. I grew up with the work ethic Mutant talked about - the job doesn't stop. There is a rhythm and a dignity to farming, even as there are moments in which working in a dadaist corporate culture is infinitely preferable. But I made the choice to project rationality rather than break my back and my heart getting up at four in the morning and going to bed at midnight like my father does. A lot of my peers from middle class homes didn't make a choice - it was made for them, and their ignorance of that choice is sad.

But I don't see how you make manual work a viable option in a culture which has rejected the idea of hard work in favor of an ersatz equality of opportunity based on chance. The heroes of our culture are people who got lucky, not people who work hard.
posted by winna at 2:41 PM on May 22, 2009 [6 favorites]


For a guy trying to make the case that manual labor can increase happiness, he doesn't look too thrilled.

I grew up elbow deep in grease-trapped sinks, washing dishes, busing tables and generally doing shit work for worse pay. Maybe it's the prissy queen in me, and no disrespect to people who do it for a living, but I really don't relish the thought of ever going back to that.

At this point in my life, keeping my household clean, my bicycle working and my computers running is enough dirty work for me. I'll happily admit to liking -- no, loving -- my relatively clean fingernails and the intellectual challenges of my work. I'm lucky and I'm grateful for that much.

I wonder if there is a relationship between the romanticism of hard labor and the "back-to-nature" movement in "urban" and organic farming, romanticizing a return to a simpler, more rural life. It seems more about the romanticism than the reality, to me. A lot of well-to-do, directionless trustifarians and post-grads who never had to do a day's hard work in their childhood or teens, trying out a week of how the little people live, like they would try on a pair of designer jeans.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:42 PM on May 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


There's a bit of romanticisation about the community and camaraderie of labourers and workers but I really don't get the anti-intellectualism that DU sees, from the sounds of it this dude started office/knowledge work pretty idealistically, presumably seeing it as the fulfilment of a worthwhile and enjoyable university education. His subsequent disenchantment seems to have more to do with the workplace than with college. And contrary to what a lot of people on this thread are concluding, the author's own final remarks are

Ultimately it is enlightened self-interest, then, not a harangue about humility or public-spiritedness, that will compel us to take a fresh look at the trades.

Which I didn't see coming given the evident love of his work (and also feel is a bit of a cop out coming from a bona fida policy wonk/politial philosophy doctorate, maybe he's saving that part for his book).
posted by doobiedoo at 2:46 PM on May 22, 2009


Wonderful read.
posted by nola at 2:53 PM on May 22, 2009


I worked a lot of finger crushing jobs before I became a cube junkie. I can't say it made me a better person, but I know that it made me appreciate getting into a work environment where I don't have to worry about my hands getting squished.

I do think that there might be some value to having worked in sweat jobs prior to getting into an office though. It's a different mindset, and one that helps you look at problems from different angles.

Plus, it is nice to know that if it all goes to shit, there are still some real, making-stuff-with-my-hands, job skills that I can fall back on. Even if I never need to use them, it's a way to sleep a little better at night.
posted by quin at 2:57 PM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah winna and Blazecock Pileon manage to say exactly what the political cop out is from this guy - exactly how many vintage motorbikes do we need to keep people happy and enlightened self interest just doesn't sound good enough if it turns into a soft sell for "rugged individualism" in the experience economy. I really enjoyed the article, but the author's conclusion seems remarkably coy given his professional background.
posted by doobiedoo at 2:58 PM on May 22, 2009


In my first year of grad school (one of the more depressing times of my life), a building was being built across the street from the (old) building housing my department.

Every day I walked by and thought, wistfully, that at least when those guys went home at the end of the day they had done something. There was building there that wasn't there before. All I did was make some marks on paper.

Sometimes now (just finished my fourth year) I still feel that way, but I try not to think these thoughts because I just don't have manual skills so it's depressing as hell.
posted by madcaptenor at 3:15 PM on May 22, 2009


I didn't read the article that carefully, but honestly, what I did read sounded like bullshit to me. He's not talking about the difference between working with your hands and working with your mind. He's talking about the difference between owning your own business and working for someone else. If you own your own specialty motorcycle repair business, you get independence and autonomy and all that fun stuff. If you work for Jiffy Lube, I bet you have to ask permission every time you take a piss. (And I'd be curious to know whether they offer health benefits or vacation time.) I'm sure that if you own your own knowledge or information-based business, it's very similar. You can't compare being a grad student and post-doc to running your own motorcycle repair or electrician business, which are the "working with your hands" jobs that he says he's done. He should compare it to being an employee of a large corporation that does those things. And I bet that he'd find that significantly less rewarding.

Don't get me wrong: I'm all for working with your hands. But I don't think you can talk about "work" while ignoring the conditions under which most people are actually employed.
posted by craichead at 3:44 PM on May 22, 2009 [6 favorites]


Heh. And having read the comments, what winna, Blazecock Pileon and doobiedoo said.
posted by craichead at 4:03 PM on May 22, 2009


So this is about, 'the man'? Hmmm.
posted by downonthebayou at 4:28 PM on May 22, 2009


Nobody scores with the new manual labor
posted by grobstein at 4:30 PM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Craichead-- it's not just about owning his own business. It's about owning his own labor. As a knowledge worker at a think tank, he didn't own his ideas. He was paid by the funders to advance their particular vision of the world. That's the point of a think tank. Since he also has a trade, he can ply that and have some independence, while at the same time writing whatever he wants. If he was a copier salesman for example, it would be more difficult to be independent and own his business.

Now, as to the people who discussed the crushing weight of the factory floor-- how much of that is because ownership and control of the workplace is separated from the workers? The same could also be said about symbollock's situation-- he may work there, but someone else owns the place. Even if he has stock options, he does not have much say over his workplace.

The question is, do we continue to accept that as the norm?
posted by wuwei at 4:57 PM on May 22, 2009


I think that this is what's interesting about being a bench scientist. The scientists I know do a lot of abstract thinking, of course, but because they are doing labwork, they also do way more direct manipulation of the physical world than I with my nonprofit desk job will ever do. Not quite the same as tinkering with a car engine, but it is working directly with stuff.
posted by yarrow at 5:26 PM on May 22, 2009


Craichead-- it's not just about owning his own business. It's about owning his own labor. As a knowledge worker at a think tank, he didn't own his ideas. He was paid by the funders to advance their particular vision of the world. That's the point of a think tank. Since he also has a trade, he can ply that and have some independence, while at the same time writing whatever he wants. If he was a copier salesman for example, it would be more difficult to be independent and own his business.
That's kind of my point. If he were a freelance writer, he would be in control of his own writing output, just as he's in control of his conditions of work now. (It's hard to earn a living as a freelance writer, but it's also hard for most people to get the start-up capital they'd need to start a motorcycle-repair business.) He's wrongly positing that the difference is between manual work and intellectual work. It's not. It's between working at a typical modern corporate workplace and working for yourself. He thinks it's about the difference between manual and knowledge-based labor purely because all of his working-with-your-hands jobs have been a particular, pretty privileged sort of manual-labor job which involves owning your own business. And that's a sort of dumb mistake to make if you're going to get published in the Sunday magazine of the New York Times.
posted by craichead at 5:37 PM on May 22, 2009


He thinks it's about the difference between manual and knowledge-based labor purely because all of his working-with-your-hands jobs have been a particular, pretty privileged sort of manual-labor job which involves owning your own business. And that's a sort of dumb mistake to make if you're going to get published in the Sunday magazine of the New York Times.

That's pretty strong criticism coming from someone who "didn't read the article that carefully." The author is not drawing a simple distinction between manual and intellectual work. In fact, he addresses head-on the benefits of the entrepreneurial features of his job and others in the trades. Some relevant excerpts:
Contrast the experience of being a middle manager. . . . A manager has to make many decisions for which he is accountable. Unlike an entrepreneur with his own business, however, his decisions can be reversed at any time by someone higher up the food chain (and there is always someone higher up the food chain).

I wonder whether the resulting perversity really made for maximum profits in the long term. Corporate managers are not, after all, the owners of the businesses they run.

A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world. Academic credentials do not guarantee this.

An economy that is more entrepreneurial, less managerial, would be less subject to the kind of distortions that occur when corporate managers’ compensation is tied to the short-term profit of distant shareholders. For most entrepreneurs, profit is at once a more capacious and a more concrete thing than this. It is a calculation in which the intrinsic satisfactions of work count — not least, the exercise of your own powers of reason.
posted by brain_drain at 6:13 PM on May 22, 2009


selenized thanks for that video, great talk.
posted by device55 at 6:19 PM on May 22, 2009


I have since read the article more carefully. And I'm still failing to see the connection between working with your hands and being entrepreneurial. They seem like totally distinct things. There are lots of entrepreneurs who don't perform manual labor.
posted by craichead at 6:19 PM on May 22, 2009


I worked in a kayak factory for almost a year. On the one hand it was really interesting. On the other, it was incredibly demeaning. Not the labor part of it -- that was just fine. But the little and varied ways in which management continually tried to screw us over, ranging from big things like vacation time to little things like buying us the shittiest of instant coffee and not hiring someone to clean the toilets once in a while. The unrelenting games of divide and conquer they used to play us grunts off against each other were insane as well.

Sounds exactly like every research lab I've ever been in. That kind of crap is less likely to occur on most manual labor jobs in my experience.

I worked manual jobs until I busted my leg up and was on and off crutches for 2 years. Than I was pretty glad I had the college degree. I think most people who encourage their kids to go to college have that kind of scenario in mind. There's a lot of 30-something broken-ass construction workers, machinists and the like out there, even highly skilled ones who could command big money before they got hurt.

Manual work is largely for the young and hearty (who should do it as much as possible imho), unless you make violins or something.
posted by fshgrl at 7:14 PM on May 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


Working with your hands is largely an entrepreneurial field unless you work in a factory. All the contractors, plumbers, electricians, seamstresses etc that I know pretty much work for themselves and have from a very young age.
posted by fshgrl at 7:15 PM on May 22, 2009


All the contractors, plumbers, electricians, seamstresses etc that I know pretty much work for themselves and have from a very young age.
Honestly, I think that might partly be a reflection of who you know.

Take seamstresses. There are definitely some seamstresses who work independently out of their own shops or out of family-owned laundries. But I bet most women in America who sew for a living do so in garment factories. They're often immigrants, and the factories they work in are often located in immigrant communities. So unless you're a member of one of those communities or seek out garment workers, you probably don't know them.

Most of the people in my family who have worked with their hands have worked under the direct supervision of someone else. My grandfather was a T.V. repairman, for instance, and he worked in a shop owned by someone else. I imagine that's true of most people who fix cars or motorcycles for a living, this guy notwithstanding. And there are plenty of information-based things that you can do as an independent contractor. I think you just call yourself a "consultant, rather than a "contractor", when there's no working with your hands involved.
posted by craichead at 7:33 PM on May 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


Now, as to the people who discussed the crushing weight of the factory floor-- how much of that is because ownership and control of the workplace is separated from the workers?

not that much - the work sucks, your co-workers suck, and if they were running things they'd drive it into the ground even faster than the brain dead management is

by september, i will have worked 10 years at my factory - i wouldn't call it a crushing weight but it surely is a pain in the ass
posted by pyramid termite at 8:55 PM on May 22, 2009


I could name very few people I know who HAD to go to college because that is what their family did. -- marxchivist

I HAD to go to college. It seems to have been built into me because my kids will also not be given a choice. It's just there--I can't see how I can convince myself otherwise unless they start their own business like Bill Gates. Their mother was not allowed to go to college despite the fact that she really wanted to (though she managed to squeeze in a year on the sly), so she's going to give them similar pressure from the other side.

(Although, now that I think about it, I did work assembly line jobs during a couple of summers).

In the article it seems like the author regrets ending up in a dead-end low paying job after getting a masters degree, though he later went on to get a PhD before starting his motorcycle degree. College certainly doesn't guarantee you a good job, especially a degree in political philosophy.

Danny Thomas told his daughter:
If it's worth doing, someone will pay you to do it. Otherwise, find something more useful to do.

It looks like he discovered something useful and that he enjoys. I'm not so convinced of the more philosophical aspects of it all though.
posted by eye of newt at 9:24 PM on May 22, 2009


motorcycle degree? oops.
posted by eye of newt at 9:29 PM on May 22, 2009


Casting this article in terms of manual vs. "abstract" labor was something of a mistake, I think. I work with computers, but I identified completely with his remarks about problem solving. You often have to formulate several hypotheses and then rank them not just according to their plausibility but according to how difficult and/or dangerous it would be to test them. And you're invested in the very real outcome of getting the system running again rather than maintaining your standing with upper management. As MythMaker said, this article seemed to be mainly about how some jobs are more intellectually honest than others. Which raises a couple questions:
- is there something else about intellectually honest *manual* labor that makes it even better for people than intellectually honest labor per se?
- is part of what the author finds satisfying about his job the fact that he's self-employed? I'm not, and while I was disagreeing above with the idea that intellectual labor is necessarily intellectually dishonest, I'd probably trade my job for his any day.
Overall, though, I really enjoyed the article; thanks CJP.
posted by uosuaq at 10:56 PM on May 22, 2009


Interesting article. I wonder how the converse thesis would go. Something about how manual laborers and tradesmen should be required to do some work on large business marketing plans, corporate strategy and financial projections because without that experience, they don't know or appreciate how difficult that work really can be, sometimes, or how important it is to plan the day-to-day labor in context with the larger corporate goals and mandates..

I suspect an article like that wouldn't have the same kind of populist oomph.
posted by darkstar at 11:06 PM on May 22, 2009 [4 favorites]


I love to read things like this, and the debates that follow, because it's such an important part of where we're going as a culture, and whether we'll survive and prosper in the long run. I'm always a little bothered, though, by how often the false dichotomy of "works with mind" versus "works with hands" comes up, though it's definitely illustrative of the level of trained-in muddleheadedness of our society.

I've literally just stepped in the door from tending my top bar bee hive, after first reading the article and the comments thus far, and was thinking, as I worked, about the mind vs. hands thing. Tending a beehive isn't really an administrative thing, and I'm a relative novice at it again after decades of letting that skill fade away, but my hands aren't driven by some mystical force, divine focus, or zen—they're moved by my mind. It's just that the part of my mind that tells them what to do isn't the verbal part.

My brain's working just fine, but it's being physical, in that way that people describe as a knack, or the Tao (with a healthy dose of wu wei), or just the way things get done. The verbal, administrative part of my brain is working, too, as I mumble to myself and the bees in an avuncular sort of way—"honey, you need to climb out of that gap, or you're going to get mashed," or "you girls better not be festooning across those two bars," or "baby, ain't you the purtiest Apis mellifera ligustica I even seen?"

It's such an American thing to make it an either-or proposition, and to encourage the kind of stratification of what we do, as if it's a part of our character. At a party, it's always one of the first questions—"what do you do?"—meaning "what are you?"

I might just be feeling defensive, in a way, after falling into a career path that's unusually hard to define, and that includes wild, creative invention and toilet-shoveling gross-out jobs, usually in the same shift, but I wish we'd be less obsessed with dividing these things into party-intro soundbites.

At the same time, there's the issue of this odd, post-hippie manual labor puritanism, and the patent rejection of the value of administration that sent so many people back to "the land" as a sort of metaphysical cleansing ritual. I get it, of course, and have had the definitive experience of leaving a twenty-year career as a technical drone chained to a computer in a windowless room for a career as a self-employed remodeling contractor. I left the workstation behind, took my tools, and set out for a new life, and it was going to be all joyous and wonderful and magical, and, when I was working, it often was all those things.

All except, well, I was a lousy administrator, a lousy planner, so easy-going I'd manage to lose money on jobs that should have made me big chunks of change, and so bad with a calendar that I'd somehow manage to fail to schedule enough work for huge stretches of time while doubling up on others. I'm a master craftsman, to be completely un-humble for a moment, and when I'm working with tools and materials and the pure craft of making things or fixing things, I'm a freakin' whiz, but without the accursed ability to do what middle-managers do, I managed to burn through my savings, my 401k, and run up debt I'd happily killed off as a drone. In the end, I lucked out, found a nice in-between in a museum environment, and got back on my feet, but it was a real eye-opener about the either-or.

We've definitely gone too far in the direction of office work, though, and as I continue my freelance work outside of regular hours, I'm always a little appalled at how little most people know about their physical environment. Things like changing a toilet flapper valve or a lightswitch or hanging a door shouldn't be beyond the realm of office workers. I'm glad it is, of course, because it gives me an extra income, but on a deeper level, I wonder what kind of culture we could make if there was a sociological imperative to be good at things in more than just one area. We've really fallen victim to the disease of specialization, and surrendered to the idea of just one career path for a lifetime, which is like our agriculture—monocultures, ready to fail at the first problem.

My grandmother was an uneducated woman, having dropped out of elementary school to work in an ice cream box factory, but she made it her business, as she said, to learn something new every day, and wore out her library card at Enoch Pratt reading about astronomy and religion in New Guinea and all sorts of things. There was a delight in that, a pleasure and satisfaction that drives one to seek out more, and to be more, and I think it applies to cubicle-dwellers and factory-workers alike. The defenders of hyper-specialization sniff at such a thing, pointing out the fetishists and dilettantes, and there's a seed of truth in it, but not a helpful one. We need to push our boundaries, to explore the little tributary channels, to use the collegiate parts of our brains at the same time we learn, by careful experiment, how to tie a perfect fly lure, or how to cut a dovetail joint that's sturdy, durable, and beautiful to see.

Right now, the balance is off in the direction of the cubicles, which is why it's important to reach out in the direction of labor, touch, and feel, but it's not because manual labor is somehow more sanctified that a well-tuned spreadsheet. It's because we have brains that make us the perfect non-specialists, unlike my industrious little bees, who would be perfectly happy doing monthly productivity reports for the East Coast Managerial Region if I could install thirty thousand tiny little PCs and teeny-weeny Aeron chairs in their hives. It's our minds that make manual labor so important, to fully employ a resource that we're born with in the hopes of seeing what's possible.

I'm in favor of people taking up, first as hobbyists, and later as tradesmen and tradeswomen, a whole fleet of skills that are fast fading, contracting to shadows of what they could be, but it's gotta be more than just a fetish, more than just a feeling of "I hate my boring job" and the religious promise of salvation on the "other side," because there is no other side. If there's a dichotomy, it's between being fully-involved and invested in what we do and being cogs, just meekly bowing to the gestalt of upper-management power. That involves things like workdays that aren't just laid out in a straight line, riding our desks like lawnmowers following lines on a map from punch-in to punch-out, and getting up, being mobile, working in interdisciplinary ways, crossing boundaries, and being challenged. In what seems like a purely "mind" environment like an office, just moving around and doing different things all day are the essence of what good manual labor can be, with the frustration and reward of problem-solving in neat balance.

For me, I'm looking to find that balance myself, charting out the next career for me, but I can't do it by choosing to work in my head or with my hands—it's gotta be both.
posted by sonascope at 6:29 AM on May 23, 2009 [5 favorites]


The problem with 'go into trades!' is that I had that little meme shoved down my throat in highschool, and while I don't regret the vocational classes like the CAD class I took, there's problems with blue collar work that make white collar work look much more attractive, and thus they'd have been better served to say 'round out your skill set'.

Generally I found that the blue collar jobs were not a place I felt comfortable as a women. Either they were the dead end ones like 'maid' or they had a great big glass ceiling, like being a chef. Often they had the same lower class flirting style I tried to escape in middle school (abuse and harrass women in the name of showing you like her) and it just wasn't worth that battle all over again.
posted by Phalene at 7:05 AM on May 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


I felt like there were a lot of unspoken gender assumptions in the article, Phalene, but I can't decide whether they're there or I'm projecting them. His examples are incredibly traditionally male: the decline of shop class (which most girls never even took, because they took home ec. instead), being an electrician, being an auto mechanic, knowing how to "fix our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses." My guess is that he'd say that more women should consider going into those trades, which is a position for which I have a lot of sympathy, but it does lend a certain macho cast to his discussion. I also don't know what you do with the fact that most women still do a lot of unpaid housework. Is that "working with your hands," or does it only count if you get paid for it? I also don't know where he'd put in his hands/brain divide traditionally female skilled jobs like being a nurse.

I do think you might be able to make a similar argument about being a hair stylist, and I know some women who have given up white or pink-collar careers to do that.
posted by craichead at 8:33 AM on May 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Balanced Job Complex

Instead of combining tasks so that some jobs are highly empowering and other jobs are horribly stultifying, so that some jobs convey knowledge and authority while other jobs rob mentality and convey only obedience, and so that those doing some jobs rule as a coordinator class accruing to themselves more income and influence while those doing more menial work obey as a traditional working class subordinate in influence and income--parecon says let’s make each job comparable to all others in its quality of life effects and even more importantly in its empowerment effects.

From a corporate division of labor that enshrines a coordinator class above workers, we move to a classless division of labor that elevates all actors to their fullest potentials.

posted by eustatic at 9:49 AM on May 23, 2009


Interesting article. I wonder how the converse thesis would go. Something about how manual laborers and tradesmen should be required to do some work on large business marketing plans, corporate strategy and financial projections because without that experience, they don't know or appreciate how difficult that work really can be, sometimes, or how important it is to plan the day-to-day labor in context with the larger corporate goals and mandates..

but this would never happen unless you dismantle the general hierarchy of the workplace, since there are so few slots at the top. There's a political reason those kind of tasks are monopolized!

Both of these kinds of tasks may be "hard," but only one is "risky." There's a steep learning curve for those "planning" kind of tasks, which requires years of training or practice. what's hard about manual labor is the risk of permanent physical damage / death over a short period of time.
posted by eustatic at 10:03 AM on May 23, 2009


Having worked behind a desk and in manual labor, I wouldn't necessarily say that some experience with the latter is a requirement to perform the former well, but I can tell you this: the years I spent working on a miniature donkey farm, or painting houses, or picking raspberries in rural Québec are some of the best times of my life. There's a different type of satisfaction derived from being able to physically observe the result of your labor, feeling your body become stronger and healthier because of the work you do. I can't really put manual labor and office labor in the same world, but there are times I'll find myself daydreaming about walking down the furrows carrying my baskets under the open sky, the smell of dew on the raspberry bushes, the feel of the gloves I wore to protect my hands from thorns. The pay was crap, but yeah, it provided its own satisfaction.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:22 AM on May 23, 2009


I do recall when our software company, a startup with about two dozen people, was going through a very challenging time preparing for going public. As one of the founders and senior administrators/managers, I was often working 60-80 hour weeks on very time-critical, conceptual tasks. We called it "due diligence" peparatory to the IPO.

I occasionally found myself getting so exhausted by all the conceptual work that I had to get out of my office and go do something with my hands. I would find myself explaining to my colleagues why I was "wasting" time fixing the toilet or unjamming the copier or changing out the water bottle on the fountain or washing the dishes in the breakroom. Aside from having a sense of ownership for the company, the manual labor was quite a refreshing break. For me, it was what enabled me to work 16 hours a day on product strategy and contract negotiations, otherwise.

My colleagues had other coping mechanisms. One took long walks on his lunch break. One went out and whored around most nights. Another shouted angrily at people. My way just seemed more productive.
posted by darkstar at 11:20 AM on May 23, 2009


My guess is that he'd say that more women should consider going into those trades...

There are a lot of unspoken barriers towards women in the trades. For one thing, there is no social benefit for a women to become one of the high-paying trademen - by this I mean few people pressure their daughters to go into traditionally male trades, and even when women do become plumbers and electricians, they expected to surrender their feminity. Also there are many entry barriers for women - I think a lot of trade jobs that don't start in voc schools are very informal and often under the table, and girls are simply not constidered for these jobs. There's also some very real physical considerations to be made, as often entry level positions involve things such as digging ditches and carrying heavy things that women (on average, and of course there are many who will prove me wrong) are not as able as men at doing.
posted by fermezporte at 11:23 AM on May 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Just to add to the hundreds of comments here:

I don't want to work in a place where "Safety is Our #1 Job!". I don't want to work in a dangerous environment in shitty conditions. Fuck that.
posted by philomathoholic at 12:13 PM on May 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


Also, you can have my intellectual job when you pry it from my warm, clean, un-callused, whole hands.
posted by philomathoholic at 12:16 PM on May 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


There's a lot of 30-something broken-ass construction workers, machinists and the like out there, even highly skilled ones who could command big money before they got hurt.

My dad finished up a finance degree and went straight into an electrician apprenticeship in the 70s. After struggling through the early 80s he got a good job at the local utility and kept at that until he noticed that everyone around him was younger, more physically able, and hungrier than he was. He parlayed the college degree and years of electrical experience into a desk job and has been at that ever since. So yeah, there's reasonable reward in working with your hands, but when the body starts to go, it's nice to have something else going for you.
posted by nangua at 1:57 PM on May 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


Again, the option to be a hair dresser slams up against the problems with gender. While I don't really have the boi like aesthetic of the butch women I grew up around who do carpentry, neither do I have the shellacked, highly over processed grooming habits I'd need to get through beauty school, that make up the uniform of the nice women I pay to pull my eyebrows out and trim my hair. Also, while you can make a good living doing cuts, many of the gigs available looked like the same dead end, lower-middle class gigs that I’m hoping to avoid.
posted by Phalene at 11:20 AM on May 29, 2009


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