September 9, 2006
An End to Ghostly Labors
So perhaps the time is ripe for reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen out of favor: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world. Neither as workers nor as consumers are we much called upon to exercise such competence, most of us anyway, and merely to recommend its cultivation is to risk the scorn of those who take themselves to be the most hard-headed: the hard-headed economist will point out the opportunity costs of making what can be bought, and the hard-headed educator will say that it is irresponsible to educate the young for the trades, which are somehow identified as the jobs of the past. But we might pause to consider just how hard-headed these presumptions are, and whether they donít, on the contrary, issue from a peculiar sort of idealism, one that insistently steers young people toward the most ghostly kinds of work.
“The most ghostly kinds of work.” That seems so correct: It’s the Phantom Zone of Outlook and Powerpoint. Gahhh.
It’s a really nice piece, jam-packed with ideas that resonate really well with the present Make moment. For instance:
In what has to be the best article ever published in an education journal, the cognitive scientists Mike Eisenberg and Ann Nishioka Eisenberg give real pedagogical force to this reflective moment, and draw out its theoretical implications (“Shop Class for the Next Millennium: Education Through Computer-Enriched Handicrafts,” in the Journal of Interactive Media in Education). They offer a computer program to facilitate making origami, or rather Archimedean solids, by unfolding these solids into two dimensions. But they then have their students actually make the solids, out of paper cut according to the computerís instructions. “Computational tools for crafting are entities poised somewhere between the abstract, untouchable world of software objects and the homey constraints of human dexterity; they are therefore creative exercises in making conscious those aspects of craft work … that are often more easily represented Ďin the handí than in language.” It is worth pausing to consider their efforts, as they have implications well beyond mathematics instruction.
There is a thread of romantic fantasy — a la the Arts and Crafts Movement — in here, but even so, it’s good reading.
Also: We are totally overdue for a Marxist reading of 37signals and the other small software shops that exalt flexibility and freedom above, it seems, all else. Read the section of the essay titled “The Degradation of Blue-Collar Work” and tell me if you disagree.