In a world where anyone can watch fifteen ways to sharpen a hand saw or to build a rail gun, is craftsmanship lost?
The New York Times reports that we are losing our craftsmanship skill set and spirit: the spirit that enabled GIs to modify tanks in Normandy to cut through hedgerows without needing Defense Contractor Consultants; the same spirit that had GIs up-armoring Humvees sixty years later on their own in what was essentially an act of mutiny.
We haven’t lost American ingenuity and capacity. We have stopped fostering it.
In a world of piano lessons and travel soccer starting at age 7, there isn’t a lot of time to fix your bicycle. With a helicopter mommy over your shoulder, one is unlikely to make a tennis ball cannon.
It’s hard to get excited by making thirty-five dollars an hour in a world of Money Guys making thirty-five bucks a minute. School districts have been only too happy to jettison Shop class as a sexist, dangerous, essentializing, vestigial skill set. We have gutted the trade unions and the apprentice system, and made it obvious that working for a living is tough to get excited about. As Jody Collier of Welding Tips and Tricks points out, where the hell are the certified welders who can pass a drug test?
The intrigue of Norm Abrams is not that he is a master craftsman, it is that he’s a guy who does. Norm is no rocket scientist; he is a guy who for some reason decided to make a living that included sweat. Abrams was the most vilified and divisive subject in the annals of the magazine Fine Woodworking—which is sort of the Harvard Law Review for it’s own subject.
Myself, I disagree with how he does some things—but then I spent 20 years in a tool belt and the next 20 supervising construction. I greatly admire his growth as an artisan and his practicality. Not everyone chooses to bring furniture to the masses under the nose of The North Bennet Street School—the MIT of furniture-making.
There is a resurgence in interest in traditional trades that is part a rediscovery of Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and part a practical reaction to the concept “you can’t turn a wrench over the Internet.” Additionally there is simple fact of the economy that the Money Guys are going to have to pay $135 an hour for a plumber and the 99% will have to do it themselves. Without it being taught in schools, increasingly people are becoming aware that the one percent don’t create wealth: they play games with the wealth the rest of us forge from raw materials.
While we have disconected from grandfathers and local shops that knew how to do things, the spirit of self sufficiency and craftmanship is thriving in the virtual village. There are 10 million do it your selfers wielding hand and battery driven tools, bragging about and sharing their prowess on YouTube. The only greater number of home made videos belonging to such enthusiastic do it yourselfers are in various stages of undress as they also wield battery powered tools with confidence.
Home Depot is like the soft porn you can get on the restricted channels at name brand hotels. Not quite the real down and dirty, but it has made tools and materials accessible to the masses. Clean, fresh smelling and well lit, it has seduced a generation into thinking they “can do it.” While Home Depot and Lowes have gutted the corner hardware stores and local lumber yards of this country for its helpful souls and crabby old guys who bent more nails than you’ll ever pound, it has allowed a nation of people the opportunity to dream of capability. And led more than a few to the real thing—which as often as not is accessible via the internet.
—Photo credit: Wallula Junction/Flickr