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WWL: Hands On
Where We Live - with John Dankosky
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"It is by having hands that man is the most intelligent of animals."  -Anaxagoras


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49:00 minutes (23.52 MB)
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As unemployment in the US inches dangerously close to 10%-- there are actually some jobs that employers are struggling to fill.  In an age when many information jobs have been outsourced, there are openings for skilled trade workers in communities all over this country than there are qualified people to fill them. Employers are looking for applicants who have education and experience working with their hands—and those workers are getting harder and harder to find. Today, Where We Live, we’ll talk with two authors who’ve been pondering the meaning of work, trade and craft. They fear that in a rush to get high school student into college and so-called “knowledge careers,” we’ve steered many young people away from the realm of craftsmanship, where success is based on a straightforward responsibility for quality work.

Join the conversation. Have you ever experienced the satisfaction of creating or fixing something with your hands? Leave your comments below.


*This program originally aired on June 26, 2009.

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Gentlemen:  An engrossing subject discussed this morning by Sennett and Crawford on the ethos of craftsmanship and its absence in today's American society. Much of what was discussed found examples in my own life.  At eighty I can remember wood and metal shop and growing up in the country amidst farmers, although we were "city folks."  I have lots of respect for crafts.  Much of our situation today might be the result of two things:  the migration from rural to urban since WWII with the ensuing limbo of suburbia.  Also, pre-WWI immigration from Europe brought in many skilled craftsmen.  Their own attitude toward their children was "Become a doctor!" Add the European value of heirarchy in society, and you have another explanation for where we are today.  Thanks for this and all your programs.

Listener Email from Graham

Crafts are not taught in school shop classes; they are developed in apprenticeships with a one-on-one relationship, which can take years.  It takes a master, and an apprentice, and time.

If we're going to bring back crafts, we need to get over the idea that all learning takes place in schools.

All animals, including us, learn primarily through imitation. Schools are an attempt to organize, or industrialize, the process of learning; and of course, they're great downfall (with the possible exception of group recitation} is that we all learn at different rates and with different approaches.

Listener email from

I sell steel in the tri state area.  The range of products still made in the area is amazing I always felt the science museum should have been a museum of CT manufacturing

Listener email

We are turning out thousands of graduates with degrees in "communications," sports management, and the like, where, whatever those things mean, the barriers to entry are huge. One of the most valuable people in my life is my plumber, who saves the day on an all too frequent basis, performing complicated tasks that range from the necessary to the urgent. I am always delighted and amazed by his talents and write him checks promptly and with a big smile on my face. We need a whole lot more plumbers and fewer "media analysts", yet our system is still skewed the wrong way.

The reason, I'm afraid is

The reason, I'm afraid is very much because investors will make a profit on what a sports manager or "communicator" will do for a living, but they make very little on the value that a plumber or any other craftsman or skilled tradesman contributes. It's interesting to note that public education didn't really gain any real importance or support until manufacturers (and at the time investors) needed workers who could read, write and do basic math. It's also interesting to note that the other things children have been taught in schools ever since, punctuality, conformity, obedience and a strong tollerance for boredom are all necessary to work for corporations owned by investors.  I hope this doesn't sound too Communistic, but I think we should understand the price we are paying and to whom.

Listener email from John

As a teacher I am usually compelled listen to the repeats, and today couldn’t get to a land phone till now – almost managed to get to call for the first time but. . . The comment about the warehouse filled with tools from schools started me on a different line of thought. I am of the generation that took shop - and would not have been permitted to take home ec; I daily give thanks to some prescient administrator “Typing” was a required course for all. At that time we rode in cars with metal dashboards; seat belts and back-up lights were extra cost options that most people wouldn’t pay for. I remember well our 1962 Chevy II that had lap belts installed, the first time I'd ever seen them. About eight years ago, my lawyer told me of a lawsuit against Jeep that succeeded on the basis that the manual did not warn against riding while standing up. True or not, the existence of the story speaks to the now litigious nature of our society.

What’s the connection? Schools are in terror of lawsuit. The idea of requiring all students to work in rooms full of band saws, routers (not network), drill presses, and lathes, with all the attendant physical risks, is an important consideration. I’m told that BMHS used to have a small engine repair program that was eliminated before my arrival here in 2001. At the same time “tech” schools, which suffer from the elitist disdain mentioned on today’s program, are being threatened, as in the case of Wright Tech.

How are today’s young exposed to the physical creation and repair of objects? Not in schools, unless they’ve been shunted off the “success track”. At home, parents are often unable for want of knowledge, time, or energy. When I bought my first house in 1979, every house we looked at had at least a toolbench in the basement, if not a workshop area. By 2006, when we last moved, none did. As a practitioner of the craft of teaching for the last dozen years, I’ve seen an accompanying change in students’ approach to learning. They want the answers, not the process. Socratic questioning is considered gamesmanship. Students ask “why don’t you just tell us the answer?” and complain “it’s your job to teach us this stuff.” Cheating isn’t cheating if it’s done with technology. (See: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/top-news/index.cfm?i=59295 ) IMHO there’s a connection between the two, and that’s a societal decline in the willingness to accept responsibility for our own actions.

We are now living with the results of the importance accorded to student self-esteem. Many students pass through the system being nurtured and valued, which is fine, but their lack of achievement is ignored. When students or parents complain that their grade does not reflect the effort (on those occasions when that is the case), my response is simply that I don’t care how hard the mechanic tried to fix my brakes before I drove off, but only if he did the job properly. A true craftsman will acknowledge an inability to succeed rather than fear admission of failure. Again, my position is that teaching is a craft, and pretensions to a profession serves us ill. It takes experience to become a skilled craftsman, but education to be a professional. Many of the problems of our educational systems are the results of “professionals” instructing craftsmen, which never works. I could go on until (as John Cleese famously did) I fall over frothing at the mouth, but I think you get the idea.

Facebook comment from Fred

"In relation to today's show, nothing is more gratifying to me these days than to pick out something from the dump, dumpster and getting it to work. This includes friends' garage full of non working stuff. Of the things revived, I can resell on eBay. This is GREEN."

listener email from Matilda

It not only allows us to participate in our practical lives in a much more satisfactory way, it also makes us more human, better people. Ancient Indian princes were not allowed to marry until they had studied and mastered a craft. For if he were patient, thoughtful and calm enough, kind and respectful of his materials, able to learn from a master, could persevere through steady work to a finished product, and was aware of the beautiful shapes and designs of nature - all of which are necessary to be a good craftsman- he would then be ready to be a good husband. Another problem today is that we are enthralled to the system of commercialism and consumerism. Companies try very hard to convince us that we can't do things as well ourselves and that we must buy their products. Working with our hands teaches us to be better human beings and a better society of people who are genuinely connected to each other.

Hello John, When you read

Hello John, When you read the bio's today I could not help but recall Robert M. Pirsig's book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. While it is not a direct hit on what you are talking about, it is certainly in the neighborhood and thought it might be worth a mention. No intent to steal away either of these great author's thunder, of course. I think it is a book that everyone should read sometime in their life and particularly anyone wondering about what they are doing or want to do for work.

And while on subject of crafts, I much enjoyed the program you did at the Willimantic Brewing Co. here in Eastern CT.

Listener email from Alan

Please comment on how intolerance in American culture addresses today's subject. It seems like people everywhere are less tolerant of people different than themselves and this feeds into the idea class creation of people who work at different capacities in society.

Listner email from Mary Lou

This is a great show -- thank you. I think part of the issue that as a culture we seem to have chosen to value money and status (consider our collective fascination with celebrity, an inherently nonsensical concept, for example...) over quality of life.

Lots of things feed into it, but the kind of "knowledge work" that is becoming prevalent is, as Matt correctly observes, extraordinarily dumbed down. In many offices, there is enormous competition for interesting and/or meaningful work -- which is often hoarded by higher-ups, and the lower downs are indeed treated like clerks.

If there were a more common dedication to good lives for everyone, perhaps we could concentrate more on the quality of work life, which is enhanced by autonomy, the ability to exercise judgment, the ability to increase skills, etc. -- and be able to notice which environments provide and encourage those factors and which discourage it.

I cannot help but feel that it is the development of a critical mass of people who are/were unhappy in their life, chasing dollars, eschewing value, and not giving a damn about anyone else who landed us in our current financial mess.

I have lots to say about this, but am having a hard time being concise, so I will stop. Thanks for this show.