Matthew B. Crawford’s essay in The New York Times Magazine was significant for me not because he showed me something new, but rather because he articulated some things I already knew.
The imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. This has not come to pass.
Most of the “college-to-career” talk given to young people is fluff or propaganda. It is fluff when it is used to cover for several years of irresponsible drinking, dope, parties, sports, and casual sex. It is propaganda when it is used by colleges or universities to increase enrollment of unqualified students, by corporations to enable cheap winnowing of the absolute worst job applicants, and by politicians to convince the general populace that they are getting smarter all the time. If only everyone could get a fake post-secondary education to top off their fake secondary education, they could do better at pretending to be literate and pretending to vote intelligently, and the fake intellectuals would sell more books.
One shop teacher suggested to me that “in schools, we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement. Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.”
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. Further, there is wide use of drugs to medicate boys, especially, against their natural tendency toward action, the better to “keep things on track.” I taught briefly in a public high school and would have loved to have set up a Ritalin fogger in my classroom. It is a rare person, male or female, who is naturally inclined to sit still for 17 years in school, and then indefinitely at work.
Everything about American institutionalized public schooling is fake. It works great as a welfare system for the least intelligent, the poorest, the most emotionally disturbed, and the most violent children. It also works as a credentialing system for the moderately intelligent, the middle-income, and the well-behaved children. Apart from that it is a waste of time. I loved most of my public school teachers and I have know many as an adult, so I have great sympathy for them; but the schools themselves are worthless for actual learning.
The ideal job for the college educated is a paper-shuffling, management-track, communication-oriented position working with middle-income coworkers in an industry with middle-class appeal. Usually, however, it closely resembles the work of an advertising copywriter, as Crawford describes it:
But certain perversities became apparent as I settled into the job. It sometimes required me to reason backward, from desired conclusion to suitable premise. The organization had taken certain positions, and there were some facts it was more fond of than others. As its figurehead, I was making arguments I didn’t fully buy myself. 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.
This is the norm in the corporate world. Empty rhetoric is good; actual reasoning is bad. You aren’t paid to think, after all.
This is in contrast to what is required when we do a job in which the results are dependent on clear thinking about actual things:
Put differently, mechanical work has required me to cultivate different intellectual habits. Further, habits of mind have an ethical dimension that we don’t often think about. Good diagnosis requires attentiveness to the machine, almost a conversation with it, rather than assertiveness, as in the position papers produced on K Street. Cognitive psychologists speak of “metacognition,” which is the activity of stepping back and thinking about your own thinking. It is what you do when you stop for a moment in your pursuit of a solution, and wonder whether your understanding of the problem is adequate. The slap of worn-out pistons hitting their cylinders can sound a lot like loose valve tappets, so to be a good mechanic you have to be constantly open to the possibility that you may be mistaken. This is a virtue that is at once cognitive and moral. It seems to develop because the mechanic, if he is the sort who goes on to become good at it, internalizes the healthy functioning of the motorcycle as an object of passionate concern. How else can you explain the elation he gets when he identifies the root cause of some problem?
Yes, Crawford’s essay here closely resembles a condensed and updated version of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, although he never mentions it. Considering the essay’s length, that’s forgivable; but hopefully in the book he addresses the similarities.
The significance of working with actual things and observable processes for individual clients is outlined here:
Moments of elation are counterbalanced with failures, and these, too, are vivid, taking place right before your eyes. With stakes that are often high and immediate, the manual trades elicit heedful absorption in work. They are punctuated by moments of pleasure that take place against a darker backdrop: a keen awareness of catastrophe as an always-present possibility. The core experience is one of individual responsibility, supported by face-to-face interactions between tradesman and customer.
Contrast the experience of being a middle manager. This is a stock figure of ridicule, but the sociologist Robert Jackall spent years inhabiting the world of corporate managers, conducting interviews, and he poignantly describes the “moral maze” they feel trapped in. Like the mechanic, the manager faces the possibility of disaster at any time. But in his case these disasters feel arbitrary; they are typically a result of corporate restructurings, not of physics. 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). It’s important for your career that these reversals not look like defeats, and more generally you have to spend a lot of time managing what others think of you. Survival depends on a crucial insight: you can’t back down from an argument that you initially made in straightforward language, with moral conviction, without seeming to lose your integrity. So managers learn the art of provisional thinking and feeling, expressed in corporate doublespeak, and cultivate a lack of commitment to their own actions. Nothing is set in concrete the way it is when you are, for example, pouring concrete.
Crawford goes on to show how this same lack of accountability was obvious in another job, writing abstracts for scholarly, scientific, and technical journals.
My job was structured on the supposition that in writing an abstract of an article there is a method that merely needs to be applied, and that this can be done without understanding the text. I was actually told this by the trainer, Monica, as she stood before a whiteboard, diagramming an abstract. Monica seemed a perfectly sensible person and gave no outward signs of suffering delusions. She didn’t insist too much on what she was telling us, and it became clear she was in a position similar to that of a veteran Soviet bureaucrat who must work on two levels at once: reality and official ideology. The official ideology was a bit like the factory service manuals I mentioned before, the ones that offer procedures that mechanics often have to ignore in order to do their jobs.
This is very similar to my experience with textbooks. There is supposedly a set of prescribed procedures, making it seem orderly and scientific; however, it is mostly a matter of copying and pasting, using fake images and unsupportable claims, then dressing it up to make it appear carefully done. Textbook publishers are scum. Crawford describes abstract publishers in similar terms:
You might wonder: Wasn’t there any quality control? My supervisor would periodically read a few of my abstracts, and I was sometimes corrected and told not to begin an abstract with a dependent clause. But I was never confronted with an abstract I had written and told that it did not adequately reflect the article. The quality standards were the generic ones of grammar, which could be applied without my supervisor having to read the article at hand. Rather, my supervisor and I both were held to a metric that was conjured by someone remote from the work process — an absentee decision maker armed with a (putatively) profit-maximizing calculus, one that took no account of the intrinsic nature of the job. 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.
The bottom line is about responsibility to physical reality, social reality, psychological reality, and spiritual reality:
There is good reason to suppose that responsibility has to be installed in the foundation of your mental equipment — at the level of perception and habit. There is an ethic of paying attention that develops in the trades through hard experience. It inflects your perception of the world and your habitual responses to it. This is due to the immediate feedback you get from material objects and to the fact that the work is typically situated in face-to-face interactions between tradesman and customer.
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.