03 Sep 2006

Mechanical Work Good For the Soul

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In one of the Foxfire books, the 1970s-era high school students out collecting Appalachian folklore come upon an old ridgerunner rebuilding a tractor engine. They express astonishment at his abiity to undertake such a project, and the old farmer dismissively replies: “A man built it, didn’t he?”

Things were mostly different then, and they’re gettng more so today, as Matthew B. Crawford observes

an engineering culture has developed in recent years in which the object is to “hide the works,” rendering the artifacts we use unintelligible to direct inspection. Lift the hood on some cars now (especially German ones), and the engine appears a bit like the shimmering, featureless obelisk that so enthralled the cavemen in the opening scene of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Essentially, there is another hood under the hood. This creeping concealedness takes various forms. The fasteners holding small appliances together now often require esoteric screwdrivers not commonly available, apparently to prevent the curious or the angry from interrogating the innards. By way of contrast, older readers will recall that until recent decades, Sears catalogues included blown-up parts diagrams and conceptual schematics for all appliances and many other mechanical goods. It was simply taken for granted that such information would be demanded by the consumer.

A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our mode of inhabiting the world: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves installing a pre-made replacement part.

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.

The late Robert A. Heinlein agreed with him.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

–Robert A. Heinlein, The Notebooks of Lazarus Long, 1978.

Hat tip to Tim of Angle.

One Feedback on "Mechanical Work Good For the Soul"

Hal Davitt

Nonsense. Go to Lowes/Home Depot. See the tools. See the people buying the tools. See them get lumber, faucets, and electrical gear.

These aren’t “pros”. These are ordinary people who couldn’t have done such things a generation ago. The faucets and electrical gear are standardized and user friendly. So many tols are being bought that they are cheaper and better. DVD’s and the internet have spread “how to”.

Move into a “renovation”: neighborhood and find out how many lawyers, economists, and ordinary people (computer types in here) can do everything from rough in plumbing on up.

This sissyfication of the culture is just nonsense. I do understand that Mesa Road in Colorado Springs used to be “rough” and went suburban before he died. He’s overstating the case (which he was wont to do).


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