Defining craftsmanship far more broadly than “skilled manual labor,” Richard Sennett maintains that the computer programmer, the doctor, the artist, and even the parent and citizen engage in a craftsman’s work. Craftsmanship names the basic human impulse to do a job well for its own sake, says the author, and good craftsmanship involves developing skills and focusing on the work rather than ourselves. In this thought-provoking book, one of our most distinguished public intellectuals explores the work of craftsmen past and present, identifies deep connections between material consciousness and ethical values, and challenges received ideas about what constitutes good work in today’s world.
The same day I finished it I participated in a panel on do-it-yourself approaches to education conducted by a group in the online journalism class at UWO (the edupunk episode will be part of a series that launched last week at Rabble.ca and The Tyee).
On the way there I started feeling a connection between the book and the discussion to come.
Education is itself a craft — over and above (or underlying) everything else.
Learning is something a lot of us have an “impulse to do well for its own sake.” Some of us have the same impulse for teaching too.
Yet institutionalized education is premised on the idea that students don’t or won’t learn unless they’re lured and prodded through a network of corrals. It messes with our natural motivations», and actually gets in the way» of learning.
That premise is self-perpetuating. If you teach people in a way that assumes they don’t want to learn, then they’ll learn to not want to learn, they’ll learn to wait to be prodded and pulled…
During the discussion Jim Groom brought up The Wire — an amazing show that depicts cops (among its many characters) trying to fight crime for the sake of fighting crime, but find themselves up against institutional dysfunction (and individual corruption) at every turn.
“Real police” like Jimmy McNulty and Lester Freamon damaged their careers by investigating crimes too well, rather than letting criminals slip through for the sake of artificially inflating the department’s statistics.
Likewise, in learning, by discovering or creating something new you create more work for everyone else. Institutional “zombies” (to use David Hall’s word) tend to mobilize against initiatives; they’re there to meet whatever institutional metrics have been imposed for the sake of a paycheck.
There’s a scene in season 4 of The Wire in which one of the characters has been paid to round up truant students and take them back to class. He thinks he’s doing it for the sake of the kids’ education until someone explains they only need those students for a couple of days to get funding; after that the school lets them go back to work on the street corners.
Every kind of organization has problems like this. New people come along and say “we can do better” and people start moaning. It isn’t just more work people are afraid of, people are also afraid of failing and looking stupid.
Institutional rules and guidelines serve to deflect criticism — promoting the wrong kind of responsibility»:
People working for failed companies might say “I was just doing my job” (i.e. “carrying out my responsibilities”), but that doesn’t excuse them from Responsibility. Likewise, “I was just following orders” doesn’t necessarily excuse soldiers from Responsibility for inhumane acts.
It’s time to relearn the best kind of responsibility — responsibility for rules and conventions, not merely responsibility to them (i.e. a willingness to stand up to them and change them).
It’s time to relearn the love of learning» for its own sake — the same kind of love we had as kids when we learned to walk and talk and make things.
Nobody had to force you to learn that stuff. It’s no mystery; the motivation for it is no mystery, just humanity. The real mystery is why we turned things around and got so good at squelching it.