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The Way We Work

Surgeon c. 1300, from Anglo-Fr. surgien, from L. chirurgia, from Gk. kheirourgos "working or done by hand." from Online Etymology Dictionary.

Martin McKneally
Martin McKneally

In an entertaining new book published this month (Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, Penguin Press, 2009) motorcycle mechanic and political philosopher Matthew Crawford explains the elemental satisfaction derived from working with our hands. He contrasts the experience of individual agency he derives from repairing motorcycles with the diffuse and unfocused rewards of his life as a doctoral level "knowledge worker". The dominant educational paradigm of recent decades trains students to sit for 17 years in class and before their computers to graduate into their cubicles. Crawford writes, "As I was shown to my cubicle, I felt a real sense of being honoured. It seemed more than spacious enough. It was my desk where I would think my thoughts, my unique contribution to a common enterprise in a real company with hundreds of employees. The regularity of the cubicles made me feel I had found a place in the order of things. I was to be a knowledge worker."

Though high school shop class programs had been widely dismantled over the past several decades, Crawford found part time work in an apprentice role as an auto mechanic and an electrician. He came to an epiphany when he realized that his doctoral level of knowledge work was being used to reverse engineer foregone conclusions and claims to contrived premises in commercial companies and government agencies. He began to teach himself the deeply thoughtful and remarkably satisfying art of motorcycle repair. He came to prize the elemental difference as each repair job had consequences that were close, unmediated, and associated with direct and honest confrontation with customer-owners whose satisfaction and gratitude gave him a deep sense of personal significance. He enriched his knowledge and skill by entering a network of motorcycle antiquarians who understood the nuanced metallurgy and manufacturing idiosyncracies of particular models and years. He came to understand the difference between the structured role-based systematic knowledge imparted in factory service manuals and the perversity and risks of working on old machines. "So you put the manual away and consider the facts before you. You do this because ultimately you are responsible to the motorcycle and its owner, not to some procedure. The gap between theory and practice stretches out in front of you .... What you need now is the kind of judgement that arises only from experience; hunches rather than rules. For me, at least, there is more real thinking going on in the bike shop than there was in the think tank."

Surgeons and other practitioners of the manual arts will enjoy this thoughtful book available at amazon.ca at $20.48. It offers pleasant summer reading and may inspire educators to revise their curricula toward more emphasis on the value of working with material reality as grounding for knowledge workers. The abstract and relatively unaccountable work of many fund managers and corporate officers in the financial world is only one of many high-risk placements of knowledge workers. Politicians, generals and CEOs who are insulated from the consequences and personal accounting of their work should be grounded in their early education with the experience of failure. Basic lessons are learned when we work in the concrete material reality of making and planting things. "The visceral experience of failure seems to have been edited out of the career trajectories of gifted students. It stands to reason then, that those who end up making big decisions that affect all of us don't seem to have much sense of their own fallibility and of how badly things can go wrong, even with the best intentions ... Those who sit on the swivel chairs tend to live remote from the consequences of the decisions they make. Why not encourage gifted students to learn a trade, if only in the summers, so that their fingers will be crushed once or twice before they go on to run the country." Like our surgeon-scholars, Crawford personifies a refutation of the misconception that handworkers are self-selected because of their inability to do knowledge work. He is a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

As our medical curriculum undergoes its latest revision, we should encourage medical students and practitioners to enjoy and learn from the visceral experience of delivering a baby, suturing a wound, casting a fracture. "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 ... 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 work is typically situated in face-to-face interactions." I wish you all a happy summer, tending your garden or repairing your dock.

Martin McKneally

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