The Value of Working with Your Hands
The following article was written by my blogger friend Debbie Bier, you can find her very excellent blog at ConcordMA.com
Working With Your Hands
Working with your hands: in many traditions, this is an time-honored and revered way to make one’s living. The inventiveness, the pride, the usefulness, beauty and economy of an experienced worker performing his or her craft well. Such work is often called “honest,” honesty being a characteristic held in highest regard across cultures worldwide
In other cultures — such as the one our affluent community is a part of — working with your hands is considered by many to be both menial and demeaning. It is below us, we who prize academic and intellectual achievement so highly. The “white collar” remains white because it is not sullied by unseemly toil, with all the implied purity of cleanliness intact.
I’ve been pondering this for a long time, but it never came into such clear view until I read the article in a recent New York Times Magazine called “The Case for Working with Your Hands”
The author, Matthew B. Crawford, wrote the soon-to-be-released Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work.” He has a PhD in political philosophy, yet he has found his life works best when he repairs vintage motorcycles for a living. He says that working with his hands in this way challenges his intellect and problem-solving abilities in a manner that purely cubicle-bound work simply cannot. Rather than shut off his mind, work with his hands actually enlivens and engages it more fully and vividly.
As a professional counselor with two advanced academic degrees
– and a jewelry maker , mini-farmer and former chef — I very much can affirm the health and well-being inherent in his choice. I know that working with my hands engages ALL of myself in a positive, energizing way that nothing else can, and I see the truth of this in my patients, friends and family, too. (Thus solves the oft-commented upon mystery of why I pursue so many different types of professional work at the same time!)
I also suspect Rob, the owner of this blog, feels similarly, given that he’s a police lieutenant and a carpenter, working professionally both at a desk and with his hands.
This isn’t a new conundrum — it’s been a wobbly path we’ve been on for quite some time, including in Concord. Did you know that in 1899, Concord’s Town Meeting accepted a substantial bequest from the two Pritchard sisters that required creation of a school for the manual arts that also gave children a basic, academic education, too? Both school teachers, they were greatly concerned that the choice children had between getting a good education and working at a trade was robbing them of the former in favor of the latter. Their funds purchased land near the corner of Sudbury Road and Stow Street beside a now-gone public high school. The school building that arose on that spot (The Emerson School) strongly included manual arts in the curriculum. In fact, the Emerson Umbrella was allowed by Town Meeting to become the master lease holder for the Emerson School some 25+ years ago because their proposal for a multi-discipline arts center was the only presented choice that was in harmony with the original Pritchard bequest.
Crawford makes the case well for our reconsidering the type of intellectual education and careers we want ourselves and our children to pursue. It’s going to be up to us as adults to re-examine any fossilized attitudes we have about manual labor (even this term is considered lowly), and to exchange them for ones that serve our children, ourselves, and our society far better. I suspect these ideas first arose from feudal times when privileged landowners were distinguished from lowly peasants by the cleanliness of their hands. They were reinforced by the 16th century Scientific Revolution, the 18th century Age of Enlightenment, and the ever-escalating 20th and 21st century expectations we have for academic excellence and achievement. In too many quarters there is far too little questioning about these 500 year old beliefs about the relative merits of the mind over the body.
Everywhere, the economy is tumbling the isolated ivory towers of intellectual work and study. The movement toward holistic living has made us understand the body-mind-spirit to be a single unity, a whole. Yet as a culture, we still believe that the life of the intellect is THE life to have… the one of highest value, in which manual workers become second class citizens. Proof of our part in this is the minuscule enrollment Concord has at Minuteman Technical High School, regardless of that school’s high rate of college enrollment and future employment success. State curriculum pressures also have forced us to remove everything from home economics to woodworking and more from CCHS‘ offerings. Ok, but at what price?
We badly need to reconsider our attitudes about this for the health and happiness of our ourselves and our children, as so many of us cannot be our best in a sit-still-all-day environment. That includes our best physical health; just look at the growing Type 2 diabetes problem we have, which requires more physical activity as a vital component of its treatment plan. Ever wonder why substance abuse and mental health issues abound in this country? Such unnaturally inactive work may lead a surprising number of us to drugs, depression, anxiety, suicidally, etc: right work for the individual builds health and well being on all levels… the wrong work destroys it.
What if we stopped forcing ourselves and each other to be “less whole” through our disapproval of working with one’s hands for a living? People of all ages need to knit together and reclaim ALL of themselves, not be torn asunder. While we grapple with this as a culture, I will, as Ghandi said, “be the change we want to see in the world.” I will continue to practice a set of professions that knit together hands, head, heart and soul.
by Debbie Bier, ConcordMA.com