Dating back to at least the 1500s, tinkering was once considered not only an honorable profession, but an essential one. The tinker, or tinsmith, would start out as an apprentice fixing utilitarian items from pie pans to milk pails, laboring toward the day when they might become a master with their own shop. Then the smith would craft and repair the most complex utensils and household technology of the day.
As with many antique surnames still in use, Tinker became a family symbol and crest which far outlasted the trade. And yet today the word has taken on a trivial, if not pejorative connotation. The irate parent will tell their inquisitive child, “Don’t tinker with that!” Tinkering now implies an inept, bungling penetration of items which are considered off-limits to the consumer.
This is a topic which has weighed heavily on my mind since recently finishing “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” Matthew B. Crawford’s eye-opening philosophical treatise. The author holds a PhD in political philosophy and served as the head of a beltway think tank before winding up working as a motorcycle mechanic. While many would view such a career arc as a disastrous failure, Crawford took that path by intent and finds time to share revelations on what he regards as the “useful arts.”
He notes that many of today’s small metalwork and carpentry shops are equipped with machinery — ranging from lathes to band saws and beyond — which was purchased on the cheap at auctions held by public schools. Many of today’s younger readers will have no experience with this, but at one time nearly every public school offered shop classes as part of their standard curriculum. (At least for the boys. Girls took home economics.)
Beginning in the 1980s schools across the nation began to abandon these programs, partly as cost-cutting measures in the face of increasingly tight budgets, but more as the practical fallout of a shift in scholastic philosophy. We moved toward preparing students for a place in the knowledge economy, as it is known, and away from any form of manual labor.
The trades, as they were called, increasingly became a target of derision. Comics of all stripes would refer to seemingly slow-witted children as being destined for “a job with their name on their shirt.” If the child was not headed toward a career in medicine, the legal professions, Wall Street, or advanced design engineering, they were somehow seen as second-class citizens. Similar disdain was heaped upon youths seeking a career in the military rather than advanced studies in the ivy-covered halls of academia.
A tremendous amount of mental gymnastics is required for people of this mindset when their toilet backs up and the plumber they summon to restore one of the fundamental requirements of civilization charges them fifty dollars per hour in labor. If you buy an older home and need to seriously upgrade the wiring, you will first need to arrange for the services of an Underwriters Lab approved electrician. That contractor will soon give you a lesson in the real cost of the skills and services provided by such “trade level” craftsmen.
One of the great ironies in all this arises from the emphasis we place on keeping our children away from dirty tools and professions where one might actually get a suntan without paying for it at a spa. The author notes numerous articles in trade magazines bemoaning the lack of workers in fields such as welding, lighting, heating, and air conditioning. This is happening today, at the same time that countless holders of advanced white collar degrees are moving back in with their parents and taking jobs at the local Starbucks.
Beyond the group psychology shift in attitudes towards the knowledge economy, Crawford delves deeply into the fundamental nature of the relationship between modern man and what he refers to as “our stuff.” Our aversion to tools, he points out, has become more symptom than cause when we look at the types of products we seek out.
A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our relationship to our own stuff: 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 one fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves replacing an entire system because some minute component has failed.
Nowhere has our attitude toward the maintenance of our own belongings shifted over the course of my lifetime than in how we view our cars. The house I grew up in had a detached garage with two bays. The one on the right had what was then called “a pit.” It was a roughly four foot wide hole in the floor, fifteen feet long, with a set of stairs leading down to a low work space below. From there you could change the oil and work on the entire undercarriage of the car which you carefully parked above it.
My second vehicle, back when I was a teenager, was a 1967 Ford pickup truck. When you opened the hood there was enough room in the engine compartment for a young man my size to crawl entirely inside and still close the bonnet. With a glance you could easily view all the major components of the engine: the radiator, the starter, the block, the head and the distributor cap with its eight wires snaking around to their appointed spark plugs. It was, unfortunately, an ill-tempered beast, and by the time I was seventeen I had replaced the head gasket on it myself. (If you don’t know what that means, look it up. It essentially involves rebuilding the entire engine.)
I don’t recall the last time I saw a private home with a garage which had a pit. Opening the hood of most modern cars reveals what is essentially a Borg Collective underneath, and tearing into it seems a frightening prospect. But it’s not only big-ticket items like automobiles which bear the scars of our shifting attitude toward tools and useful items.
At least for the men in the audience, consider for a moment the matter of the razors we use for shaving. My father — as did my grandfather before him — used a straight razor for that task through all his years. A barber’s strop was an ever present accessory hanging at the side our bathroom sink. (While preparing this article, I paused to wonder how many younger readers today would even know what a strop was without tabbing over to Google.) With proper care and regular sharpening, a good straight razor could last you several decades. Today we prefer pre-packaged razors which are employed until the edge is no longer pristine and are then chucked unceremoniously into the waste bin.
We have evolved into a society which disdains the making of things and absolutely abhors the concept of repairing them. There were three television repair shops in the small town where I grew up. I believe that today the breed is effectively extinct. In the 1960s, being a mechanic was an essential and respected career. Today, if your child winds up being a “grease monkey,” it’s frequently a mark of shame, not to be mentioned when the neighbors are around.
Is it any wonder, then, that our nation’s manufacturing base has been in decline for so long? It’s easy enough to blame external market forces, but the fact is that a once proud tradition has fallen into a shameful state of disrepair and blatant disrespect. And yet physical work will always need to be done – at least until Skynet’s robots are nearly ready to take over our society. Might some of us find more satisfaction in washing the dirt or grease off our hands at the end of a long day, seeing the fruits of our labors in fully functional use by others? Would it be so terrible if more of our children sought out these “useful trades”?
Being a “handyman” is another description generally employed with scorn, much like the tinker of old. But a man who is handy will likely find work no matter where the Dow Jones closes tomorrow. The real world is full of things, and they impact our lives on every level. Treating them as if they are magical beasts beyond our comprehension represents losing something which our society once held precious.