I have recently taken up carpentry classes. I have no talent for making things with my hands, and the few things I’ve been able to make are very poorly put together. But for three hours a week I saw, I sharpen, I sand and I hammer. And it makes me feel good.
So, in my current job setting up and supporting Afghan artisanal businesses, when an artisan comes to my office to tell me that they are leaving their craft behind them, it feels a great loss. For them it is a sensible calculation. Taking a job as an office worker is more attractive on a number of fronts. The pay is better, and more regular, the working environment is more comfortable, and white-collar work is perceived as higher status.
How can I argue with that? It is, after all, a bit rich for me to lecture them on the satisfaction and dignity of craftsmanship from behind by laptop screen.
The status of the ‘maker’ in Afghan society has gone the way of the status of the maker in the developed world. Society’s educational systems and occupational structures are deformed by a prejudice against manual labour. The desk rules over the workbench.
Working closely with craftsmen over the last few years, it is clear that this artificial hierarchy makes little sense. Why should the administrator feel superior to the carpenter?
For a start the work is neither more intellectually demanding, nor more satisfying. As Matthew Crawsford argues in Shop Class as Soulcraft, in modern companies creative thought is centralized in the hands of the few. As a result the average white-collar employee feels, accurately, like a replaceable cog in a soulless machine. This is not the case in a manual trade such as his own – motorcycle repair – where his work constantly engages his cognitive, problem-solving abilities.
Modern office work is unsatisfying because day to day we are denied the satisfaction of seeing individual agency in the things we do.
“Furniture making, practiced as a craft in the twenty-first century, is a decidedly marginal occupation – economically, socially, technologically, and culturally. Yet it also happens to be premised on the… ideal [that] the key to a good life is the engaged pursuit of quality. As a craftsman I have the opportunity to turn that key every day, whether or not I actually do. The yardstick of quality is always in plain sight at the workbench”
- Peter Korn, Why We Make Things and Why It Matters
And as I look at the wonky chair legs I have made, I understand what Peter Korn means. However ugly the joints are, however skewed the legs look, however visible the marks of the planner appear, they are my joints, my skewed legs and my marks. And that is satisfying beyond anything I did in the office this week.
Richard Sennett 'The Craftsman'
Matthew Crawford: 'Shop class as soul craft'
And, 'The case for working with your hands'
Peter Korn, 'Why we make things and why it matters'
Robert Pirsig, 'Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance'