I have just done something I haven’t done since I was a boy. I took two ancient children’s bikes apart, bolt by bolt; screw by screw, stripped the two frames down, fixed up the chains, mended the punctures, sanded down the tubes, fixed the broken saddles, tightened the spokes, found new nuts and bolts, different screw heads and spanners and I loved it.
I have forgotten how satisfying manual work is.
Sitting surrounded by little parts, oily newspapers, odd tools, old bits and pieces and fitting them all together again is immensely satisfying.
As I sat child-like with the old puckered tubes in a basin of water, waiting for the tiny telltale bubbles to give away the precise position of the microscopic perforation, it struck me that manual labour is a wonderfully self-affirming state of work.
At the end of a few hours, what had been two broken, inoperable pieces of 1980s junk, rusting away in the shed, were now two very fine bikes with two delighted kids cycling away on them.
Something that wasn’t, now is. This is a wonderful sensation.
I know it’s not rocket science – but that’s the point, it is real, not abstract, tangible not theoretical.
This satisfaction with doing things, indeed the relative complexity of fixing things, using the right nuts and washers, leaning on childhood memories of finding punctures and the like, got me thinking about why we in our society denigrate manual labour and regard the man who works with his hands as below the office worker.
Why is it that we regard the man who smells of grit, oil and grease after work as being of less social standing then the man in the suit and tie who smells of Calvin Klein?
Why does our society fancy the white collar over the blue collar? And more importantly, is this right economically for the society or psychologically for the worker’s sense of himself.
This bias against the manual is not just a “feeling” – it is real.
Irish society has socialised itself against manual or mechanical work for years.
When I was a child in national school, going on to the local tech was shorthand for saying the kid wasn’t clever. Going to the tech was for eejits and was a fate to be avoided for any self-respecting parent. Going to the tech was inferior to other secondary schools. Similarly, lads doing woodwork or metalwork for the Group Cert were generally regarded as not as sophisticated as fellas doing Latin for the Inter Cert.
This bias continues today.
For example, in 2010 the Government announced that the number of vocational schools was going to be cut from 33 to 16 across the entire country.
Over the years, Irish parents thought it better for their children to go to university to do an Arts degree than to train for a trade. This was because years ago university seemed to offer a better career path. But I am not sure that is the case anymore.
Having a trade, being good at something as opposed to being trained for nothing, could well be a smarter choice these days.
Maybe it is no coincidence that the country with the best systematic approach to training teenagers in the trades, Germany, with its rigorous apprenticeship system, also has the lowest youth unemployment in Europe.
Maybe it’s because German teenagers are good at something and can learn from the master, picking up invaluable tricks of the trade, so that they can go out and earn a living in some specific area.
We are told incessantly that we should prepare our kids for the “knowledge economy” without really knowing what this knowledge economy actually is. It appears that the most typical approach now is to urge our children to be generalists without being able to do something specific and in this way we think we are “leaving their options open”.
But what if their options are closing, precisely because there are too many of these generalists loafing around?
What if getting a trade and actually being able to do something, rather than closing off options, actually opens doors because you can do something mechanical that others can’t and will always need?
These are questions that are worth posing also because there is a tendency to dismiss manual labour, working with your hands, as not mental and therefore, not complicated. But nothing could be further from the truth. Think about a mechanic.
Consider the many thought processes that are going on in his head when he is sizing up an engine, when he is trying to figure out what’s wrong with it. Also we are told that manual work is repetitive. But what’s more repetitive – going into an office every day to sit in a cubicle and look at a screen or meeting real live customers who are asking you to fix something or make something for them?
There is also autonomy in manual labour. You don’t have to just constantly buy a new model when something is broken. Or you don’t have to employ some expert to fix it; you might do it yourself. Or if you can’t actually do it yourself, at least you may know how the machine works and have an idea what’s wrong rather than being reduced to a helpless mess when the electrics blow.
Yet the unthinking degradation of working with your hands continues apace in Ireland and the education system is at the heart of this bias. Just get your head around the following – four times as many students, sat the religion exam in the Inter Cert as did metalwork.
Need I say more?
I’m off now to find something else to fix.
There’s a great American book on the lost virtue of manual work called ‘Shop Class as Soul Craft’.