Let’s encourage our children and grandchildren to appreciate-and aspire to-real craftsmanship. It enriches the lives of those who practice it, as well as the lives of those with whom they share the fruits of their labor.
Regardless of their profession or trade, many of the people we know are very far from being one-dimensional. Years ago at NASA, my research partner-a Ph.D. in physics-was also skilled at rebuilding pneumatic player pianos. He later took up watercolors and, after retirement to Arizona, won awards for his Southwestern-themed paintings.
A general surgeon I once knew was also a master cabinet maker. The president of an assembly equipment company, whom I know well today, is also a master gardener. No doubt each of you has friends and colleagues who similarly demonstrate in various ways the essence of real craftsmanship-doing a thing well for the sake of doing it well.
“Today, in our schools, the manual trades are given little honor,” writes Matthew B. Crawford in Shop Class as Soulcraft (The New Atlantis, No. 13, Summer 2006). Crawford, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), questions the prevalent view in the educational establishment today that it is irresponsible to educate the young for the trades, which are somehow identified as the jobs of the past.
Crawford makes a powerful case for the intrinsic value to both self and society of craftsmanship for its own sake. He also points out that in areas of well-developed craft, technological developments typically preceded and gave rise to scientific understanding. For example, the success of the steam engine contributed to the development of what we now know as classical thermodynamics. You can find his article at http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/shop-class-as-soulcraft, and it is well worth your time.
At the turn of the 20th century, long before Sears Roebuck & Co. trademarked the term Craftsman, Gustave Stickley published a magazine for woodworkers called The Craftsman, which was devoted to building fine furniture, and even entire homes. Stickley also built handmade furniture in his Craftsman Workshops, and marked every piece in his native Flemish with his one guiding principle: Als Ik Kan, “to the best of my ability.” That remains the guiding principle of Stickley Audi & Co. to this day, and pieces of Stickley furniture, both antique and new, are highly prized.
It is usually not appropriate to inject personal elements into the discussion on this page, but I trust you’ll humor me here. I have in my home today three things I made in high school shop classes as gifts for my father: a turned wooden table lamp, a wooden end table and a steel ball peen hammer. I got them back when he passed away some years ago, and all three are in daily use.
Those who have made similar artifacts, possibly for similar reasons, well know the satisfaction that attends to sharing one’s craftsmanship. So let’s encourage our children and grandchildren to appreciate-and aspire to-real craftsmanship. It enriches the lives of those who practice it, as well as the lives of those with whom they share the fruits of their labor.
Editorial: Als Ik Kan
November 17, 2008