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Shop class

13 August 2009
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Finally something worth reading for our subject on learning and change!

The textbook so far is the most aggravating and trivial text I have been forced to read outside government promotional materials – and is idiosyncratically presented, stuffed full of repeated grammatical and punctuation errors – even juicy spellos such as  ‘commodoties’ – and hyphenated by the publisher’s cat. The authors seem to have taken it in turns to jot down random cultural facts on service station serviettes while on a lengthy interstate motoring weekend, perhaps on their way to a political T-shirt expo somewhere. I have no idea who they think their audience is, or why they think anyone might read this book. It makes their previous work, which I privately think of as Multi-illiteracies, look almost scholarly.

So I was disinclined to follow the direction of the subject coordinator when he recommended reading, alongside this dreadful item, anything that Google retrieves on the topic of ‘Matthew Crawford +soulcraft’. By now deeply distrustful of the coordinat0r’s judgement, I located the foundation article – and was captivated.

Shop Class as Soulcraft

Crawford’s thesis is that manual work, as in craftsmanship or trade skills, is ultimately satisfying because it engages more of the person’s capacities – it is ‘intrinsically rich, cognitively, socially, and in its broader psychic appeal’. He explains the devaluing of this kind of work against the purely virtual work that seems the inevitable end for cubicle fodder by discussing how ‘shop class’ (what we would call ‘industrial design’) was introduced to persuade office workers to come home from their soulless routine to a personal arts and crafts movement, and to make factory workers feel better about the thoughtless routine of their assembly line.

He describes the very simple process where first blue collar and then white collar jobs are stripped of expertise, of a holistic knowledge born of experience, enabling less-skilled, stupider and therefore cheaper employees to be used. Crawford asserts that the central imperative of capitalism ‘assiduously partitions thinking from doing’, and recommends that young people be set against this inner enemy by going to uni but learning a trade in the summer holidays. This resembles what my children are doing, but their craft materials are not entirely tangible – teaching English as a second language, making music, and making films.

‘The best article ever published in an educational journal’

between_the_foldsThis is how Crawford describes the 1998 article by Mike and Ann Nishioka Eisenberg on their ‘hypergami’ computer program – so it has got to be worth a look beyond the extract quoted in Crawford. I was particularly interested to follow it up because I had just watched the documentary ‘Between the folds‘, and was fascinated and deeply moved by the glorious obsession and transformational achievements of the modern origami masters that the director Vanessa Gould presented (best cross-over science-art movie ever broadcast on the ABC?).

The Eisenbergs’ article is certainly the acme of the constructivist approach to cognitive development. I was interested to have my concept of ‘rich content’ expanded here from my simplistic reading of the phrase as multimedia or multidirectional content through the Eisenbergs’ discussion of  ‘a style of craft work associated with rich content (in this case, mathematical content)’.  There was also the touching subplot of the permanence of a physical creation:

And craft activities, particularly as practiced by children, are capable of investing real objects with the designer’s personality; they thus run counter to a culture of Web-based education that, in our view, threatens to lead its charges into adulthood without a single souvenir.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 19 August 2015 5:59 am

    I’m really enjoying your blog. Is this Penny Joy who used to teach at Narrabundah College?

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