There was a time when being literate was a mark of your social standing. The vast majority of people couldn’t read or write. Not one word. Words were all around them and yet they had no way of unravelling their mystery. Now pretty much everyone can read and write, but whilst educational and government bodies have focused on this area another form of illiteracy has taken its place.
For the majority of us, especially the younger generation, there is a very real form of illiteracy regarding making things. If you look upon the built environment – tables, chairs, beds, cups, plates, carpets, clothes, houses, cars, roads, even food – many younger people will simply not comprehend the connection between themselves and the thing made. How this came to be made will be as alien to them as writing was to an illiterate worker.
Yet making things isn’t difficult just as reading isn’t difficult. But if a child lives in an environment where no one ever reads and where there are no books, we have truckloads of statistics evidencing the fact that reading becomes increasingly difficult. Surely the same stands for making things; if a child lives in an environment where the moment anything breaks a replacement is ordered from Amazon, then the knowledge of fixing and making things is lost.
Fixing things not only saves us money and is good for the environment but as Matthew Crawford’s wonderful book, The Case For Working With Your Hands or Why Office Work Is Bad For Us And Fixing Things Feels Good, points out, it gives us a sense of meaning and identity.
When you make or mend things, it’s natural to want people to know and it’s natural to be proud of what you’ve done, no matter how old you are. That connection with the reality of the material is non-negotiable. You can’t rhapsodise over your skill if the chair you’ve made fails to function, if it falls apart or is uncomfortable. Making and fixing things is the place where opinion (I’m great at building boats) and reality (boats need to float) meets. It’s also the place where you can find identity, pride and your place in the world. Whilst this can have a powerful effect on mature adults, for young men and women it can be profound. I have taught apprentice electricians who were arsey to their parents and their teachers; who had an answer to everything, and in my opinion had been failed by an eduction system that never recognised the grounding nature of making things. These boys thrived in an environment where they could be themselves, because this was where they themselves discovered meaning.
Matthew Crawford also argues that people who can make things are more autonomous. They have a natural belief in their own ability. The world is not a mysterious, scary place in which they are alien but is a place in which they have a role to play and the skill to be able to engage with it. This makes them resilient and resilience makes all of us better able to make changes.
In the years before the First World War when Henry Ford revolutionised manufacturing with his assembly line, he found he couldn’t retain workers. He had to pay twice the going rate, $5 a day, in order to stop the drain. In order to maintain his 14,000 workforce he was employing 52,000 a year. The men, they were mostly men, weren’t used to this dumbed down way of working and found it boring. It is interesting that now, a hundred years on, nearly all spheres of work owe more to the production line, the reaching of targets and the worker-as-machine attitude rather than the skill and dedication of the individual. Consequently many people feel that work and boredom are synonymous.
When an individual doesn’t make anything, or is not sure where their work fits into the bigger picture, there is no real way to validate what they do. Their work identity is predicated upon the opinion of their manager or their work colleagues. And because everyone is in the same tenuous position, work can become a stressful, unbounded place where the only way to prove your worth, is to work through your dinner break or stay on after work. Builders never work through their dinner break, they’ve just built a house and thus, you may have noticed, they have no need to win anyone’s approval.
Having worked as an electrician, and in an office, I should mention the different nature of working in a team. When you build or make something, you are dependent, in a very real sense, in the competency of those around you and this interconnectedness gives people a sense of belonging, which is what we might think of as a team, not the sort of team that you try and recreate through awful, fragmented, team building days but what used to be called camaraderie, the joy of the poetry of effort. If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to work in a proper team you will know it’s addictive. And this kind of connection only happens when you make something happen together. Whilst making things can give you an identity, making things as part of a team you believe in can be wonderful.
An economic argument in favour of making things is also becoming prevalent. The common consensus is that making things is uneconomical both as practice and profession. It could be made cheaper by a machine or in China, and the evidence is that most parents would still rather indebt their children through the hoops of a perversely weighted, academic education system than encourage their children into a career in making things. But the jobs we are training them for are vanishing; they are being outsourced onto the internet. Jobs, no matter how highly paid now, that can be done via the internet will have to compete with the wages of workers in the third world. Medical consulting, engineering, computer design, psychological evaluation, consulting and of course call centres are all jobs which are being outsourced to the third world. We are witnessing a real shift in the way jobs retain value and in this new world, the jobs which need someone present in order to be done are going to be some of the few jobs that retain value.
After all, making things, independent of the material, has a grammar in the same way that a language has. You can learn it and once you’ve learnt it, you can use it to comprehend new meanings and contexts. In learning one craft you start to gain a greater understanding for all crafts. If you imagine that making things has an alphabet then the vowels would be fixing, measuring, shaping, smoothing and cutting. For every material there is a way to achieve these five ends and often it is the same method. You can chisel wood, stone and bone. You can glue everything, but to glue stone you use cement and welding is super glue for metal.
Over the years I have collected many tools and am now in the fortunate position of having two workshops. I share them with my son, who used to work in Morrisons, and is now experimenting with blacksmithing, and my daughter’s boyfriend, who did a degree in Criminology, got a job he hated in recruitment and now makes furniture out of recycled wood, antlers and metal. After spending £9,000 on a degree he often says he would have been better off and happier if he had just paid someone to teach him to make stuff. My wife, who runs the holding as a Care Farm, often gets the guys making stuff and it’s always a high point.
One of the upshots of having an illiterate peasantry back in the day was that they could be easily manipulated by the powers that be; there was no need for small print on a contract as they hadn’t got a clue what they were signing anyway.
In a similar way this present day illiteracy means that people are open to being ripped off by shoddy goods, shoddy workmanship or a consumer society and its planned obsolescence. But probably the greatest cost is our slavery to employment rather than autonomy. For the majority of us our only skill is employability and that puts us at the mercy of a jobs market that is increasingly weighted against the interests of the employee. It means that we can never fix or make something but must continue to keep buying new things. It means that we are prevented from fully engaging in the creative world and that is a problem that goes to the heart of the world that permaculture envisions.
You can contact Jon Middleton at jon middleton jon9uk[at]yahoo.com
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