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Commentary | JOHN BALZAR

Craftmanship as a Door to Artisanship

April 10, 2002|JOHN BALZAR

Can we rejoice when society bestows esteem on its artisans and trade workers?

I'm not speaking of this society, of course.

Perhaps you saw The Times' dispatch from Germany last month about the wandering craftswomen and men, known as wandergesellen. In a tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages, they move from job to job for at least three years and a day. Then they go on to become journeymen roofers and carpenters and bricklayers and 27 other useful occupations, not to mention start their own businesses and manage projects.

We should cheer stories like this because, first off, we need roofers and carpenters and bricklayers. Second, we shouldn't forget the level of skill that people must acquire to do these things properly, which is only the first step toward doing them artistically. Most important, this story reminded us that there is honor and satisfaction in creating things with one's hands.

Honor and satisfaction. Ever notice how rarely we use those words anymore when referring to our activities?

It was the seventh grade when I took my first shop class. I built a mahogany jewelry box for my mother. I was amazed to learn how a box was made and more amazed that I could make one.

The joy of that discovery enriched my life. In spare time over the years, I have made cutlery and furniture, I have worked with clay and with leather. I built a canoe from strips of redwood. I have learned to carve Polynesian fishhooks from bone for adornment. I sewed myself a jacket, made toys for the neighbor kids, designed and stitched my own wallet. I built my dining table from rough-sawed planks of cherry, using only hand tools. Drop-by evening visitors are surprised to find the columnist in his apron in the garage, chortling as he discovers the secrets of an old carving tool called a scorp.

I gained confidence. I learned to lay a roof, rebuild a bathroom, make cabinets, tile a floor, rewire the lighting and vent the hood over a stove.

Along the way, I came to appreciate artisanship. I began looking up to those who, by profession or pastime, can fit square pegs into round holes. In a fleeting world of electrons, what they do is tangible. You cannot fake a fence.

So I was disappointed to see a subsequent story in the newspaper. It was just the latest installment in a decades-long string of accounts that denigrate what we call "vocational education" in U.S. schools. This curriculum is dying out. Those courses that remain are stigmatized. Boys and girls from the underclass are "shunted" into them and their dreams are ruined as a result.

The story quoted a university admissions bureaucrat: An applicant who took a British literature elective in high school is likely to be favored over an equally qualified student who took shop.

I have nothing against British literature. But shouldn't we make room in our schools to expand students' experience, to open their eyes to the realities around them, to provide means for them to understand their capabilities, to reconnect their hands to their minds, learn the secrets of a wooden box? No wonder Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard.

"Of all human qualities, the one I admire most is competence," wrote H.L. Mencken. "A tailor who is really able to cut and fit a coat seems to me an admirable man, and by the same token a university professor who knows little or nothing of the thing he presumes to teach seems to me to be a fraud and a rascal."

What our schools teach--and increasingly what we demand in the way of test scores--is growing regrettably narrower and more conformist. It's single-track college prep with some athletics thrown in. Too bad. With specialization crushing in on us we need rounding out: home ec, sewing, wood shop.

With fewer parents able to pass craft skills on to their children, the responsibility of our schools is even greater. I can attest: All those math classes to master the slide rule proved worthless. Learning to saw a board is a skill worth having. Adding more shop classes will engender appreciation of artisanship as part of a good education. A new generation should find out what they can do with their hands, and the honest value of what others do for society with theirs.

And P.S. to the university admissions officer: The British recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953 was an avid bricklayer. At his peak, Winston Churchill could lay 90 bricks an hour. In the yard of his country home of Chartwell, you can read a tablet he set in one of the many structures he raised: "The greater part of this wall was built between the years 1925 & 1932 by Winston with his own hands."

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