“If thinking is bound up with action, then the task of getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on our doing stuff in it.”
The word “intelligence” conjures up images of books, classrooms, and serious-minded professors. But, real learning is just as likely to involve wrenches, ballet studios, and repairmen examining the parts of a bicycle.
In Shop Class as Soulcraft: an Inquiry into the Value of Work, Matthew Crawford shares his experiences and research related to the divide between thinking and doing. In this post, I’ll summarize some of his ideas and discuss their implications for independent learners. You don’t have to choose between being a “thinker” or a “do-er.” By accepting both, may find that your work is more intellectually rewarding than ever.
Are You Living an Abstract Life?
Many people now graduate from high school or even college without the ability to do anything. They get jobs as knowledge workers and their work consists of creating ideas, brands, and culture. Or, they work in a cubicle with such little responsibility that they do not need to know how to actually create anything on their own.
At home, people live apart from the things that they own. We don’t know how things work and we don’t know how to fix them. We have little connection to what we drive, wear, eat, and live in. In fact, manufacturers are beginning to create products that are harder to fix. Many cars, for example, now require foreign, specialized tools that can only be purchased by a dealer.
Unfortunately, living so abstractly makes us disconnected from the world.
Thinking and doing are meant to be united. A true intellectual is able to apply his learning to the actual world, instead of simply living in clouds of ideas and theories. The type of knowledge that results in action can’t be taught in classrooms alone. It requires people to create and to fix, to learn through practice and failure.
After graduating with a PhD in philosophy and getting a job at a highly-regarded think tank, author Matthew Crawford became frustrated with the fact that his work was so abstract. He wanted to do something. So, he quit the think tank and opened up a motorcycle repair shop. It may sound unusual for such an educated person to choose manual labor. But, Crawford found that working on a trade was, in fact, more intellectually stimulating.
Practical knowledge isn’t as easily transferred as facts and statistics. But, its results are real and tangible. “Practical know-how…is always tied to the experience of a particular person,” writes Crawford. “It can’t be downloaded, it can only be lived.”
How Thinking was Separated from Doing
Originally, work wasn’t so disconnected from practical knowledge. People employed at banks, car manufacturers, or other jobs were encouraged to use their minds when making work-related decisions.
Then, the idea of “scientific management” became popular. Basically, this line of thought states that the best way to get work done is to give people small, highly-structured tasks that they do not need to really think about. Crawford explains:
“The dichotomy of mental versus manual didn’t arise spontaneously. Rather, the twentieth century saw concerted efforts to separate thinking from doing. Those efforts achieved a good deal of success in ordering our economic life, and it is this success that perhaps explains the plausibility the distinction now enjoys. Yet, to call this ‘success’ is deeply perverse, for wherever the separation of thinking from doing has been achieved, it has been responsible for the degradation of work.”
Instead of building a complete car, an employee now took on the job of applying hub cap after hub cap in an assembly line. Instead of analyzing the facts to determine if a loan applicant is creditworthy, the banker simply entered information into a computer. In many cases, doing things in the workplace became fragmented and lost its intellectual quality.
The best way of illustrating the separation of thinking and doing, is to see exactly what business expert Fredrick Winslow Taylor was telling people about company management:
“The managers assume…the burden of gathering together all of the traditional knowledge which in the past has been possessed by the workmen and then of classifying, tabulating, and reducing this knowledge into rules, laws, and formulae…
All possible brain work should be removed from the workshop and centered in the planning or laying-out department…”
Remove “all possible brain work” from employment? Yikes. No wonder so many people find their jobs unfulfilling. They’re discouraged from intelligent work and prodded into simply following rules and procedures.
What Can You Do?
One of the most important steps lifelong learners can take is eliminating their prejudice about manual work. Realize that thinking-jobs are no better than doing-jobs. In fact, in many cases doing-jobs require more intellectual stamina.
Crawford urges readers to stop being afraid of learning how to do things well:
“The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into ‘college prep’ and ‘vocational ed’ is overlaid with another: the fear that acquiring a specific skill set means that one’s life is determined. In college, by contrast, many students don’t learn anything of particular application; college is the ticket to an open future. Craftsmanship entails learning one thing really well, while the ideal of the new economy is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement.”
Even if you want to work in academia and prefer the abstract, consider learning how to do something in your spare time. You may find a certain satisfaction in creating and repairing things that are real.
Another way to reconnect thinking and doing is to pay more attention to the things you interact with on a day-to-day basis. Can you mend your clothes? Stop a leaking faucet? Grow your own food? You could pay someone to do these tasks, but choosing to be a master of your things is a step towards intellectual freedom.
Embrace practical knowledge and you’ll begin to bridge the artificial separation between thinking and doing.