Thursday, March 8, 2012

Hands, Heads, and the Value of Work

In addition to being a knitter, I'm a musician. I did two music degrees before attending law school and, to be honest, I never fully adjusted to being an office worker. I've always been good with my hands, and so one of the things I most resent about today's world is the presumption that being good with one's hands means that one isn't equally adept with one's brain. Why can't we convince society that the hands and the brain are inter-connected, and that therefore we should value those with skilled hands? I'm leaving visual artists out of this rant, since we have generally valued their skill. I'm referring to those who labour in skilled crafts and trades--carpenters, bakers, mechanics, electricians, gardeners,etc. Notice that these are mostly (but not all) jobs of the type that don't end up going overseas. They're generally not part of the globalization trend. When you need an extra bathroom on your main floor, you don't get someone in China to do the work.
I'm reading Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford. When his book first came out, I was lucky enough to catch a radio interview in which he talked about the creative problem-solving required in repairing motorcycles, and the satisfaction he experienced in achieving a concrete result at the end of his efforts. That seems a far cry from the frustration and cynicism bred in the offices of our public service, where many of my former law school colleagues toil (those that are not on mental health leave!).
On a related topic, CBC Radio ran a story a little while ago on the decline of cursive writing. One of the interviewees made the point that when we write, different parts of our brain are engaged than when we type, and we are in fact able to think more creatively. Probably that explains why Isabel likes to work on her novel in longhand, rather than at the computer, even though she is a computer science major. She and her brother, James, were fortunate enough to attend a private school in the Washington, DC area that emphasized the acquisition of good handwriting skills.
Our affinity for working with our hands should come as no surprise, given our evolution. Our hands and their connection to our brains are at the heart of our "humanness". Our ability to think and fashion tools, and then to make those tools beautiful has set us apart from our fellow creatures and given us mastery (for good or ill) over our environment.
I contemplate the value of manual work everyday in the built environment of the neighbourhood where I live. For instance, I am surrounded by a proliferation of beautiful domes, the legacy of Kingston's brief time as the capital of the united Canadas.
Back view of City Hall, with melting ice rink in the market square.

Front view of St. George's Cathedral.

Back view of St. George's.
Wrought iron fence post in shape of a bishop's mitre.

Dome atop Frontenac County Courthouse.
Canada is currently experiencing a shortage of skilled tradespeople, and our federal government is moving toward fast-tracking immigrants to fill the vacancies. I only wish that at the same time we could convince our fellow citizens of the value of skilled manual work so that our own sons and daughters might be given more opportunities and encouragement to participate in the long tradition of working with their hands as well as their heads.


  1. Your wonderful posts about the activities and architecture of your area are enticing indeed. Makes one want to move to Kingston.

  2. The devaluing of the trades is a shame. I took a carpentry course several years ago and a friend of mine was saying how marvelous this was that I was going to be a tradeswoman. I asked how she would feel if her son wanted to be a mechanic. She looked shocked and appalled. Somehow it was cute that I was going to be a woman carpenter, but a mechanic, her son? My car mechanic is one smart guy and a terrific problem solver. My father is a diesel mechanic and also very smart. And I was one very smart carpenter before I became a knit designer.