Separation of thinking from doing

A short break from my leadership blogs.

I want to delve into one of my major passions; trade training.

I was recently recommended a book –“Shop Class as Soulcraft” by Matthew B. Crawford.  I will give a few quotes together from the opening stages of the book and then make comment.

 “The disappearance of tools from our common education is the first step toward a wider ignorance of the world of artifacts we inhabit”

“In hard economic times we want to be frugal.  Frugality requires some measure of self-reliance – the ability to take care of your own stuff.  But the new interest in self-reliance seems to have arisen before the spectre of hard times.  Frugality may be only a thin economic rationalisation for a movement that answers to a deeper need: we want to feel that our world in intelligible, so we can be responsible for it.”

“There comes a point where you have to step back and get a larger gestalt.  Have a cigarette and walk around the lift.  Any mechanic will tell you that it is invaluable to have other mechanics around to test your reasoning against, especially if they have a different intellectual disposition.”

“The dichotomy of mental versus manual didn’t arise spontaneously.  Rather, the twentieth century saw concerted efforts to separate thinking from doing.”

“… the degradation of work is ultimately a cognitive matter, rooted in the separation of thinking from doing.”

“The habituation of workers to the assembly line was thus perhaps made easier by another innovation of the early twentieth century: consumer debt… it became normal to carry debt…the early twentieth century saw the moral legitimation of spending… indebtedness could discipline workers, keeping them at routinized jobs in factories and offices, graying but in harness meeting payments regularly.”

“Much of the “jobs of the future” rhetoric surrounding the eagerness to end shop class and get every warm body into college [university], thence into a cubicle, implicitly assumes we are heading to a postindustrial economy in which everyone will deal only in abstractions is not the same as thinking.”


Enough quotes – I think a picture is starting to emerge.  In New Zealand, we have seen the closing of the old “technology” workshops in schools.  The old wood work, metal working, cooking classes etc have been replaced with computing classes.  And who can blame the modern school Principal.  Metalwork workshops were very expensive to operate and could only take a few students at a time.  And yet you can run a computing class with 40+ students at one time at a margin of the cost of the old workshop.  And everyone knows we are in the computer age, so let’s get with it.  Trade training type workshops at schools closed.  And so it is rare to find a school that teaches “hand craft” knowledge, let alone celebrates it.  The irony of all of this is most of the traditional trade classes closed down under Labour Governments which were supposed to be pro-the worker.  Another irony, it is under our current National Government they have introduced the concept of trade academies into our schools to try and help get young people into the trades.


Why worry about the trades? 


As a nation we have no infra-structure without trades.  Look at the buildings you live and work in each day – trades people built that – look at the transport you go in every day – trades did that – go to the Doctor – what?  Doctor training is trade training – they learn practical skills while learning the theory of their discipline – no different from your electrician, plumber, carpenter, mechanic or mechanical engineer (welders etc).  And yet Crawford is arguing that we put Doctors on pedestals and treat trades people poorly.  Another irony is that it is cheaper for me to go to the Doctor than to have the plumber come to my house.


New Zealand’s economy is still (and will be for many years) heavily reliant on export dollars made from Agriculture, Forestry and Sea products.  Do an analysis of the number of trades that prop up that economy.  New Zealand would financially fall over it we didn’t have a wide range of people developing the infrastructure to keep our export industry operating.   And yet as a nation we are not watching the trends that are happening around us.


Years ago, I was at a secondary school in Auckland and as an experiment asked the students who could tell me what a spanner was – no one could.  I named a few basic tools, even a hammer and no one could tell me what they were, let alone what you do with one.  If I had a computer programme everyone could fix it for me – the computer is just an extension of who they are. This is the outcome of the closing of closing old technology classes and housing intensification.


As a society we are in danger of going down a one-dimensional path.  Part of that is that we have bought into a line of propaganda that preaches an either or school of thought.  Let me explain.


You either go to University or (until this latest move by the National led Government with Trade Academies) you end up on the waste pile of life.  I was recently visiting a secondary school in the Rotorua Region and talking with the Principal.  He was given targets for school leavers to go to University.  Most of his catchment of students, getting them to attend school was a major problem without getting them to engage with learning.  His argument was that 95% of his students would never be University material.  The introduction of the trade academy model meant he now had students who were excited about being at school and felt like legitimate human beings.  From my perspective his thinking is as bad as the model of sending all kids to University.  For too long we have seen trades and university as opposing competitors.  Universities are for thinking and trades are for doing and the two will never meet.  We have separated thinking from doing, in our propaganda and rationalisation.


A number of years ago I was guest speaker at a Rotary Club function in West Auckland.  I was there to talk about what is happening in trade training.  My gut instinct made me digress from my prepared notes and engage at a different level with the audience.  Most of the audience looked a similar age to me (young I know).  I asked them to raise their hands if they had done an apprenticeship upon leaving school.  My guess is about 70% of the audience raised their hands.  I then asked how many of them owned their own businesses.  I don’t think there was a change in hands.   Of that group, how many had kids who had left school – same response.  How many had kids at University – same response?  How many had kids in an apprenticeship – one raised his hand.   I commented that here was the problem.  In the old days kids followed their parents into the trades and this was no longer happening.  One member of the audience hit the nail on the head.  He said:  “I have become very financially wealthy from my apprenticeship – but I have always been made to feel inferior to those who went to University – I have made more money than those who went to University, but I don’t want my kids feeling on the inside the same as I did.”  The audience agreed with his comments.


The reason this “feeling” exists is because we have developed this either or mentality and our education system supports this style of thinking.  Imagine how powerful the model would be if the bulk of our young people went into apprenticeships and then after qualifying in their disciple did University studies.  I’m not talking of 100% moving into University – even 10% would be a step.  What difference would it make in the construction industry if the architects had done a building apprenticeship?  What difference would it make to the auto industry if all the designers etc. had done an apprenticeship first?  What difference would it make to our agriculture sector if all our participants had done an apprenticeship first?  How would the thinking be different?  What would be the impact economically on New Zealand with such a model?  What if we combined business training into our apprenticeship system and started to link some of these competencies instead of treating them differently?  Some of the most robust thinking I have encountered has come from trades’ people.  And yet we have somehow created a culture that makes them feel inferior?  Academic snobbery – no doubt.  Value for New Zealand – I think not – value for the global community – I think not.  What would be the value of improving the theoretical knowledge of our apprentices and made our University students more practical?  What if we focussed more on combining thinking and doing?  What are the downsides to this model?  What are the risks?


One of the drivers behind this has been referred to in my leadership blogs – respecting different ways of demonstrating your intelligence and learning styles.  After the plumber has visited I often feel I have had better value than a visit to the accountant or lawyer.  Maybe, just maybe we need to re-examine the model that we operate within our education system as well as in society.  It is too easy to throw spears at the education system but it is often a reflection of our society. 


I would be interested in your thoughts.  As always, feel free to share this with anyone you want.