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I loosely pitched Matthew Crawford, a political philospher who traded in his credentials to run a motorcycle repair shop, as a possible guest for our program several weeks ago after reading "The Case for Working with Your Hands" in The New York Times:

"...mechanical work has required me to cultivate different intellectual habits. Further, habits of mind have an ethical dimension that we don’t often think about. Good diagnosis requires attentiveness to the machine, almost a conversation with it, rather than assertiveness, as in the position papers produced on K Street. Cognitive psychologists speak of “metacognition,” which is the activity of stepping back and thinking about your own thinking. It is what you do when you stop for a moment in your pursuit of a solution, and wonder whether your understanding of the problem is adequate. The slap of worn-out pistons hitting their cylinders can sound a lot like loose valve tappets, so to be a good mechanic you have to be constantly open to the possibility that you may be mistaken. This is a virtue that is at once cognitive and moral. It seems to develop because the mechanic, if he is the sort who goes on to become good at it, internalizes the healthy functioning of the motorcycle as an object of passionate concern. How else can you explain the elation he gets when he identifies the root cause of some problem?

This active concern for the motorcycle is reinforced by the social aspects of the job. As is the case with many independent mechanics, my business is based entirely on word of mouth. I sometimes barter services with machinists and metal fabricators. This has a very different feel than transactions with money; it situates me in a community. The result is that I really don’t want to mess up anybody’s motorcycle or charge more than a fair price. You often hear people complain about mechanics and other tradespeople whom they take to be dishonest or incompetent. I am sure this is sometimes justified. But it is also true that the mechanic deals with a large element of chance."

"Sumo Zamboni" by Jean-François Chénier / Flickr

Admittedly, I have a great admiration for women and men who work with their hands and their feet — barbers and electricians, waitresses and bricklayers, potters and linemen. My uncles just knew how to fix farm machinery and build chicken coops and grain silos without a set of drawings. The skill of engine repair I've never quite acquired, but I discovered a love of building and remodeling homes — a latent penchant I never allowed myself to explore until 15 years ago. Thinking back to boyhood, the desire was always there, manifesting itself in constructing wood and log mud dams as the heavy Plains rains flowed down the rounded L-shaped gutters. I thought of it as frivolous play; now I recognize it as new sense of play, and purpose (although I suppose Stuart Brown might take issue with my definition).

"Fixing the tractor" by Nirava Rasila / Flickr

There's a value and a spirit in learning from people who don't sit in a cubicle all day, who don't migrate from one meeting room to the next, and live only in words and ideas — much of what I do now and love. I'm not trying to romanticize these professions. Much hard, physically demanding work is involved. But, blue-collar jobs require different approaches to problem-solving, to collaborating, to communicating, to organizing, to tolerating; you do think differently. My many years waiting tables, repairing asphalt cracks with diamond blades and boiling tar, driving a Zamboni machine, cleaning campgrounds, etc. taught me this.

"Lunch at Ella"'s Diner" by Chuck Patch/Flickr

I also know there's a different persuasion of intelligence and honor involved in these pursuits. The character traits these many professionals know and practice are common truths that might help us understand ourselves and the values we hold dear with better insight. Shared ideas of loyalty and honesty, camaraderie and community may lead us to be better workers and spouses, friends and neighbors — for the many truths in this world teach and touch all of us, if we let them. We become a greater society as a result.

Hearing others like Matthew Crawford and Mike Rose (author of The Intelligence of Work) and Barbara Ehrenreich and the late Studs Terkel articulate these many perspectives is worth pursuing. And the first step is evaluating voices, which is where Stephen Colbert's interview comes in. Admittedly, Colbert's interviews are great fun, but sometimes his quick wit and comic interjections aren't the most helpful in deciding if a voice for a long-form public radio show. What do you think? Are there other voices for this type of show you might recommend?

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11 Comments

Just loved the post. Hats off to Mr. Crawford for sitting at the same table as Mr. Colbert. That can't be easy at all.

My father was like your grandfather that could fix and build anything from ground up. Though we were both engineers, he was the true craftsman and I was just someone who dabbles. Much of what Mr. Crawford says strikes a cord with my sentiments and associations of people who live life constantly improvising in problem situations.

As far as recommending people who follow their craft with ingenuity and creativity, my list would include: Garr Renyolds (http://www.citrix.com/tv/#vide..., Clay Shirky (http://tiny.cc/fjPaE), Lawerence Lessig (http://blip.tv/play/lG2BhrMpga..., Maira Kalman (http://kalman.blogs.nytimes.co..., would be four of many I'd love to hear talk of moral and ethical values in the work field.

Thank you suggesting these names. Two of them have been on my list to pitch; Shirky an industry leader who is getting a lot of attention within the dead-tree (as Swampland bloggers often put it) journalism circles and beyond; and Reynolds I don't know much about.

Mr. Crawford isn't the only one I'm looking into, but his book and visibility are serving as an opportunity to return to this topic. A good thing, to be sure.

The New Yorker article about Matthew B. Crawford's philosophy is excellent. Lots of content, ideas to consider. Look for it.

Definitely, Debra. We have several avid readers of The New Yorker on staff who alerted me to Sanneh's review, particularly his critique of Crawford's machismo and boys club tone. On the other hand, other outlets such as the National Review and Rod Dreher, a past guest, in The Dallas Morning News rave about the book and Crawford's approach.

I await a review copy for now and look forward to reading it.

Trent,
you may also want to consider Jon Vezner. He doesn't quite fit your profile in that he is a songwriter now, but spent a good amount of time working in wood while figuring out his way in to that career. I've interviewed him in the past and his thoughts on the parallels are worth hearing.

As you consider creating such a program, and music for it, I'd also suggest to you a song by Carrie Newcomer called Betty's Diner. Sounds a little stuffy to say she sees the diner and the people who stop by as an intersection of human and divine, but anyway, I think you may want to give it a listen. Newcomer explored the lives of the people she sketched in that song (which is on the retrospective album Betty's Diner: the best of Carrie Newcomer) later on through an album called Regulars and Refugees -- sort of became taken over by their stories for a time, she says.

Wendell Berry as he writes on the home as a place of productivity, not merely entertainment and consumption. And he is wonderful on the ways material objects and our use of them carry historical, geological, and natural depths, which plastics and synthetics cannot possess.

The philosopher Mark Johnson, who writes on the mind as extension and outgrowth of the lived body, on the aesthetics of human reason, and on meaning as embedded in the flesh of the world. See The Body in the Mind and The Meaning of the Body.

The philosopher, poet, and activist David Abram, who speaks on the ecological moorings of thought and its implications for human survival. Very creative and expansive thinker when it comes to seeing mind in and through nature. Great storyteller, too. His Spell of the Sensuous is wonderful.

Thank You, i am glad you found some more use of my photo that was taken in Altai mountains: the place that requires utmost skills in many arts , to survive!

Thank you for finding use for my photo that was taken in the wilderness of Altai mountains' Taiga: the place that requires many a talents in many Arts, to survive!

Thank you for finding use for my photo that was taken in the wilderness of Altai mountains' Taiga: the place that requires many a talents in many Arts, to survive!

I read this book and think this is an excellent idea. I teach college art classes, mostly at the intro level and I am noticing increasing numbers of students who are all thumbs with tools and materials; have never picked up a T-square, don't know how to read a ruler. I would love to see more learning at the high school level that values "maker's mind". Students would come to understand that any tool comes with a learning curve that requires patience to master. This kind of learning shouldn't be marginalized; it's a very gratifying way to gain basic problem-solving skills.

The Colbert Report: " Valuing the Mindful Intelligence of Work In All It's Forms."

Wow! That was extremely refreshing and wittingly funny to say the least. Mr. Matthew Crawford speaking about his horrible experience as, an Abstract writer in the Scientific world. He explains that his boss at the time, requested that he used the same formula as the day before. I definitely can relate, I've had many such jobs that require mindless repetition day in and day out. You don't have think about what your doing anymore, it's like a assemble line for intellectuals. You come to work and Push a button, say the clause and call in the dogs. Blah! blah! blah!