Learning from and through the Manual and the Liberal Arts, the beginnings of a fall teaching journal

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Robert PirsigA few years ago, Steve Fowl recommended a wonderful little book to me, Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford. Shop Class is, in many ways, an update to Robert Pirsig‘s enigmatic and esoteric autobiography/manifesto, Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, Zen is a wonderful, albeit somewhat disjointed ramble into Pirsig’s contrasting experiences in teaching philosophy and learning how to work on his own motorcycle. These two, Pirsig proposes, aren’t so disconnected. Rather, experiences in the manual arts open a window into possible avenues for enhancing liberal arts learning. And this is where Crawford picks up.

Shop Class as SoulcraftCrawford’s critique of our current milieu, in contrast to Pirsig’s late 60s-early 70s setting, focuses on the automation of very basic processes and the ways in which this not only obscures  native human faculties, but in fact eclipses anything like a classic anthropology. Crawford charges that the result of such an eclipse is a frustrated and unvirtuous humanity – people who in their daily lives lack opportunities to think and act pragmatically, who have no experiences in problem solving and creation. In order to respond to these issues, Crawford advocates for more, not less, opportunities for mastery in the manual arts.

I began using Crawford first in my ethics class. The angle on virtue in Crawford’s anthropological proposal grabbed my attention. Essentially, he argues that virtue in manual skill enhances and expands moral virtue. After all, fixing an engine requires not only the basic ability to distinguish a job done right from a job wrong, but also the internal sense of limitation, that moment when the craftsperson recognizes within herself or himself that help is needed. This recognition is powered by humility, hence the relationship to moral virtue.

My students not only read and discussed Crawford; I also asked them to finish out the semester by making something from scratch, journalling their experience, and then reflecting critically on the experience in dialogue with secondary literature for their term papers. It was a fantastic success, both in terms of seeing real growth in their critical thinking skills, but also in terms of proving Crawford’s point that intellectual virtue depends on and relates to moral virtue.

This semester, I’m once again reading Shop Class with students, this time in my Intro to Theology class. This class participates in a living and learning program for freshmen and transfer students (I am teaching the section of transfer students). I was asked to generate a theme for this class–beyond the stuff we’d cover in “intro”– so I picked evaluating the liberal arts through the manual arts…. I’m still not sure what I was thinking exactly, but I’m going with it. Probably, it was something along the lines of Crawford’s belief that those students who are emphatic about going to college should be persuaded to think of their college education in terms of skill and virtue.

In any case, not only are we reading Shop Class, which like Zen often reads autobiographically; we’re also reading Augustine’s Confessions, and on a lark I chose Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity – yes, the book not the film. While Augustine is less than interested in the work of the manual arts, he is the consummate thinker about the life of the mind, a point that Crawford is aware of. High Fidelity gets right at my theme: the main character is a failure academically and as a Conversion of St. AugustineHigh Fidelityperson. Meanwhile, he owns and manages a record store and, eventually, a burgeoning record label. He is up to his ears in the life of the manual arts. Along the way, he goes through a dramatic transformation across all of the arenas of his life.

As we read these texts, I’ll post thoughts and reports here. I invite you, the reader, to participate with us and post your thoughts in the comments. And if we’re lucky, we might have some guest posts from folks who have substantial thoughts about the intersection of these two spheres.

I have events planned to support these readings, one of which is a rock concert. My hope is that during the semester, students come to think of the life of the mind and the life of the hands differently, that they come to know these as related.

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