In junior high school, I took a lot of shop class. I had to take something in the period. I had no artistic talent to speak of, and enough atavistic sense that home ec was for girls that I spent one period a day doing some mechanical thing or another: Wood shop, metal shop, alternative energy (we made hot dog cookers!), mechanical engineering and so on. It was good, fun stuff and I was really glad I did it.
When I moved on to high school, I set it aside. Rather than being part of the curriculum, shop was is own distant wing of the school, visible only occasionally from Gym or Driver’s ed. It wasn’t shop, it was “Vocational Education” and the kids who went there didn’t overlap much with my world. I was a power-nerd, on track with various honors classes, good tests and mediocre grades. My view of the universe assumed there were various tracks of academic success, and over time I bought into the general idea that somewhere below the lowest academic track was Vo-tech (Vocational/technical education), and I had the general sense that that was where kids ended up rather than dropping out of school. These were “the dumb kids”, troublemakers and smokers, the ones without real futures, unlike me and my honors class compatriots.
Yes, I was a dumb, arrogant, know-nothing snot-nosed brat. I know this. I’m also in the future.
This idea got smacked out of my head one night when I was at an awards ceremony. I’d gotten an NHS nomination (beating out my fellow power nerds, who had only gotten the equivalent of honorable mention) though the award was pretty much just for show since my grades were middling at best. I hung around for the whole ceremony to be polite, even when it came time to hand out the vo-tech awards.
I did not recognize the woman giving out the awards – she might not have even been a teacher at the school, but given my disconnect from vo-tech, who knows – but I remember her twangy accent as she made a point of fully pronouncing “National Vocational Technical Honor Society” every time it came up, never shortening or abbreviating it. I don’t remember much of the specifics of what she said, but it caught me up short all the same. See, for most of the folks at this ceremony, this was a little sideshow, a chance for the not-so-smart kids to be seen on the stage before we could go back to recognizing the best and brightest.
It was clear this woman knew that, and it was clear it made her angry as hell. And not angry because it’s what she did, angry because she was damn proud of these kids up on the stage and what they had done, and it meant less than nothing to most of the people watching. She didn’t rant or anything. She just made a short statement about how these kids deserve respect, and she made sure that no part of the ceremony was rushed or abbreviated. But that pride and anger shone through as clear as day, and it kind of knocked me on my ass.
There are few times in my life when I have so clearly seen what an utter dumbass I’d been. That night pretty well upended my whole perspective on vocational education. I stopped seeing it as a safety net for losers and started recognizing it as something valuable, a path that someone who knows what they’re doing can and should set their feet upon, and know they’re going to get somewhere. Hell, compared to the vague plans that come form a four year degree, it was positively enviable.
I mention all this because it gives a little context for how intensely disappointed I was with the book Shop Class as Soulcraft. I had read the reviews and heard the interviews and I was intensely excited about it. The premise was that there was value in real work, in learning to do and make things with your hands, and that that had been lost and needed to be regained by our society. This resonated really strongly with me, and I had hoped for a book that addressed it.
Instead, I get a book by and about a Doctor of Philosophy who gave up a think tank job to repair motorcycles, and has now written a book for the sole purpose of justifying that decision, and possibly airing a few of his favorite bits of politics. It’s utterly disappointing, and I wrote a review to that effect, but I wanted to get down the rest of my frustration, if only for myself.