The thoughts in this essay have materialized over a long period. I was finally prompted to write this by questions raised about Subsidiarity in Lorne, Australia in August 2002, by head teachers at their conferences in Slough, Pembrokeshire, Ealing and Essex the following month, and by administrators from the Association of the Independent Schools of Africa at their Johannesburg conference in October.
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Craftsmanship is something we instinctively treasure. Something that is not only well made, serves its purpose well, and is a pleasure to behold, is something that is highly attractive. Craftsmen are instantly recognisable by the quiet, unostentatious way in which they go about their work. Rather than being driven by the need to beat the clock, they are normally unhurried folk who take great pride in what they do. Ask them an apparently simple question and, if they think you are serious, they will give you an explanation that transports you into the unwritten secrets of their trade. Craftsmen own their work. It is with pride that a painter eventually puts his signature to a painting, or a sculptor to his masterpiece, or an author to his book.
As you get to know such people, you begin to realise that their sense of perfection permeates their entire lives. Being master of a particular skill, they strive patiently to be creative in other things. Searching to be the best they can characterises their whole lives. “I helped build the Titanic”, I once heard a shipyard worker in Belfast say wistfully to his grandchild, “and something of me died when she went down”.
We envy people who are so happily involved in their work. But most of us live in a fast moving world where more and more people see their career as being shaped by the size of their salaries. They don’t own the work they’re doing. More and more people want to move out of blue-collar jobs into the world of information processing, management, or the direction of other people’s services. Fewer and fewer young people are becoming apprentices, and the shortage of well-qualified carpenters, cabinet-makers, plumbers and electricians becomes is already acute. Technology has responded to this challenge by inventing a multitude of devices that makes the job of an old-fashioned craftsman easier: compression joints in brass have replaced the sweated joints in lead, chemical glues have replaced old-fashioned glues based on ground up bones, electric routers have replaced complex combination planes, and non-drip paint appears to make decorating possible for almost anyone.
Designed initially for the craftsman, these tools have in practice gone a long way to putting craftsmen out of work. It’s not just the cowboys of the building trade who, with a vehicle and an array of tools, botch up the simplest of tasks and give the skilled man a bad name. In reality it’s the growing multitudes who flock to DIY stores around the country every day of the week who have taken away so much of the bread and butter work of the traditional craftsman.
Why do we do it? I would argue that it is only partially to do with saving money. It’s every bit as much to do with that deep-down need we all feel from time to time to do something we can actually own as our work and no one else’s. Of course, many people have this sense of ownership: over the article they wrote for a newspaper, over the solution they engineered for some complex managerial issue, and many revel in learning how to play the international money-markets through the access given by their mobile phones.
Exciting as all this is, we are both a tactile species as well as an intellectual one. We like “hands-on” activity. Many people get as much satisfaction manipulating objects as they do ideas. Probably most like to do both. At simple, uncomplicated tasks we can each do this by doing little more than reading the instructions. The more complex the task, the more we have to think for ourselves. As the task gets more complicated we find ourselves in the uncertain world of the problem-solver; some decisions could backfire and cause damage. In days gone by, as the level of complexity increased, so the apprentice became ever more attentive to the skills of the craftsman whom he was shadowing. They talked together endlessly about why one technique was superior to another, why one tool performed well in one situation but not in another. Between craftsman and apprentice tensions had to be managed. The younger mind of the apprentice might well have seen the advantages of a new technology that invalidated an earlier, well-established process – one much beloved by the older craftsman.
Be it in a science laboratory, on a building site, or in a cabinet-maker’s shop, the worker is driven to find the best way of doing something.
Back to the check-out counter, as it were, of a Homebase, or a Do-It-All, or an Ikea. Of a Saturday morning the queues stretch way back into the store, with men and women of all ages staggering under the weight of clumsy loads of timber, plumbing fittings, nails, screws, door locks and door stops, together with expensive pieces of machinery – electric drills, routers, circular saws, or electric planes.
Stand back for a moment, and do the calculations. Allowing for the cost of the power tools (likely only to be used for a fraction of the time it was designed for), the cost of the work Jack is about to undertake is considerably greater than the cost of calling in a builder. Jack, if he thinks about such a comparison at all, quickly dismisses the thought. He simply prefers to do it himself. It makes him feel in some curious way more at ease with himself. He, and equally she, feel that by doing this they are able to express their own identity, and that they are not quite so dependent on outside factors as they often feel. Without this sounding too sexist, a man’s workshop can be as much an expression of a man’s personality as a woman’s kitchen, and his expensive, multi-purpose, three-speed electric drill, used for no more minutes in a working week than a woman’s multi-purpose, three-speed, dough mixer is simply an expression of this.
“Doing it for yourself”, it seems, is a deeply ingrained human instinct. Indeed, when linked to our sense of inquisitiveness and the need to survive, it is probably one of the three or four key instincts that we have inherited, through evolution, from our ancestors over millions of years. It’s part of what makes the human race exactly what it is, and it’s really pretty simple to understand. If you can do something for yourself you don’t feel as powerless as the person who has to get somebody else to do it for them. The more you can do for yourself, the more in control of your future you think you are.