Preserving Tomorrow

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I'm currently reading Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford, and I find it quite wonderful that the Zen of motorcycle maintenance continues to inspire. It reminds me of the simple truth that is the “why” of what I've chosen to do with my life. Doing things with my hands makes me happy. It has also reminded me that preservation is not about the past; it’s about the future.

One of the things that Mr. Crawford points out is the fact that people who work in the trades are by necessity both intuitive and creative. The misguided idea that “blue collar” Americans represented a class of people who functioned like machines by itself was a large part of what motivated parents to want to send their children to college to get a degree so they could do something “meaningful” with their lives. Unfortunately, generations of people grew up believing that using your hands to do things instead of your mind means you are part of a class that is less intellectual.

Rather than replace missing portions of the terra-cotta elements and plaques on the exterior, an art conservation approach was used to preserve them. Photo: Photography by © WayneCable.com

Laura Saeger (right) teaches traditional timber framing techniques to students at a Nebraska Job Corps program. Many of these "challenged" youth didn't understand how to read a tape measure correctly. The goal of the program is to place them in union construction companies.

In the rush to provide an education to young people entering the “information age,” shop classes were replaced with computer labs. The result was we were graduating students with mental skills and no mechanical skills. One unfortunate side effect to this redirection of curriculum is that we now have an overload of people educated to do something that more and more is done by the machines themselves or by low-paid workers in other countries and far too few people with the skills needed to maintain historic motorcycles or the built environment; and because preservation is maintenance, the future of our past is in jeopardy.

I realize there isn’t any real agreement about how much classroom or institutional education young people need to prepare them for learning a trade, but it seems to me that not putting tools in the hands of people when they are still young enough to be inspired or challenged to see what they can do with them is a mistake.

Matt’s premise that shop class can and should be an inspiration is well reasoned, at least to my mind. Everyone I have met who practices a trade and makes their living using their hands and mind is a happy person. The idea that you can make a living doing what you enjoy instead of working to earn a paycheck so you can buy something you enjoy just makes sense.

For me, working on projects that preserve something that was made by hand gives me a connection to the souls of people who came before me. Finding the “carpenter's marks” left by a timber framer 200 or more years ago as his way of knowing how all parts of the frame he was crafting fit together is a form of time traveling.

In effect, those marks from two centuries ago were left there for me to read, and they tell me something about not just the building, but the builder. Being able to help maintain the building that contains those marks means that communication can continue to take place in future generations.

I don’t want to belabor the idea that there is something spiritual about being in the trades, but no one can argue the point that it is inspirational. The basic concept of understanding how all of the various trades are part of a larger system that can transform earth, stone, iron and wood into structures that stand for centuries as a result of the skills of the tradespeople who used their hands and minds to make them is marvelous, to say the least.

The idea that someone who works with their hands is less educated or intelligent is ludicrous and planting that idea in the minds of young people deciding what they want to do with their life is criminal.

We may never return to the time when shop class was part of public education, but those of us old enough to have taken shop class would probably agree it would be a better use of our tax dollars. Every time I hear someone complain about kids today not wanting to do anything but cruise the Internet and play video games, I realize what a mistake we have made. We seem to have grown a whole generation of adults who never heard of cause and effect.