Your liberal arts education is not a survival promise. Three students share how dirty hands fill the gaps in their learning
Apr. 12, 2010
When Colin Farlow picks up the knife he forged, it fits in his hand. His fingers fill the smooth curves, and it balances just right. But Colin’s knife is a tool, not a bragging right.
Colin will use his knife for hunting, but he’s no cold-blooded killer. He sees life in each creature and he eats what he shoots. The knife is for skinning the animals he kills for food, like the squirrel in his freezer.
He shaped and filed the knife over last winter break, and hasn’t yet had a chance to skin a deer. That will have to wait until November, deer season.
Colin is a senior in the East Asian Languages and Cultures and philosophy departments, but his other education comes from his family and his own two hands.
His hands built the table and a lamp stand in his apartment. The wood came from red oaks growing on his family’s property. The design patterns and know-how drifted down from grandfather to father to son.
Forging the knife was an apprentice project, Colin says. A friend who had an anvil, hammers, and a knack for shaping metal spent a day teaching him. The metal came from a leaf spring — a long, arced piece of metal — from an old Jeep Willy.
Tongs in hand, Colin held the blade in the coals and pulled it out when it burned red. He remembers it being the coldest day of the year, and he had to hammer the knife gradually into shape in the 15 seconds before it cooled.
As he sits in his apartment and displays his knife, he eyes a scar on the blade’s shiny surface. He hit the blade at an angle, a mistake that left a dimple and might make the knife more difficult to sharpen. The scar is a reminder that perfecting his skills demands time and experience.
Colin says he does what he can with basic tools and knowledge. He notices how out of practice he is when he comes home after a semester of only hitting books.
“If I go an extended period without building, it bugs me,” he says. “If I deal with a family friend or a carpenter, it’s apparent how much skill is lacking between me and someone who uses their hands every day.”
Despite his school commitments, Colin says the lessons he learned at home — if something is broken, fix it; if you need a knife, make one — have stayed with him.
“Even if the skill hasn’t spread to me, the values have,” he says.
A university education teaches students that certain skills are worthwhile. Teamwork, theorizing. A liberal arts education liberates students from a drudge job and a drudge life. Right?
Matthew B. Crawford’s 2009 book, “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” argues that we’re losing something fundamental when we only embrace brain work and teach people to look down upon trades.
The most basic satisfaction is in completing tasks that require thought and action: changing a flat tire, gardening, fixing motorcycles.
Matthew followed academia all the way through to his doctorate in political philosophy at the University of Chicago, and eventually found himself as the executive director of a Washington think tank. The daily grind of using his brain and his education — not his hands or his common sense — wore him down.
He began spending more time fixing motorcycles, a personal interest of his. He eventually opened his own repair shop in Richmond, Va. In the introduction to his book, he writes, “The wad of cash in my pants feels different than the checks I cashed in my previous job.” The competence and control he feels when completing manual labor satisfy him more than “knowledge work,” he writes.
The DIY movement, Matthew says, is an effort to shrug off the idea that hand work is menial. He calls for a redefinition of learning and work.
“A lot of college students are afraid to fail, and that’s how they got into a good college,” he says. “They are always doing the prescribed thing, always being perfect to channel themselves into these prescribed ways of success.”
Gardening, fixing motorcycles, and forging knives: these are all things you can screw up. “It’s like playing sports without a referee,” he says. “You have to figure things out for yourself.”
His advice to young students pursuing their degrees is to look at their lives and ask what they want. What have you been told to want?
Neil Unger fixes motorcycles in his living room. A moped sits upside-down on a tarp, but his Harley is at home in Hammond, Ill. He bought the vintage ride (the plate says ‘77) so he could learn to fix a classic but broken bike.
Bringing the motorcycle to school means the temptation to ride, so he’s waiting until classes finish. He wouldn’t focus on anything else. Neil, who studies both theater and chemistry, played a lead role in this spring’s Department of Theatre and Drama production, “Take Me Out.” Chemistry, he says, is fascinating because it brings the world into focus.
“There’s a lot around you all the time that you deal with,” Neil says. “I’m not OK with just accepting. That’s why I love chemistry. I can pick up something and say, ‘this is a solid.’ You deal with these basic ideas every day. I want to know how something gets you from point A to point B.”
He hopes his Harley can take him out of Bloomington and down State Road 37. The guy who owned the bike previously never fixed it, Neil says. The carburetor was messed up, and he tried to rewire the whole thing himself. Neil says it was a poor job that left him shorts to find and fix. So Neil read a manual and asked questions at a nearby motorcycle repair shop, The Pit Stop.
“They’re actually nice to kids my age,” he says. “If you show a common interest to an older guy who’s into motorcycles, he’ll talk your ear off because he wants to teach you about it.” Eventually, Neil paid a mechanic to fix what he couldn’t, and he rode the bike in Bloomington until it broke down last year. He will bring it to school in a few weeks.
For now, he works in his living room on the motorized bicycle. He calls it his moped, and he laughs when he talks about his dream: to ride with a moped gang of friends around Bloomington. They’d call themselves the “Hex Angels.”
Between play rehearsal and chemistry tests, Neil has little time to plan for his moped gang. But when the weather is warm and he wraps up his senior year, Neil will get his hands greasy again.
Get the right internship, take the right classes. Almost as soon as many students enter college, they start thinking about what they’ll do when they leave.
“It seems like a lot of young people are middle-aged in spirit — that living this college life is not of their choosing,” Matthew Crawford says. Make the experience your own.
“Rather than putting these four years in the service of some job that you think you might get when you’re done,” he says, “devote these four years to exposing yourself to the most demanding books and thoughts.”
Read Shakespeare, debate politics with your friends, and learn a trade in the summer. Take risks.
The classes IU offers with a hands-on element are often coupled with a higher academic calling. Metal forging classes are part of the School of Fine Arts and are mainly for jewelry making. The theatre department offers classes that teach set building, perhaps the closest thing to learning about woodwork.
This is an academic institution, after all. It becomes the job of students to complement their school work with life work.
Claire Woods will eat food she grows. Her first tomato seedlings just sprouted. Claire has been working the earth since elementary school. Her mother used to tell her to pick up sticks or gather blueberries. This spring, the junior will plant her own garden at her South Park Avenue house, and this summer, she will harvest its tomatoes and peppers until the lease runs out in August.
The walls inside her house are painted green, Claire’s favorite color. She picks up a brown peat pot and explains that she’s already started 12 tomato plants and five sweet peppers in a tray of tiny planters. As the seedlings emerge, she will set them outside, plant them, and hope they take to the ground.
In her fenced-in backyard, she points to the southeast corner. There, she says, will be the compost pile, a heap of food scraps and plants that will decompose into a rich fertilizer for planting.
Claire has already spruced up the house she shares with her sister and another roommate. In its small front yard, she dug a path, lined it, and paved it with stones. She cleared away moss and pine needles, mulched three flower beds and planted hostas.
The backyard is her next project, she says. She learned from her mother, who also lives in Bloomington, runs a landscaping business, and grows much of the food the family eats.
For Claire’s family, the sign of a fruitful summer is shelves lined with jams, canned tomatoes, and pickled vegetables. Claire says she thinks of the work with her mother gardening and canning as practice for her life after college.
Claire is a student of both soil and books. Her degree in public health from the School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation will give her the knowledge to spread her ideas on gardening and community development to impoverished countries, she says.
“I feel like school is a lot of repetition,” she says. “School is for what you think you are going to do. It’s not hands on at all.” She says she’s glad she is studying something she enjoys, something that represents a larger purpose, but it is her education in combination with her experience with planting that will help her life grow.
So if we learn skills with our hands and practical knowledge with our minds outside the classroom, what should we learn in school?
All three of these students learned from someone else in their life: their mother, father, grandparent, or a skilled friend. They make use of their summer and winter breaks and try to balance school with their interests.
Students might not fit into the “creative” and educated masses. So be it. If college is a lie, let your life and work tell the truth.