Saturday, 29 March 2008

Workers with hand and brain

I was in Ringtons (Tea) in Kingston, buying (Ringtons) tea. (I cling to the belief that loose tea tastes better.) They had a 1930s advertising film playing, with the sound off. I saw the end and then the beginning: a string of Ringtons vans leaving the depot through an arch and dividing left and right along a road; one driver making a delivery to a suburban front door (title of film: ‘Your Tea, Madam!’). Then at the start crates arriving in Newcastle docks and men in brown coats in the warehouse transferring the crates into a goods lift, repetitively and endlessly, a scene of pure labour.

That latter shot (the last I saw) showed the familiar repetitive movements with which the hard-working, dutiful, uncomplaining labour force of Britain used invariably to be depicted in documentary films: men on trawlers picking up herrings, gutting them with a swift slice and throwing the fish into the hold, time after time after time for a whole working life; lines of land girls working through a field throwing potatoes into a sack; men taking metal parts from a conveyer belt, holding them in a punch, pressing a lever and throwing the parts back on the belt. Endless repetition, in apparent contentment, getting on with the job, never a subversive thought. No hint of back pain, injuries, dissatisfaction with pay or conditions, militancy, lives as persons outside labour. Workers as interchangeable units, with interchangeable flat caps (the supervisors wearing trilbies); the working class was depicted as, and seemed in the films to act as, the masses, always at work in vast numbers, pouring out of the factory gates (and onto the football terraces, where they roared flatcappedly as one).

While that sort of work was not without skill, the skill was such as a machine can, and these days does, embody. The work was repetitive; it did not for the most part involve the application of knowledge or ingenuity to new situations as in truly skilled work where each new job is a fresh challenge.

Far from depicting the dignity of labour, viewed from today the films make the workers appear simply exploited, dupes almost. Aristotle would certainly have said they were performing the work of slaves, not citizens.

Which makes me think of ‘technology’ (as distinct from information technology) in schools. I think there’s a contemporary revulsion at the apparent stultification and toil shown in those images of work on the physical stuff of the world – iron, coal, crops, fish. No student sees himself or herself spending their lives so mindlessly. That’s part of why the curriculum designers have replaced subjects like woodwork, metalwork, cookery and textiles with ‘technology’ or ‘design and technology’ -- in the process, however, banishing any activity that involves manual skill.

So instead of workshops we now have clean rooms, not with benches but with tables, as in classrooms, not with vices and grease guns but with paper, pens and computers. Here the
students work on design concepts without ever shaping and joining wood or getting oil on their uniforms. Materials are reduced to plastic kits that stand for rather than are machines and artefacts. Although ‘food technology’ still, I gather, includes cooking, here too there’s the pretence that it’s all about designing meals. (Whether students still make clothes, tents etc with sewing machines I don’t know.)

It’s as if the whole of manual craft work had been tainted with the bad odour of mind-destroying industrial labour. But activity in the best of the old craft subjects wasn’t like that: jobs were individual, extended, complex and complete in themselves, not parts of larger processes; each had to be tackled afresh and worked through over time, involving a series of difficulties that had to be overcome. My job in the mid-eighties involved seeing a lot of these subjects in schools around the country and I remember fabulous lessons in which the students were designing a footbridge for Portsmouth harbour and managing a garden and smallholding enterprise.

I believe there was value in those subjects; it certainly looked as if something worthwhile was being learned. Richard Sennett’s new book The Craftsman claims, according to the reviews (I haven’t yet read it), that there is ethical value in the acquiring and exercising of craft skill: one learns care, self-discipline and orderliness, deferment of satisfaction, persistence over extended periods of time and habits of working to standards that are inherent in the activity but also self-imposed as ends.

To work at a craft is precisely not, or not primarily, to work for rewards (grades, pay) or to satisfy merely consumerist impulses. It is to make a moral stand against consumerism and the degradation of skills (think of the dispersal and loss, with privatisation, of the hard-earned skill that characterised the old railway workforce); it implies a refusal to be reduced to ‘flexible labour’ that can be directed at will by ‘management’ or ‘the economy’.

There was another perceived problem with crafts in school: since they were classed as vocational subjects and were taken by students not destined for academic and professional routes, they had low status. Their replacement by ‘design and technology’ was a bid to cerebralise that area and so lift it out of the lower-stream reservation. (In the process the engagement of kids who didn’t like the cerebral stuff was often lost.) But the students who can benefit from craft work span the range, and the answer would surely have been to remove the vocational association, making these into subjects that were pursued for their own sake, at least to the same extent that the arts and sciences are.

As it was, the association of manual craft with getting industrial jobs meant those subjects died as soon as industry ceased to need the skills. In a purportedly vocational course it was impossible to justify teaching an activity that had no instrumental value in the world of work. No one wanted to repeat the lesson of bookbinding, a big subject in the secondary moderns of the 40s and 50s but which in retrospect was a near-complete waste of educational time.

However, if craft can be rid of its vocational connection it should be able to justify itself for the value that Sennett finds in it. This, though, would mean finding new contexts and applications for it. Can craft find a place as an element in leisure activity? Not in its old form, in which workshops didn’t have the Black and Decker power tools every handyperson uses at home, or in a world in which good cheap flatpacks were killing DIY and the home-made coffee table. Nor is there any obvious art application for wood and metal work beyond types of sculpture that few people much care for.

The skills that now have a place in education, and which it would be strange to label ‘crafts’, are cerebral and personal: they involve not work with the body on the world’s physical stuff but work with mind and language on symbols and persons: writing, software design, nursing, teaching. And these pursuits may indeed induce similar values (care, disinterestedness etc) beyond the instrumental, market-driven and consumerist. Nevertheless, there was personal value of a different kind in the fundamental experiences of manipulating and fabricating materials and the disappearance of craft seems a loss. I wish there were some fresh thinking about forms in which it could re-enter the curriculum.

I have some ideas, related in part to my ‘Every Kid a Shed’ campaign, about which I should also write some time soon.


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