I don’t know what happened to industrial arts. I lost track of its history and the time of its demise, but I was there during its growth and development. It was a glorious thing.
I never knew why it was called Industrial Arts. “Industrial” I understood, but just about anything we undertake could be called an art. Teaching, parenting, acting, sports, carpentry and hundreds of other things could be called arts. An art is something one can never perfect, but which, joyously, one can spend a lifetime perfecting. To me, tacking “arts” onto so many things has always sounded a little pretentious. This same feeling may be why students called industrial arts “shop.”
Colleges still present us with that great divide called “the arts and sciences.” Here’s why their vernacular should change. Above, I labeled carpentry an art, but it is also a science. Crooked walls hate plumb lines, so because of tools of measurement and the degree of exactness which their use requires, we could say that carpentry straddles the arts and sciences. Surely other lines of work do as well.
Regardless of our labels, there has arisen an attitude toward manual labor that is unwise and dangerous. Unwise because the decades-old trend ignores the fact that manual labor keeps the country’s economic engine humming. Dangerous because, just for one illustration, the average age of the nation’s plumbers is 58. Oh, for a renewed respect for both men and women who work with their hands. Yet college education is still being pushed on young people, so many of whom have interests and skills that college learning cannot feed or foster.
General learning is still important. Studies we are still calling “the humanities” are still deeply significant. How can self-government last if children and youth do not learn about types of government and how America came to be self-governing? Without great literature, how will our offspring learn that man cannot live by bread alone? Without history and philosophical studies, how can they understand and learn to weigh what was taught by Marx, Freud, Darwin or Jefferson?
Yes, we need philosophers but also builders, planters, brick layers, nurses, telephone pole climbers, chefs, technicians … in other words, workers of all stripes.
Various influences have led to my concern about the cultural status of manual labor. The first was the labor I engaged in with my father and neighboring farmers while growing up. I helped kill hogs only twice, but countless are the times I picked cotton, hauled hay, cleaned barns, castrated calves, fed 10,000 chickens at a shot, gathered corn, cut wood, surveyed and pulled up and “pulled off” peanuts. Consequently, I wish for every teenager the smell of soil or fresh cut oak wood, the joy of being around farm animals, and the blessing of physical labor and sweat. Yet I know that most youth today will never experience these things simply because of our changed economy and our obsession with higher education.
Another influence has been the positive outlook of students whose parents were well-heeled but still required their young people to do manual work. In my experience, the sons and daughters of manual laborers have had a strong work ethic, but so have those of engineers, doctors, lawyers and other such professions. In my experience sons and daughters of the wealthy have been very hard workers and achievers as well, many of them leaving the paths of their parents and entering fields of manual labor. I’m a tenant farmer’s son, but I’m tired of wealthy folks getting a bum rap. I’m tired of class envy, the cure for which is to go pursue something you love, not something the culture lays out for you.
The third influence has been the last 15 years of my life spent teaching at Chattahoochee Technical College. Talk about students with a work ethic. Teaching a uniformed cop or fireman who will leave class to get back to his station is inspiring. Watching nursing, cosmetology or culinary students as they accept what literary studies have to offer is equally inspiring.
Benjamin Franklin possessed a philosophical mind, but he was darn good at printing and not too cute to get smeared with printer’s ink. No wonder he was America’s first millionaire. Neither was the father of our country, George Washington, too good to trek through the woods and get dirty as a surveyor.
Only when we respect the tool apron as much as the briefcase will we come to our senses regarding labor and enjoy again its rewards.