27 Apr

Dialectic of reverence and rebellion

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 04/27/21

Matthew B. Crawford on the personal knowledge acquired in apprenticeship

“Some of the best pipe organs in the world are made by George Taylor and John Boody and their team of craftspeople in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. It is a business in which the employees require long acculturation into the history and finer points of the trade. They are able to trace lineages of who taught whom in the overlapping networks of apprenticeship among shops that do similar work around the world. In this fraternity, which includes people living and others long dead, the spirit of emulation and rivalry is intense; they try to outdo one another in making the best organs possible. The work is historically and socially situated in this way, and seems to invite each of its practitioners to experience his or her own development as a craftsperson as a chapter in a longer historical arc.

“In the United States (but not Germany, for example), the idea of apprenticeship is criticized for being too narrow an education. It is said that what the economy demands is workers who are flexible. The ideal seems to be that they shouldn’t be burdened with any particular set of skills or knowledge; what is wanted is a generic smartness, the kind one is certified to have by admission to an elite university. This fits well with our ideal of the unencumbered self, and with Kant’s exhortation to view ourselves under the generic heading ‘rational being.’ We are told the economy is in a state of radical flux; ‘disruption’ is spoken of as though it were a measure of value creation, and so a twenty-first-century education must form workers into material that is similarly indeterminate and disruptable. The less situated, the better.

“But consider that when you go deep into some particular skill or art, it trains your powers of concentration and perception. You become more discerning about the objects you are dealing with and, if all goes well, begin to care viscerally about quality, because you have been initiated into an ethic of caring about what you are doing. Usually this happens by the example of some particular person, a mentor, who exemplifies that spirit of craftsmanship. You hear discussed in his voice, or see pleasure on his face, in response to some detail that would be literally invisible to someone not initiated. In this way, judgment develops alongside emotional involvement, unified in what Polanyi calls personal knowledge. Technical training in such a setting, though narrow in its immediate application, may be understood as part of education in the broadest sense: intellectual and moral formation.

“Technologists who work in a long tradition with inherited forms also offer a useful contrast to our current image of the innovator-entrepreneur as a sort of existential hero who creates the New ex nihilo. After a period of solitary gestation in a California garage, he emerges to disrupt us and deliver us.

“What emerged in my conversations at Taylor and Boody is that the historical inheritance of a long tradition of organ making seems not to burden these craftspeople, but rather to energize their efforts in innovation. They intend for their organs still to be in use four hundred years from now, and this orientation toward the future requires a critical engagement with the designs and building methods of the past. They learn from the past masters, interrogate their wisdom, and push the conversation further in an ongoing dialectic of reverence and rebellion. Their own progress in skill and understanding is thus a contribution to something larger; their earned independence of judgment represents a deepening of the craft itself.”

— from Matthew B. Crawford, The World beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). Crawford discussed this book on Volume 128 of the Journal. He talked about his 2020 book, Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road, on Volume 150. A reading of his 2006 article “Shop Class as Soul Craft” is available as one of our Audio Reprints.