The Art of the Industrial

A few weeks ago, my wife asked our sons if they wanted to move to Denver for the summer. Jobs, she said, are plentiful if you’re willing to swing a hammer, climb on a roof, or lay some bricks.

It’s no secret that we’re facing a shortage of construction workers across America. Tradesman International points out that nearly 80% of construction businesses are having a hard time finding workers. Most major cities are experiencing construction slowdowns simply because there aren’t enough skilled (or even unskilled) workers willing to take the jobs available. Home buyers and business feel the impact as construction costs rise, buildings take longer to frame and finish out, and builders can’t maximize profits because they are forced to take on fewer jobs.

And heaven help home owners searching for a contractor to perform relatively small remodel jobs. While I’m sure Home Depot and Lowes appreciate a skilled worker shortage that forces home owners to attempt various DIY projects (and then re-do the DIY project after the tile is crooked, the door falls off its hinges, or the sink sprays water to the ceiling), it seems to me we’re reaching a critical point where we don’t quite appreciate the art of the industrial.

Understand that I don’t think the emphasis on a college-degree or college-ready high school programs and skilled trades are mutually exclusive. There’s no reason we can’t have philosophers who can weld (or welders who are philosophers for that matter).

I realize that the shortage of workers is caused by some complex factors. We know, for instance, that many potential construction workers will choose oil field work over framing houses. I suspect, and this is a subject for another day, that the demise and demonization of unions has had a negative impact on skilled workers’ earning potential. It’s also fair to recognize the cultural shift that’s taken place over time. Many parents who did hard, grueling blue-collar construction jobs did so hoping to create more white-collar opportunities for their children. For an entire generation, sending your kids to school was a way to show you and yours were as good as anyone else. Those issues and ideas are no small things. The lure of indoor work and air conditioning aren’t to be dismissed lightly.

Stand by Me

Click and go to 1:17: “We’ll be in the shop courses with the rest of the retards making ash trays and bird houses.”

But I think it’s also fair to say that we’ve done a pretty fair job of hiding the value of the industrial arts. There’s no doubt that 30 years ago, “shop” classes were often viewed by school administrators as a kind of dumping ground for kids who weren’t “college material,” a kind of code filled with racial, economic, gender, and other covert biases. You didn’t often find the bank president’s son or daughter learning how to be a mechanic.

Unfortunately, as is too often the case in education, we decided to throw the baby out with the bath water and phase out industrial arts classes, shop classes, and other trade specific programs.

And here we sit. Builders can’t find bricklayers and the rest of us have to wait a three months for a contractor to bid on a kitchen remodel (and six months for her to finish the job).

At the risk of sounding naive or offering a simplistic solution to a complex problem, I wonder why we don’t reinvest in industrial arts classes and make those classes a mandatory part of the curriculum in junior high and high school. Doing so would show our students that we value the skills learned and, most importantly, expose entire generations, regardless of race, gender, or economic status, to basic skills that complement reading, writing, and arithmetic. Students who want to work with their hands would have a viable path toward a career choice just like those students who want to study finance, education,  medicine, or the liberal arts. As importantly, students who might never consider the craft of drafting, the importance of wood grain, or the dangers of acetylene would have a chance to understand the complexity of skill required to build something. Algebra is complicated and hard, but so is framing windows for a house.

Plus, every parent, grandparent, or guardian in America would have at least one homemade footstool to display proudly.

These two educational paths aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s no reason a student who excels in industrial arts shouldn’t take calculus, college-level writing classes, or physics. In fact, I’d love for my plumber to be a math whiz who can communicate well because he’ll be more likely to understand the slope required for the refuse to get from the toilet to the sewer line. At the same time, how nice would it be if my loan officer also had at least a passing understanding about how much skill was required to put that sewer line in the ground correctly?

Too often, though, we devalue one of those skills in favor of the other, arguing that everyone needs a college education to succeed. Don’t get me wrong. As a dean at a public, four-year university, I love having students choose college, but I also know that we have a sizable chunk of students whose skill levels and talents lie in other directions. I applaud those universities and community colleges who are finding ways to provide skilled trade programs while also teaching the traditional core curriculum. Students shouldn’t have to wait until college, though. Instead, maybe it’s time we open those paths sooner. Or, at the least, stop pretending like it’s not worthwhile path to follow.




You Can’t Pursue Happiness if You are Sitting Still

A friend of mine emailed the other day. He’s been teaching Cormac McCarthy’s The Road this week, a novel we’ve both had good success with in the past, but this time around “there were two or three passionate responders in a sea of potted plants.” He’s teaching a general education Humanities course and at times there “seems an active, even aggressive attitude on their part to NOT BE INTERESTED at all costs,” he writes.

He attributes their indifference to a growing sense of entitlement and a laser-like social and cultural emphasis on STEM fields. Let me say first that my colleague is one of the good guys. He’s a fine teacher who willingly creates cross-disciplinary courses, emphasizes critical thinking, and truly helps his students learn. He has an ability to take complicated material and help students understand and, on occasion, even enjoy such things. He is the kind of teacher who normally is able to show students that reading Shakespeare or Homer or even Cormac McCarthy is both worth their time and rewarding. He couples short fiction with popular culture, even showing a “Simpson’s parody to a mirthless audience.” He’s the kind of teacher many of us would like to be and the kind many of us wish we had taken.

While I would agree that we have increasingly raised a generation of students who think showing up is all of the battle (not just half anymore) and too many students who demand passing grades simply for putting forth a minimal effort, I think my friend misses the boat a bit. In many of my general education courses I’ve stopped teaching works that I truly and dearly love because I get frustrated not because the students don’t love the poem/novel/play, but because too many students are almost aggressively apathetic in those classes. They have been so bombarded with an educational ideology that tells them to seek out their passion that they too often refuse to engage with ideas if they don’t feel passionate, treating each class as if it were a side dish at Thanksgiving dinner. Mom makes you take a spoonful, but if you lick the spoon and don’t like the taste, you move the food around on the plate and scrape it in the trash when no one is looking.

They firmly believe they are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness but they have forgotten, as one of my professors used to remind us, that pursuing requires effort.

We have, simply put, convinced a generation of students that passion is more important than work. Far too many teachers, educators, and parents have become convinced that school must be fun, entertaining, and teachers must create active learning environments. We have passed along such ideas to our students and they sit idly by waiting for us to engage them. More important, they willingly admit that they only work well if they “like” the assignment or “feel comfortable” with the topic.

Mike Rowe, in his S.W.E.A.T Pledge at profoundly disconnected, tells us that Skill & Work Ethic Aren’t Taboo and his list of Pledges includes a reminder that “I do not ‘follow my passion.’ I bring it with me. I believe that any job can be done with passion and enthusiasm.” I might, were I so bold, change “can be done” with “should be done.” Jobs, essays, readings, and anything else worth doing should be done with passion and enthusiasm regardless of your desire.

But it’s more than just this misplaced emphasis on passion. Far too many of our students in these classes lack a larger sense of self. We see this increasingly, I think, in our students’ inability (or unwillingness) to laugh. There is, in many ways, some measure of irony in this “mirthless” generation. School, for years now, has been fun, filled with pep rallies, crazy clothes weeks, and school lunches that are a diabetic 12 year old’s wet dream.

Yet, I think, we have too many students who just don’t get humor that doesn’t involve body parts, flatulence, or violence. There’s more to humor than crazy grandpas and jack asses.

You have to have some brains to understand parody, satire, and sarcasm and we have developed too many pedantic, humorless students. They go to high schools where parody and satire are dangerous (and too often offensive) and where their English teachers teach, I’m convinced, scared. It’s one of the reasons so many high school reading lists are filled with crappy, politically safe books that focus on feeling good and teens struggling with their own identity. We’ve turned reading lists into “After School Specials” and in doing so we perpetuate the myth that the struggle of teenagers is unique, special, and worthy of study. I hate to sound all curmudgeony and such, but who really gives a shit about teenagers who are sensitive and freaked out.

Aren’t they all? Aren’t they supposed to be? They will, history shows us, grow out of it.

Even at the university level we see common read programs that choose books that above all offend no one and are accessible to multiple populations. I’m all for inclusion and I certainly believe we must move beyond the dead, white male reading lists of the 1950s, but we also must demand that our students stop expecting their trials and tribulations sit at the center of our daily studies. Education is about pushing ourselves beyond what we know comfortably and willingly, and I might argue even aggressively, finding a way to be happy and engaged.

Even when the material, or the professor, seems dull.

Changing the Oil–A poem

 One of the more interesting sites I’ve come across lately is Mike Rowe’s Profoundly Disconnected. Rowe, of Dirty Jobs fame, wants to challenge the “absurd belief that a four-year degree is the only path to success.”  Rowe’s S.W.E.A.T. Pledge is worth reading and I’m hoping to return to this idea in a later blog. It surprises folks when they hear that I, a tenured college professor, don’t think everyone needs to (or should) go to college. 

But it’s really cold outside, 4:30 on a Friday, and I’m not sure I’m intellectually capable of much more than promising to write at a later date.

I was, though, reminded of a poem I wrote a while back as I was looking at Rowe’s site. 

Like plenty of folks, there was a time in my life when I did many of the hard, menial tasks around the house. Not only did I save money, but working with my hands, in some ways, was a nice change of pace from writing, teaching, and grading papers. When my kids were little, I tried to get them involved. We have pictures of them painting, working with a hammer, and even crawled under the car helping me change the oil.

Of course, all those photo ops ended when they became teenagers, but that’s another story too. These days, I’m not sure they know the difference between motor oil and canola oil. Since it’s late, and almost the weekend, I’ll just blame our ascent into the middle class and smart phones. No self-flagellation heading into the weekend.

Either way, I’ll post the poem below. My advice: go visit Rowe’s site and skip the poem, but if you read I hope you enjoy.

Changing the Oil

My son’s hand stretches toward the
Oil filter. It’s not easy being five
And working on a car.

“What’s that?” his finger lost in
Dirt and grime.
He reaches up with his other hand.
“What’s a transition . . . mission?”
He corrects himself.

“What would happen”
His head turns, eyes serious,
“if the car falls.”

He asks so many questions his
Hands can’t stay focused
On the work to be done.

It’s not easy being patient,
Under a car, dirty, hot, busy.
I want to be finished. Oil
Changed, filter recycled
Grease out from under my nails.

Loosening the plug, I
Tell him we’ll get squished
“But I’ll use the bike pump
To fill you back up.”

He laughs and reaches his
Hands toward the plug,
Telling me it’s his turn.
And the oil slides down his arm
Like syrup. “Nasty”
He says laughing.

Crawling out from
Under the car is easier
When the job is complete.
“Why did we empty it,
If we have to fill it back up?”

Standing on the bumper,
Holding the funnel
He looks at me
And I keep answering
Questions. A
Labor of love. A
Job I hope never ends.

All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Very Dull Boy

A couple of weeks ago, my sister asked if I loved my job. I’m not sure if I give off some aura of total contentment or a sense of abject sadness, but people take an inordinate interest in my job satisfaction and I get this question quite often. She asked me this while I was slurping away at my first cup of coffee and I imagine my answer was a bit disjointed and, probably, incoherent. That happens the older I get. I’ve also found that questions like this are much easier to answer over a couple of beers. I’m usually smarter, better looking, and a good dancer after an hour at the bar.

I’ll state for the record that I do not love my job. I’m not even sure I like my job some days. As jobs go, it beats the heck out of digging ditches or artificially inseminating cows but, at the end of the day, it’s still a job.

Periodically, I’ll have students (and others) quote a little Confucius and tell me “you should choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Confucius, I’m sure, was a great guy, but as a career coach he left something to be desired.

Let’s start with the obvious notion that we can’t all choose jobs we love because 1) most of us aren’t qualified for the jobs we love (or think we would love) and 2) if we could all simply do the jobs we loved there would only be about 4 garbage men, 6 roofers, 3 people to slaughter pigs, 1 person teaching junior high math, 52,000 creative writers, and 5 million X-box professionals.

Certainly, there are people out there who work jobs they love (or learn to love their jobs) and can play junior Confucius at dinner parties.

But, let’s also note that Confucius’ argument sets up a philosophical conundrum where there is no distinction between work (something you do under the rules and guidance of others) and play (something you do for yourself). Importantly, the basic tenets of Confucianism center on character within accepted cultural norms, loyalty to one’s “true” nature, giving or reciprocity, and filial piety. (Hear that kids!) While I’m a fan of the humanism at the heart of Confucian thought, I think we would certainly agree that his advice about work lacks a certain practicality. We should also note that Confucius makes some pretty important assumptions about both culture and individuality. He assumes that accepted cultural norms are humanistic, pure, and fair. Just as importantly, he imagines we have some special insight into our own “true” nature.

To thine ownself be true, Confucius might say were he a Renaissance playwright. I have my doubts, though, about most of our abilities (or willingness) to recognize our true self. Importantly, Confucius assumes we have a true self that remains constant over the course of time. What we want at 51 should mirror our 21 year old self?

I suspect that Confucius’ idea was perfect for the time in which he spoke. Certainly, we want to avoid oversimplifying 550 BCE, but I do think we can say with some confidence that the job opportunities were not as robust as they might be today. You can see in most philosophies/religions emerging at the time a movement away from feudalism and toward emerging identities. In other words, people at the time had their identities, jobs, and lives defined by feudal lords. While Confucius maintains some of that loyalty to the larger culture, we also see an emerging idea about one’s independent self and a philosophical movement away from defined identities to a greater autonomy.

But when Plato (who lived about the same time) argued that the “unexamined life was not worth living,” he was offering a radical departure from the cultural norm. The “examined life” begins our ascent out of the cave of illusions into the reality of daylight. What we realize is our self is multi-faceted and we play many roles throughout our lives. While I wouldn’t dare trace the the work/play dichotomy to Plato, we might note that during this era work and play didn’t exist as two separate entities. There were no work place laws or regulations. In essence, what you did at sun up is what you did until sun down. Wise words from Confucius then but when we begin to examine that life, we begin to call into question the notion that our live is tied to simply producing that which we need for survival.

Notably, we exist in a vastly different economic system as well. As workers moved from barter economies to a monetary system, we stopped working to trade goods and services and became employees earning money in order to purchase goods and services. I’m no longer trading you a footstool for a chicken I can eat. I’m selling you a footstool so I can go buy a single piece of chicken from anywhere I want.

As the western world has changed so to has our relationship with work and play. Whereas in 550 BCE our day might last 12 hours (in the field, shop, or street), we have “progressed” into an economic system that values the 40 hour week. I’m no mathematician, but if there are a 168 hours in a week and we spend 40 at work, we spend 75% of our time on not-work. Even if I sleep 10 hours a day (70 hours) and go to work 40 hours, I still have more not-work, not-sleep time than I do work.

Why, then, should I be defined by my job and worry about loving my job?

Our job, then, should be a tool that allows us to pursue our “selves” during those other hours. It is not imperative, then, that I love my job. It is far more important, it seems to me, that I find a job that allows me to do the things I love with all my free time.

Boy, if I had just been drinking Irish Coffee, maybe that’s what I would have said.

Vacate the Premises

I haven’t been blogging much lately. Some of it, I think, is simply the summer heat. Out here in west Texas, we spend a month or two with 100 degree days, no rain, and sun shining in places we don’t like. Calling them the dog-days just seems cruel to dogs.

Mostly, though, I’ve been using up my vacation days. When I was a full-time faculty member, I didn’t need vacation days. We had summer, the holidays, and if I needed to be off-campus for an afternoon, I left. One of the glories of teaching at the college level is that I can do parts of my job from anywhere. I have to be in class and I have to be in my office at certain times, but research, service, and writing can take place anywhere at anytime. The advent of skype and google hangout even allows me to host virtual office hours from any where with internet service. (Lest anyone think college profs are lazy, the average college professor works 55-70 hours a week. We just don’t all work between 8-5.)

Last summer, though, I began a stint as a full-time administrator, accruing vacation days, working 8-5 (5 days a week!), and becoming a small cog in the larger wheel of the machine. Some days I can’t decide if I’m Milton Waddams or Bill Lumberg. (If you don’t get the reference from Office Space, do yourself a favor and watch the movie. In fact, if I were you, I would skip the blog. The movie is much better than what you are reading now.)

I’m not asking for sympathy here. I fully realize that accruing vacation time is not a benefit everyone has. In fact, according to various reports, American workers receive the fewest paid vacation days of any industrialized country. I’m also not arguing for some sort of government intervention. Certainly, it might be nice if the government designated more national or federal holidays. Doing so might allow some companies protection when they closed (since all their competitors would be closed) and federal holidays often provide the only true vacation days for workers in hourly or lower-salary ranges. I hate to sound cynical, though, but those goofballs in Washington can’t even agree when their own holidays start. Heaven help us if they start telling us when to take the day off.

But, I also think we need to come to grips with vacation. I realize the very idea of vacationing is ripe with economic and cultural bias. America, we are told in school, was built on hard work and sacrifice. We aren’t France (or Greece), for instance because we demand hard work. The “puritan work ethic” demands 40 hours a week (or more). Idle hands, our pastors tell us, are the devils’ workshop. (Feel free to insert your own cliche here.)

In other words, if you aren’t working, find something to do until you are. We have created a kind of cultural guilt around not working and we too often feel compelled to justify those moments we aren’t busy. (See my defense of college professors above for example. Not only do we work, I say, but we work more hours than you! I willingly admit I’m part of the problem not the solution.)

But that’s just not right. If all we do is work, we become our job, forgetting that the purpose of work isn’t to gain a foothold into heaven but to provide sustenance and an ability to live the good life. Unfortunately, we have increasingly defined the good life as a world filled with toys and trips necessitating more work. We need to refashion work as a means to an end not as an end in and of itself. We should work because it lets us do the things we like.

Perhaps even more disturbing is too many Americans don’t take the vacation time they have.  Many workers are scared, worried that if the office survives while they are gone, the boss might wonder why she hired them in the first place. As a result, employees don’t go on vacation or they take a vacation but keep the phone on vibrate all day.

Trust me–just because the office doesn’t stop functioning when you are gone doesn’t mean they don’t want you there. In fact, studies show us that taking a break, stepping back, vacating work is healthy for the bottom line and your mental health.

In my office, I encourage my staff to take their vacation days. Use them all at once or piece meal throughout the year, but use them. Take a break, recharge the batteries, get that home repair taken care of so you will quit obsessing about it at work and, most of all, forget about us for a while.

When you come back to work, show us the photos. Just not tomorrow. I won’t be in.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)