Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Food for thought

The television show “Deadliest catch” depicts commercial crab fishermen in the Bering Sea. “Dirty jobs” shows all kinds of gruelling work; one episode showed a guy who inseminates turkeys for a living. The weird fascination for these shows must lie partly in the fact that such confrontations of material reality have become exotically unfamiliar. Many of us do work that feels more surreal than real. Working in an office you often find it difficult to see any tangible result from your efforts. What exactly have you accomplished at the end of any given day? Where the chain of cause and effect is opaque and responsibility diffuse, the experience of individual agency can be elusive. “Dilbert”, “The Office” and similar portrayals of cubicle life attest to the dark absurdism with which many Americans have come to view their white collar jobs.

Is there a more “real” alternative (short of inseminating turkeys)?
High school shop-class programs were widely dismantled in the 1990s as educators prepared students to become “knowledge workers”. The imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take a leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. This has not come to pass. To begin with such work often feels more enervating than gliding. More fundamentally, now as ever, somebody actually has to do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, and build our houses.

When we praise people who do work that is straightforwardly useful, the praise often betrays an assumption that they had no other options. We idolize them as the salt of the earth and emphasize the sacrifice for others their work may entail. Such sacrifice does indeed occur- the hazards faced by a lineman restoring power during storm come to mind. But what if such work answers as well to a basic human need of the one who does it? I take this to be the suggestion of Marge Piercy’s poem “To be of Use”, which concludes with the lines “the pitcher longs for the water to carry/and a person for work that is real.” Beneath our gratitude for the lineman may rest envy.

This seems to be a moment when the useful arts have an especially compelling economic rationale. A car mechanics’ trade association reports that repair shops have seen their business just significantly in the current recession: people aren’t buying new cars, they are fixing the ones they have. The current downturn is likely to pass eventually. But there are also systemic changes in the economy, arising from information technology, that have the surprising effect of making the manual trades- plumbing, electrical work, car repair – more attractive careers. The Princeton economist Alan Blinder argues that the crucial distinction in the emerging labour market is not between those with more or less education, but between those whose services can be delivered over a wire and those who must do their work in person or on site. The latter will find their livelihood more secured against outsourcing to distant countries. As Blinder puts it “you can’t hammer a nail over the internet”. Nor can the Indians fix your car because they are in India.

If the goal is to earn a living, then may be it isn’t really true that 18-year-olds need to be imparted with a sense of panic about getting into college (though they certainly need to learn). Some people are hustled off to college and then to a cubicle, against their own inclinations and natural bents, when they would rather be learning to build things or fix things. One shop teacher suggested to me that “in schools we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement. Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged,”

A gifted young person who chooses to be a mechanic rather than to accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not self destructive. There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that t here is only one track to success to their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions. Further there is wide use of drugs to medicate boys, especially, against their natural tendency toward action, the better to “keep things on track.” I taught briefly in a public school and would have loved to have set up a Ritalin fogger in my class room. It is a rare person, male or female, who is naturally inclined to sit for 17 years in school, and then indefinitely at work.

The trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people also assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience. I have a small business as a motorcycle mechanic in Richmond, Va., which I started in 2002. I work on Japanese and European motorcycles, mostly old bikes with some “vintage” cachet that makes people willing to spend money on them. I have found the satisfaction of the work to be very much bound up with the intellectual challenges it presents. And yet my decision to go into this line of work is a choice that seems to perplex many people.

The above passage appeared in one of the mock-tests while I was preparing for CAT, but then later I found out it was published as an article in the New York Times Magazine, titled “The Case for Working With Your Hands” written by Matthew B. Crawford

The article posits a line of thought that is gaining popular attention especially in the developed world, apart from the US there was a similar article published in Chinese news paper editorial.

Let us, for a while, neglect the economic aspects, possibly relating to outsourcing of work etc, that support the theme of the author; From a reader’s point of view it asks of me two things: First, to think and attempt to justify my past deliberations in academic front and second, to realize the importance that satisfaction might lay in any kind of job that I am doing. Being a middle class Indian, I can visualize that the former of the two points is bound to suffer a clear justification as people need to think from the point of building up a family and thus, providing for the needs, which logically implies people have to go for the job that pays the most. But, in the haste of pursuing goals bound towards family-building (which we Indians prefer calling ‘getting settled in life’), the second point about satisfaction gets neglected.

Often people are too late to realize its gravity, which compels them change jobs at a later stage in life with much difficulty, while most of them, with the fear or pressure of added responsibilities never tread that path. So, the question is- How to choose among the ‘two options’ & what factors should contribute to what extent in choosing them? (I haven’t used the words like- success and happiness or money and peace of mind or cubicle and free lance, for their definitions can be different for different individuals…) Do share your views in this regard.