I like to fix motorcycles more than I like to wire houses (even though I could make about twice as much money wiring houses). Both practices have internal goods that engage my attention, but fixing bikes is more meaningful because not only the fixing but the riding of motorcycles answers to certain intuitions I have about human excellence. People who ride motorcycles have gotten something right, and I want to put myself in the service of it, this thing that we do, this kingly sport that is like war made beautiful.
My job of making motorcycles run right is subservient to the higher good that is achieved when one of my customers leans hard through a corner on the Blue Ridge Parkway, to the point of deliberately dragging his well-armored knee on the inside. This moment of faith, daring, and skill casts a sanctifying light over my work. I try to get his steering head bearings as light and silky as they can be without free play, and his swing arm bushings good and tight, because I want him to feel his tires truly. . . .
I try to be a good motorcycle mechanic. This effort connects me to others, in particular to those who exemplify good motorcycling, because it is they who can best judge how well I have realized the functional goods I am aiming at. I wouldn’t even know what those goods are if I didn’t spend time with people who ride at a much higher level than I, and are therefore more discerning of what is good in a motorcycle. So my work situates me in a particular community. The narrow mechanical things I concern myself with are inscribed within a larger circle of meaning; they are in the service of an activity that we recognize as part of a life well lived. This common recognition, which needn’t be spoken, is the basis for a friendship that orients by concrete images of excellence.
[T]here is a whole ideology of choice and freedom and autonomy, and . . . if one pays due attention, these ideals start to seem less like a bubbling up of the unfettered Self and more like something that is urged upon us. This becomes most clear in advertising, where Choice and Freedom and A World Without Limits and Master the Possibilities and all the other heady existentialist slogans of the consumerist Self are invoked with such repetitive urgency that they come to resemble a disciplinary system. Somehow, self-realization and freedom always entail buying something new, never conserving something old.
The truth, of course, is that creativity is a by-product of mastery of the sort that is cultivated through long practice. It seems to be built up through submission (think a musician practicing scales, or Einstein learning tensor algebra). Identifying creativity with freedom harmonizes quite well with the culture of the new capitalism, in which the imperative of flexibility precludes dwelling in any task long enough to develop real competence. . . . We’re primed to respond to any invocation of the aesthetics of individuality. The rhetoric of freedom pleases our ears. The simulacrum of independent thought and action that goes by the name of “creativity” trips easily off the tongues of spokespeople for the corporate counterculture. . . .
What is it that we really want for a young person when we give him or her vocational advice? The only creditable answer, it seems to me, is one that avoids utopianism while keeping an eye on the human good: work that engages the human capacities as fully as possible. . . .
So what advice should one give to a young person? If you have a natural bent for scholarship; if you are attracted to the most difficult books out of an urgent need, and can spare four years to devote yourself to them, go to college. In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences. But if this is not the case; if the thought of four more years sitting in a classroom makes your skin crawl, the good news is that you don’t have to go through the motions and jump through the hoops for the sake of making a decent living. Even if you do go to college, learn a trade in the summers. You’re likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems or low-level “creative.”
The tenets of scientific management were given their first and frankest articulation by Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose Principles of Scientific Management was hugely influential in the early decades of the twentieth century. . . . Taylor writes, “The managers assume . . . the burden of gathering together all of the traditional knowledge which in the past has been possessed by the workmen and then of classifying, tabulating, and reducing this knowledge to rules, laws, and formulae.” Scattered craft knowledge is concentrated in the hands of the employer, then doled out again to workers in the form of minute instructions needed to perform some part of what is now a work process. This process replaces what was previously an integral activity, rooted in craft tradition and experience, animated by the worker’s own mental image of, and intention toward, the finished product. Thus, according to Taylor, “All possible brain work should be removed from the shop and centered in the planning or laying-out department. . . .” Once the cognitive aspects of the job are located in a separate management class, or better yet in a process that, once designed, requires no ongoing judgment or deliberation, skilled workers can be replaced with unskilled workers at a lower rate of pay. Taylor writes that the “full possibilities” of his system “will not have been realized until almost all of the machines in the shop are run by men who are of smaller caliber and attainments, and who are therefore cheaper than those required under the old system.”