Or Maybe We Don't Need College At All?

This New York Times magazine piece by Matthew B. Crawford -- which makes the case for working with your hands, rather than working in the more abstract realms of "information" -- has lots of lovely food for thought that I can't really do justice in a blog post. But this is the business of writing blog posts, so let's give it a shot.

Simplifying somewhat (and acknowledging that the process of simplification is one Crawford's piece explicitly rejects) the piece has two arguments: The first is that there might be good economic reasons for pursuing a job in certain kinds of manual labor, as opposed to the knowledge economy. The second is that there are good moral or philosophical reasons for doing so: It is easier to feel emotionally connected to labor in a bike shop than an airless cubicle.

Are those good arguments?

Here's a snippet that gets at Crawford's economic argument:

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 as careers. The Princeton economist Alan Blinder argues that the crucial distinction in the emerging labor 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 livelihoods more secure 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, maybe 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, then to the cubicle, against their own inclinations and natural bents, when they would rather be learning to build things or fix things.

And it's true. There will always be jobs repairing homes and vehicles. But it is surely worth mentioning that those jobs will necessarily make up a small portion of a country's economic landscape. And while there might be some people for whom college is not the best route to productive employment, the statistical evidence overwhelmingly indicates that more education means better employment prospects. Here (from the Bureau of Labor Statistics) is what unemployment looks like among college graduates and higher:

unemployment among college graduates and higher.png

It's about 4.5%. And here's unemployment among high school graduates:

unemployment high school graduates.png

It's about 9.5%.

But I find the argument about the moral value of work is more interesting. For instance, Crawford writes:

A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world. Academic credentials do not guarantee this.

Nor can big business or big government -- those idols of the right and the left -- reliably secure such work for us. Everyone is rightly concerned about economic growth on the one hand or unemployment and wages on the other, but the character of work doesn't figure much in political debate. Labor unions address important concerns like workplace safety and family leave, and management looks for greater efficiency, but on the nature of the job itself, the dominant political and economic paradigms are mute. Yet work forms us, and deforms us, with broad public consequences.

weber capitalism.jpg

This reminds me -- and reminds Crawford too, I take it -- of the young Karl Marx, and his theory of labor alienation. My recollection (hazy at best) is that Marx thought the progress of capitalism was alienating in lots of ways, but one those ways has to do with the relationship between a laborer and his output. In contrast to, say, a medieval shoemaker who produced every piece of his product from start to finish, industrial-revolution laborers were concerned with producing increasingly small and specific portions of the final product, and doing so in increasingly mind-numbing ways. Marx thought this made destroyed the intrinsic value and personal satisfaction that might be derived from the work.

Maybe this is one of the more redeemable bits of Marx. (I like historical materialism, personally, but to each his own.) But if we're going to go down the highly pretentious road of talking about 19th and early 20th century social theorists, then I suppose I would also say that one of the points I took away from Max Weber's wonderful Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism is that there's something odd and maybe hopeless about seeking quasi-religious ends -- a "calling," a meaning, an "intrinsic value," whatever -- in one's professional life. I would much rather have economic growth and efficiency and worry about finding meaning elsewhere.