Ian Jack, writing about Crawford's book in The Guardian, wonders if our rush to embrace higher education has started to become economically destructive.
In this context, I remember an engineering student fresh out of college who had applied for a job, some job, about ten years ago, when I was looking to hire someone for some simple HTML work at Cricinfo. He knew no HTML at all, but said he was willing to learn. I was thinking of giving him a chance to learn on the job and prove himself, but was taken aback by his salary expectation and his justification for it. He wanted a monthly salary of Rs. 8,000. His justification was that even a mason was paid as much. When I pointed out that the mason built something and added value, whereas he knew nothing to start with and had to learn before he could prove he could add value, it didn't cut. His point was that he was an "engineer'.
Crawford, in his New York Times piece, argues for exposing children to some trade or craft involving hands on work, early on in their lives.
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.
The visceral experience of failure seems to have been edited out of the career trajectories of gifted students. It stands to reason, then, that those who end up making big decisions that affect all of us don’t seem to have much sense of their own fallibility, and of how badly things can go wrong even with the best of intentions (like when I dropped that feeler gauge down into the Ninja). In the boardrooms of Wall Street and the corridors of Pennsylvania Avenue, I don’t think you’ll see a yellow sign that says “Think Safety!” as you do on job sites and in many repair shops, no doubt because those who sit on the swivel chairs tend to live remote from the consequences of the decisions they make. Why not encourage gifted students to learn a trade, if only in the summers, so that their fingers will be crushed once or twice before they go on to run the country?
There is good reason to suppose that responsibility has to be installed in the foundation of your mental equipment — at the level of perception and habit. There is an ethic of paying attention that develops in the trades through hard experience. It inflects your perception of the world and your habitual responses to it. This is due to the immediate feedback you get from material objects and to the fact that the work is typically situated in face-to-face interactions between tradesman and customer.