What is satisfying work? How should we educate our children?

[I began this post months ago but never posted it]

I loved this article praising the value of manual labor. The author — who loves the challenge of repairing motorcycles — argues that “Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid” and then shows that manual trades often require substantial knowledge, deductive reasoning and creative thinking:

In fixing motorcycles you come up with several imagined trains of cause and effect for manifest symptoms, and you judge their likelihood before tearing anything down. This imagining relies on a mental library that you develop. An internal combustion engine can work in any number of ways, and different manufacturers have tried different approaches. Each has its own proclivities for failure. You also develop a library of sounds and smells and feels. For example, the backfire of a too-lean fuel mixture is subtly different from an ignition backfire….

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 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… [B]ut 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….

An economy that is more entrepreneurial, less managerial, would be less subject to the kind of distortions that occur when corporate managers’ compensation is tied to the short-term profit of distant shareholders. For most entrepreneurs, profit is at once a more capacious and a more concrete thing than this. It is a calculation in which the intrinsic satisfactions of work count — not least, the exercise of your own powers of reason.

His point is especially relevant to education because research on children proves that children learn best by following their passions to explore the world with their eyes and hands. Kids who play extensively with blocks, for example, later do very well in subjects like math. “Play” can be a very effective form of education, for children or adults.

Posted by James on Wednesday, August 19, 2009