The Hands that Serve



A look at the prejudices against the skilled trades.

My grandparents made shoes, but I was guided on a path towards college that ultimately ended up with me being a philosophy professor—an abstract profession that is, perhaps, as far from shoe making as one can get. While most are not destined to become philosophers, the push towards college education persists to this day. In contrast, skilled trades and manual labor are typically looked down upon—even though a skilled trade can be very financially rewarding.

Looking down on skilled trades might seem unusual for the United States, a country that arose out of skilled trades and one that still purports to value an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. However, as noted above, there has been a switch from valuing skilled trades in favor of college education and the associated jobs. Oddly, skilled trades are even considered by some to be, if not exactly shameful, nothing to be proud of. Instead, the respected professions typically require a college degree. Although, since inconsistency is the way of humanity, financial success without a degree is often lauded.

At this point one must be careful to not confuse the obsession with college degrees and associated jobs as a sign that Americans value intellectualism. While there are cultural icons such as Einstein, the United States has a strong anti-intellectual streak. Some of this is fueled by religion, some by the remnants of blue-collar practicality, and some by the knowledge of the elites that intellectuals can be a danger to the established order. What is at play here could be called “educationalism” to contrast it with “intellectualism.” In neutral terms, this can be taken as the valuing of education for its financial value in terms of the payoff in the workplace. In more negative terms, it can be taken as a prejudice or bias in favor of those with formal education. Because of the success of this sort of educationalism, people are encouraged to get an education primarily based on the financial returns to themselves and those who will exploit their labors. And part of the motivation is to avoid the stigma of not being in a profession that requires a degree.

While education can be valuable, this sort of educationalism is not without it negative consequences. As many have noted, one result has been an increase in those seeking college degrees. Since college degrees are now often absurdly expensive (thanks, in large part, to the adoption of the business model of exorbitant administrative salaries) this has resulted in a significant surge in college debt. There is also the predatory approaches of the for-profit colleges, which exist primarily to funnel public money to the executives and shareholders.

Another impact of this form of educationalism is that professions that do not require college degrees are cast as inferior to those that do require degrees. In some cases, this characterization is correct: for example, assembling burgers for a fast food chain is certainly inferior to nearly all jobs that require a college degree. However, this contempt for non-degree jobs often extends to skilled trades, such as those of electrician, plumber and carpenter.

In some cases, the looking down is based on the perception that skilled trades pay less than degree trades. While this can be the case, skill trades can pay very well indeed—you can check this yourself by calling a plumber or electrician and inquiring how much they will charge for various tasks.

In other cases, people look down on the skilled trades because they often think that because these trades do not require a college degree those who practice them must be less intelligent or less capable. That is, a common assumption is that people go into these trades because they lack the ability to navigate the rigors of a philosophy, art history or a communications degree. Crudely put, the prejudice is that smart people get degrees, stupid people work in skilled trades or manual labor.

While completing college does require some minimal level of ability, as a professor with decades of experience I can attest to the fact that this ability can be very minimal indeed. Put crudely, stupid people can and do graduate with degrees—and some go on to considerable success. My point here is not, however, to say that college graduates can be just as stupid as those in the skilled trades. Rather, my point is that a college degree is not a reliable indicator of greater ability or intelligence.

Switching to a more positive approach, skilled trades can be just as challenging as professions that require college degrees. While the skilled trades obviously place more emphasis on manual work, such as wiring houses or rebuilding engines, this does not entail that they require less intelligence or ability.

I am in a somewhat uncommon position of holding a doctorate while also having some meaningful experience with various skilled trades. Part of this is because my background is such that to be a man required having a skill set that includes the basics of a variety of trades. To illustrate, I was expected to know how to build a camp, rewire outlets, service firearms, repair simple engines, and not die in the wilds. I used some of these skills to make money to pay for school and still use them today to save money. And not die. While I am obviously not a skilled professional, I have a reasonably good grasp of the skills and abilities needed to work in many skilled professions and I understand they typically require intelligence, critical thinking and creative thinking. Based on my own experience, I can say that addressing a technical problem with wiring or an engine can be just as mentally challenging as addressing a philosophical conundrum about the ethics of driverless cars.  As such, it is mere prejudice to look down upon people in the skilled professions. Interesting, some who would be horrified of being accused of the prejudices of racism or sexism routinely look down their noses at those in skilled professions.

Since I will occasionally do repairs or projects for people, I do get a chance to see the prejudice—I sometimes feel that I am operating “undercover” in such situations. This is analogous to how I feel when, as a white person who teaches at an HBCU, I hear people expressing racist views because they think I am “one of them” because I am white.  For example, on one occasion I was changing the locks for a grad school friend of mine who did not know a screw driver from an instantiated universal. While I was doing this, some of her other friends stopped by. Not knowing who I was, they simply walked past, perhaps assuming I was some sort of peasant laborer. I overheard one of them whispering how glad he was he was in grad school, so he would not have to do such mundane and mindless work. Another whispered, with an odd pride, that she would have no idea how to do such work—presumably because her brain was far too advanced to guide her hands in the operation of a screwdriver. This odd combination is not uncommon: people often hold to the view that skilled labor is beneath them while also believing that they simply cannot do such work. As in the incident just mentioned, it seems common for people to rationalize their lack of ability by telling themselves they are too smart to waste their precious brain space on such abilities. Presumably if one learns to replace a light switch, one must lose the ability to grasp the fundamentals of deconstruction.

When my friend realized what was going on, she hastened to introduce me as a grad student and everyone apologized because they first thought I was “just some maintenance worker” and not “one of them.” Needless to say, their attitude towards me changed dramatically, as did their behavior. As one might suspect, these were the same sort of people who would rail against the patriarchy and racism for their cruel prejudices and biases. And yet they fully embraced the biases of “educationalism” and held me in contempt until they learned I was as educated as they.

I must admit that I also have prejudices and biases. When an adult cannot do basic tasks like replacing a fill valve in a toilet or replace a simple door lock, I do judge them. However, I try not to do this—after all, not everyone has a background in which they could learn such basic skills. But, of course, I expect people to reciprocate: in return they need to not be prejudiced against people who pursue skilled trades instead of college degrees. And, of course, since a person cannot learn everything, everyone has massive gaps and voids in their skill sets.

While those who pursue careers in which they create ever more elaborate financial instruments to ruin the economy are rewarded with great wealth and those who create new frivolous apps are praised, it should be remembered that the infrastructure of civilization that makes all these things possible depend largely on the skilled trades. Someone must wire the towers that make mobile phones possible so that people can Tweet their witty remarks, someone has to put in the plumbing and HVAC systems that make buildings livable so that the weasels of Wall Street have a proper place to pee, and so on for the foundation of civilization. As Sean Le Rond D’Alembert so wisely said in 1751, “But while justly respecting great geniuses for their enlightenment, society ought not to degrade the hands by which it is served.” Excellent advice then, excellent advice now.


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Tags: educational failure, educationalism, job market, mike labossiere, skilled workers, skills

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