Afflictions of the educated

What are the jobs of the twenty-first century doing to twenty-first-century minds? Why, when we talk about American jobs, do we talk only about how few there are and how little they pay?

For the purposes of all political and economic discussion, high-quality job has come to mean any full-time job that pays well and comes with good benefits—partly because there are now too few of these to go around. We aren't much interested in what our jobs say about us as a people, or in what kind of people they are making us. The tedium and mindlessness of much office work is the stuff of comic strips and sitcoms, but otherwise it seems to have little serious cultural significance and even less political importance. As long as most people are paid to do something legal, it doesn't really matter what it is. The "dignity of work" simply means having work, not being idle, paying your own way; it is not so much about the usefulness or quality of particular activities as it is about the dread of inactivity. Insofar as there are still any prejudices about work as work, they tend to favor the office job over trades, the digital over the manual. We praise farmers, tradesmen, and firefighters -- they are the salt of the earth, we say; they do good, honest work -- but their work is not what we mean by success. The message we send our young people is: Stay in school, go to college and grad school, so you can wear a dress shirt and work indoors.

In the most recentedition of the New YorkTimes Magazine (May 24), a motorcycle repairman named Matthew B. Crawford questions our national preference for the desk job. Crawford has a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago and briefly worked as the director of a policy organization in Washington. When after four months in Washington he had saved enough to buy some tools, he quithis job and opened his own repair shop in Richmond, Va. Of his experience at the think tank he writes that "certain perversities became apparent as I settled into the job."

It sometimes required me to reason backward, from desired conclusion to suitable premise. The organization had taken certain positions, and there were some facts it was more fond of than others. As its figurehead, I was making arguments I didn't fully buy myself. Further, my boss seemed intent on retraining me according to a certain cognitive style -- that of the corporate world, from which he had recently come. This style demanded that I project an image of rationality but not indulge too much in actual reasoning.

This Crawford compares with his experiences in the shop, where he must reason toward a concrete solution, which can't be faked and for which he will have to answer. He has learned to second-guess himself; he has seen the effects of his own mistakes; and he has learned that no amount of rule-following will protect him from error. There is no way around actual thinking. He concludes:

[W]ork 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. Its 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 intentions.... 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.

But even that may be changing, because so many information-age customers don't know how to talk to tradesmen. In his New Yorker blog, "Interesting Times," George Packer writes of an alarming conversation he had with the man who fixed the roof of his house in Brooklyn. The man had noticed a change in the kind of people he worked for; a good customer was increasingly hard to find.

It's the technology, the roofer said. They don't know how to deal with a human being. They stand there with that text shrug -- he hunched his shoulders, bent his head down, moved from side to side, looking anywhere but at me -- and they go, Ah, ah, um, um, and they just mumble. They cant talk any more. This inadequacy with physical space and direct interaction was an affliction of the educated, he said -- the more educated, the worse. His poorer black customers in Bedford-Stuyvesant had no such problem, and he was much happier working on their roofs, but the recession had slowed things down there and these days he was forced to deal almost entirely with the cognitively damaged educated and professional classes. "They hire someone -- this has happened several times -- so they dont have to talk to me," he went on, growing more animated and reddening with amazement. "It's like they're afraid of me! So they hire a guy who's more comfortable dealing with a masculine-type person. I stand there and talk to the customer, and the customer doesn't talk to me or look at me, he talks to the intermediary, and the intermediary talks to me. It's the yuppie buffer." He wasn't slurring gay men -- he described these customers as mainly metrosexuals -- nor was the problem all yuppies, some of whom had been his customers for years. It was a new group who had moved from Manhattan in the past few years, and who could not detach themselves from their communications devices long enough to look someone in the eye or notice the source of a leak. This was a completely new phenomenon in the roofers world: a mass upper class that was so immersed in symbolic and digital cerebration that it had become incapable of carrying out the most ordinary functions -- had become, in effect, like small children with Aspergers symptoms. It was a ruling class that, out of sheer over-civilization, was quickly losing the ability to hold onto its power.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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