A couple weeks ago, in preparation for a talk, carver/turner Robin Wood asked people to comment on this question about traditional handicrafts:
“We can see the benefit to a few craftspeople but can you prove the benefit to the wider community?”
He had over 170 positive answers within a couple of days, and last I checked, it’s up to 285 responses. (You can see the whole thing at his Facebook page.)
Although we Americans tend to ask first about the value of things for individuals, Europeans (like Robin Wood and his immediate audience) tend to ask more frequently about social value. Both are important questions. Matthew Crawford, for example, makes a strong case for the value of skilled, manual labor for individuals in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft.
But what about society as a whole? If more individuals in North America began to learn to work with their hands, would our society as a whole tend to flourish? My short answer is, of course, yes. I think that society as a whole benefits from having a lot of people who have the skills to make and repair physical objects. Or, put negatively, I think our society will suffer if we continue to drain it of people who can shape our physical environment without destroying it.
But that raises a further question: what does it mean to flourish as a society at all? It seems to me our modern economy thrives on consumers who are impatient, greedy, gluttonous, easily manipulated, superficially enthusiastic, imperceptive about quality, and quickly bored—people who value cheap thrills and immediate ease above all else. If a flourishing society is one in which an ever-increasing number of people are living in ever-increasing physical comfort at ever-decreasing prices, then handicrafts really have very little place in a modern society—at least the American one that I live in. Insofar as our economy has any connection to the physical world at all, it is built on low-quality consumer goods that require rapid replacement.
If, however, human flourishing has anything to do with developing a well-ordered soul, then we would do well to cherish and teach traditional handicrafts. These crafts require the craftsperson to be patient and thoughtful, to persevere through difficulty, to notice subtle differences, to pay attention to details, and to value the integrity of the thing itself above the thing’s market value. Learning a craft not only fosters an independent spirit (“I can make it myself.”), but it also unites people in communities of like-minded workers–guilds, as we used to call them. These communities both set the standards for excellent work and ensure that the skills necessary to meet those standards remain alive and active. These sorts of communities are also, I think, foundational to civil society. Speaking for myself, I would like to live surrounded by communities of people who are thoughtful, careful, patient, honest, thrifty, and perceptive. I would like to live around more skilled workers.
How about you? Do you know of any examples of that demonstrate the social value (and not just the individual value) of traditional handicrafts? If so, I’d love to hear your story.