The Personalist Project

Matthew B. Crawford, author of a fascinating New Atlantis article with deep personalist resonance has just come out with a book of the same name.

From the article:

A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our mode of inhabiting the world: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves installing a pre-made replacement part.

So perhaps the time is ripe for reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen out of favor: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world. Neither as workers nor as consumers are we much called upon to exercise such competence, most of us anyway, and merely to recommend its cultivation is to risk the scorn of those who take themselves to be the most hard-headed: the hard-headed economist will point out the opportunity costs of making what can be bought, and the hard-headed educator will say that it is irresponsible to educate the young for the trades, which are somehow identified as the jobs of the past. But we might pause to consider just how hard-headed these presumptions are, and whether they don’t, on the contrary, issue from a peculiar sort of idealism, one that insistently steers young people toward the most ghostly kinds of work.

Comments (11)

Joan Drennen

#1, Jun 26, 2009 8:29am

This article reminds me of Romano Guardini‚"s, Letter‚"s From Lake Como. I frequently find myself faced with the fact that what was valuable in the past is no longer valuable today. Necessity and Fashion have changed.
Fixing things during The Great Depression was a necessity and the skills required for fixing things were held valuable. Today household appliances are actually built, I was told by a service man, to operate for several years, break, and be disposed of. Skills needed to fix them are becoming more and more obsolete, so the possession or education of those skills aren‚"t valued.
While these skills aren‚"t needed as much in our times, they have an innate value. They give us knowledge, contact, and appreciation of the tools we use and the world we live in. There is something within us that cries out for our bodies and minds to be tested by manual labor, which if we can‚"t perform ourselves, gives us respect for those who do.
A wealthy society looks down on manual skills which in a large part of the world are necessary for survival. But is living in a disposable society good for us, for our ecomomy, or for the world?

Bill Drennen

#2, Jun 29, 2009 12:11pm

Joan, Not all of this is a bad thing. I have a perspective on this from engineering. Consumer items are designed with price in mind because one can always make something last longer and work better for a price but then how many could afford it? Your dishwasher only lasts 7 years because you are willing to pay $300 for it every 7 years but would you pay $3000 for one lasting 10 times that? No, why would you?

The other thing to remember is that back in the “olden days” when there was great craftsmanship, people necessarily had a lot less leisure time to do things like have this discussion. Things cost more, and most had less of them. Intellectual life was for the wealthy.

It seems like on the whole we have lost quality in craftsmanship but although this is a sad thought in that it is generally less experienced in the whole of society, notice that we still have the ability and when time and attention is put to it, most things can be done even better than in ages past. I don’t think great craftsmanship will ever be lost because there will always be some who value the craft enough to take the time to excel in it.

An other thing I learned in engineering is about the use of tools: tools can make the task much easier and efficient but to master the craft one needs to be the master of the tools of the craft. For example, I am a master at orienteering and can find my way through the remotest parts of the earth with only map and compass. In recent years I have relied more on GPS receivers and online maps ect. My skill is in no way diminished however. If my receiver breaks I can still use my map and I also have the knowledge to design and build a new receiver so I have actually surpassed the skill of the navigators of old. The same is true of most technology, the field has advanced and developers in the field are able to do both what was done before and more.

I don‚"t think the loss is in mans ability or skill set. When it comes to the motivation however I think there is a loss. Whereas before, quality and pride in workmanship was the main value and other qualities with intrinsic value, beauty and excellence ect. Now the utilitarian motive more and more affects the craftsman and engineer since success is measured by sales in a much shorter term.

This effect is due in large part to the mass information and communication of today. Everything is measured in the short term as markets and opportunities are immediately available to the entire world overnight. Companies that want to take the long steady road to success by quality in craftsmanship are at a big disadvantage and will not be able to compete. I agree there is much that is negative in this but there is also good side that allows more people to benefit across diverse parts of the globe.

Joan Drennen

#3, Jun 29, 2009 3:28pm

You‚"re right, Bill. I am grateful for technology.
I bet, though, that had you started using a GPS before you took orienteering in the Boy Scouts, you may never have wanted to.
I am amazed by technology and thankful for it. Technology is keeping our dear niece alive as I write. On a lesser note, machines have made way for leisure. I‚"m not about to start hand washing all of our laundry or drive a horse and buggy (though I greatly admire those that do.) But I think we‚"ve got to use technology without loosing total contact with handwork.
Because I was reared in the age of convenience, I have a natural inclination toward seeing the old fashioned way of doing things in a nostalgic light. I wouldn‚"t think the same way if every time I had to light a fire I had to rub flint and steel. Give me a match any day.
So what is it that draws me to an elemental way of doing things?
The experience of the process teaches the participant so many wonderful things. In the same way that listening to a beautiful piece of music draws one outside himself, engaging in a process (not merely a product) helps the participant to listen. To history, to those that repeated the same process, to other craftsmen, to the craft, to beauty, to the Origin behind these elements.
This is spoken from one who is not usually efficient with her time, so don‚"t take it from me! And, I am ever so grateful for much technology that enables me to participate in those unnecessary processes that enrich me full well! Hopefully, the desire to “touch the earth” will never be dulled in the presence of so many gadgets. It might be unless we encourage shop class and the like to our kids, girls and boys(!)

Bill Drennen

#4, Jun 30, 2009 12:35pm

I agree 100% except for 1 thing (I guess that makes it 99%, or maybe 90% depending on the weight I give it).

You are wrong in supposing I would not have learned orienteering if GPS was available when I was a boy. For those who are interested, the roots of the craft can always be discovered. My interest would have led me to want to discover how the GPS worked.

My point is, it goes both ways. Roots lead to branches but branches also lead to roots. I love what you say about process and origins. In the old days, craftsmen worked the way they did because there was no other way. Now, one who discovers the roots of a craft does so motivated by pure love and interest.

In education I agree 110%. I’ll never forget the many examples in engineering school where we did things the long, hard way only to find the easy shortcuts later. Pages of math derivations to come up with a few short design formulas and our professor would say, “this is something every student should do once in their life.” One semester lab we spent the entire semester doing complicated microwave field measurements using precise equipment by hand and then in the last class we repeated the entire semesters measurements using an automated analyzer. The professor said,‚" now you understand what you are doing when you use the analyzer.”

I think everything is like that. Most of us stay on the surface doing and using things the way progress has developed them. Bit there will always be some who stop and dig. We have become a world full of specialists in a million different crafts.

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Jun 30, 2009 1:31pm

I agree, Joan.  I was particularly struck by the idea that the high-tech economy tends to render us passive and dependent.  We master less and less of our environment.  We are helpless when things go wrong, and hence vulnerable. 
I hope I can persuade my boys to learn some kind of true craftsmanship, as an avocation at least.

Jules van Schaijik

#6, Jun 30, 2009 5:34pm

Your boys?!

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Jun 30, 2009 5:37pm

NOT a sexist remark.  I just think it’s too late for the girls, now that they’re off to college. I WISH we had had the sense and commitment to develop craftsmanship in them too.  Meanwhile, I wish I could embed a photo of the painting Maria’s been doing today.

Teresa Manidis

#8, Jun 30, 2009 6:18pm

Oh, this is too cute.  You two, I mean.

Scott Johnston

#9, Jul 1, 2009 8:38pm

Tally Ho! Very interesting topic. Here are a few examples of what we might call, “manual competence”—things that can only be learned at an expert level by doing, that involve a physical sense becoming finely attuned to the nuances of a physical process or action:

baking (e.g. kneading bread dough by hand; you just can’t replace knowing what the dough for a particular type of bread should feel like under your hands)

icon painting (e.g. mixing a traditional egg tempera with a natural coloring and then applying it properly simply must be learned by look and feel)

masonry (e.g. the mortar when properly mixed has a certain feel to it; not too dry, not too wet, a certain heaviness, etc.; how to lay on the mortar in the right amount so that the block sinks to the right height when you lay it on, etc.)

carpentry (lots of things learned by look and feel here; e.g. how to toe-in a slightly curved stud or other piece of wood as you nail it, slightly over-compensating for the defect just enough so that you end up in the finished position with the best possible outcome for that particular piece)

Cooking (e.g. exactly when do you pull off a certain size piece of steak from the grill so that when it finishes cooking internally it will be exactly how you want it—how does it feel to the touch at that point)

sailing (e.g. what does a properly rigged sail look like in the wind—the shape of the sail and the sound—when the boat is maneuvered so as to maximize the forces generated by the wind against the sail—i.e. when is it at its most efficient at converting wind energy to propelling the boat)

flying a sailplane/glider (e.g. what does it feel like in the seat of your pants when you are in a rising thermal of a certain energy level, and you have perfectly positioned the glider in the center of the thermal so as to attain the maximum possible lift; how tight a circle do you turn and what speed do you go to make the glider the most efficient in this exact situation)

Bicycle riding (e.g. when a road is damp and you are speeding downhill on a curvy road, what does it feel like right at the limit where you just still have barely enough grip on the road before the tires slide and lose their hold)

Horsemanship (e.g. what is the difference between what the same horse feels like under the saddle at a canter when the horse is tired vs. when he is energetic and alert; or, mad vs. frightened of something)

Medicine (what do clear lungs vs. lungs with the beginnings of pneumonia sound like [not always clear and obvious on a standard x-ray]; what does a heart murmur sound like; what does a sclerotic vein feel like in the hand during surgery)

Ship piloting (e.g. in rolling seas, a ship will rock and roll a lot or a little, depending on the speed of the ship, and the angle of the ship in relation to the angle of the swells as the ship goes through the sea; a good pilot knows what it feels like when you are going at the perfect speed and angle with respect to the waves to attain the smoothest and least dangerous route through the water in the given conditions)

Music (e.g. what does it feel and sound like to the musicians when their jazz band is “in the pocket” while playing a live performance)

Actually, the more one thinks of it, there are lots of ways in which certain professions still require a highly developed training of the physical senses, especially any culinary profession, medicine, construction trades, the arts—including visual and musical, flying and piloting planes and ships, etc.

All this being acknowledged, I suppose there are far far fewer people whose daily work involves this sort of physical intimacy with the physical world than there were in pre-industrial times.

But, we can still deliberately cultivate (with our leisure time) hobbies or avocations that engage our senses with the physical world in an intimate way. We may not be plowing the earth behind horses all day. But, we can take some time to plant a small garden, or learn to work leather, or how to make a wooden canoe with hand tools, etc. I do think that a human life that has very little to nothing of this sort of manual engagement with the physical world is indeed lacking something that cannot be fully compensated for in other ways.

Many outdoor sports are great for cultivating this sort of physical closeness with the natural world (skiing, sailing, cycling, hunting, rowing, rock climbing, etc.).

Something, I’m sure, in our soul NEEDS to experience a form of manual competency or closeness to the natural world. This, it seems to me, is an inevitable consequence of our nature as incarnational beings!

Bill Drennen

#10, Jul 2, 2009 12:32pm


Good to hear form you. What I hear you describing is what I would call the art of life. I think most activities or areas of human endeavor involve a lot more of this then many realize. There is an art as well as a science to most things. Good example to add to your list here is brewing beer. I always use the Germans as examples of taking the science of brewing to the pinnacle of excellence whereas the Belgians are the artists but of course both are using both art and science.

I think we should plan for you to lead us in all these activities you so wonderfully describe. I can do the brewing.

Will you do me a favor and review the discussion between myself, Jules and Katie and feedback on the “Question 1: on John Paul II and Hugh Hefner” post in the Linde?

Scott Johnston

#11, Jul 2, 2009 1:34pm

Hi Bill,

Speaking of Belgian beer (awesome!), there is a craft brewery in NY state (my home state) that is a Belgian style brewery. Is is called Ommegang. Their web site is

I have had their beer and it is tasty stuff! It would make a lovely accompaniment to philosophical discussion.

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