Many times people asked me: “Well, you’re smart enough to do university, why do you work with your hands?”
Mostly in a diminishing tone, combined with a sour face.
It’s true, working with your hands doesn’t give you the best credentials in our society. Most people see craftwork as dirty and low-grade. In their minds the ones doing these jobs must be dumb, otherwise they would have done better in school and got a more high level job.
The answer is that I don’t ‘just’ work with my hands. While it may appear like that on the outside, on the inside there is a lot of thought going on. My hands are the tools that create what my mind comes up with.
Head vs Hands
The root for this idea was born just after the Second World War. Europe was rebuilding and along with the Marshall help a great part of the work would be mechanized. Europe looked at America for guidance. They were flabbergasted at the sight of the wealth, large industry, cars, railways, air traffic and technical innovations in the new world. In the early fifties the Netherlands dreamed the American Dream.
In the second half of the fifties the war damages were largely fixed and in most families the income increased. The industry was working avidly to adhere to the new-found consumerism and made everything people asked for.
Parents that grew up in the crisis years of the thirties, wanted to give their children everything they needed. They tried to give them the chance to get a good education, to get a well paid job. You had to strive to become a CEO, doctor, architect, notary or clerk. So that they never had to do dirty work with their hands.
Over the last fifty years education in Holland has changed, but this idea is deeply rooted in our culture. When you go to school and prove to be smart, you are encouraged to go to a highschool or university. Become a doctor, manager, CEO accountant, or architect. When you are less smart you go to a school where you learn to work with your hands. Become an auto mechanic, plumber, carpenter, nurse, cleaner or other low wage job.
The smart ones sit behind a desk and think, while the less smart walk around and do the work the smart ones tell them to do. The smart ones get paid a lot, the others get paid less.
Needless to say that everybody strives for the ‘smart’ jobs where you don’t have to work with your hands. Working with your hands has become unfashionable. People doing it are regarded as being retarded.
Here is the problem: over the years more and more students got into the highschools and universities. They all got their diploma and started to work behind a desk. A lot of them became managers or something where they have the luxury of telling other people what to do. Unfortunately most of these managers have a lack of practical knowledge. They view the world in order of statistics, production targets and time management. They will calculate and tell a worker how fast they should assemble something, but do not have the slightest idea how to do it themselves.
As there came more managers, more management jobs were created. Also the Dutch government in the late nineties adhered to the neoliberalist idea that everything had to be run like a business. Privatisation became the word of the day and energy companies, hospitals, retirement homes, schools, the postoffice, drinking water, public transport, railways, health insurance, all were sold to private companies and multinationals. The idea was that consumers would have more options to choose from and concurrention between the companies would lead to innovation, lower prices and a higher quality of the products and services…(hold that thought)
In practice it meant that there only came more companies. They hired managers to increase the productivity and efficiency of the workforce. In hospitals and retirement homes they followed the nurses and used a stopwatch to see how long it took to wash someone, change dressings and put on socks. “Ah, 5 minutes, then you can help 12 patients in an hour…” They wrote a report for the management team of the hospital and from that moment on, changing a pair of orthopedic socks had to be done in five minutes. The same goes for the mail companies. There are about three large players on the market, and a couple of small ones. But the amount of mail didn’t increase, it decreased because people started to use e-mail. So the remaining mail was fought over by those three companies. Because less mail ment less income they had to cut costs. A manager was hired and clocked the mailmen, they were told they had to work harder for less pay. Instead of one mailman we now get three of them at the door, all underpaid.
We’ve created a country of managers. People who know how to ‘manage’ how to tell others to do what they don’t even know how to do themselves. I’ve worked with managers like these, and it wasn’t pleasant.
Manager: “From now on you will have to use this file to crown frets, then you can do it in 45 minutes instead of an hour”
Me: “Ok, can you show me how”
Manager: “No, that’s your job”
Me: “Ok, but how do you know it is faster?”
Manager: Because the Stewmac folder said so…
Manager: “You can level, fret and sand guitar in one day, so if we hire three more builders there will be four guitars ready in a day.”
CEO: “Next month we will make twenty guitars”
Me: “Ok, nice idea, but how?”
CEO: “Oh, we just hire more builders than the production will increase.”
Both seemed to forget that making guitars isn’t the same as producing screws or packing sweets. Hiring someone and helping him to get set in a new job will in the beginning slow the work down, instead of increasing it. The new ‘builders’ proved to be one-trick pony’s who couldn’t do the work right even if they took a whole week for it.
Over the last fifty years the Dutch school system was changed to start a “Knowledge Economy”. The future of Holland was in knowing, not in doing…
One of the things that stands in the way of education is the way educators are educated. If you never learned to look beyond the boundaries and color within the lines, you’ll expect the same of your students. Before starting in guitar making I enrolled in Dutch highschool to become a history teacher. After 3/4 year I dropped out, completely disillusioned. History is wonderful and it’s great to teach, but the course was horrible, it proved to be an empty vessel. They tried to turn us into ‘class managers’, working by ‘protocols’, delivering a product; ‘history’, to a ‘client’ that had to gather ‘competentions’.
A great example of this kind of education is given in the Harry Potter book “Order of the Phoenix”. The school is taken over by a character named “Dolores Umbridge”. A teacher who says that they have to learn only enough to pass their exams, because that’s what school is about, isn’t it? (…)
Currently it has become clear that we have created a country of managers, but that there is almost no one to manage anymore. Over the last decades the craft schools have been dismantled or their curriculum has been hollowed out. Knowledge that once was passed on trough generations of craftsmen is lost in a few generations. Real craftsmen have become an almost extinct species, regarded as a sort of folklore. A romantic idea of ‘authenticity of craftsmanship’ is used as a veneer to cover up the lack of real craftsmanship and quality.
Here in Holland a generation of babyboomers is retiring. A lot of them were schooled in the manual trades, plumbers, electricians, bicycle repairmen, carpenters, gardeners. Suddenly we realise that there is nobody to replace them. A vast body of knowledge is threatened to be lost. Last year the minister of education started to say that: “Specialist craftsmen are an invaluable chain link in the Dutch economy and society”. Hearing this made me sick, because it’s hypocritic. If there is one person that makes it impossible to learn a craft, and worked to close craft schools it’s her. Crafts are still regarded as low-grade and there are no teachers that have enough knowledge anymore to stop the ongoing decline. I had to go to Belgium to learn guitar and lute making, because the schools in the Netherlands didn’t teach it anymore. The only school that teached guitarmaking did it as a sort of extracurricular course, with teachers that don’t really know the craft and the products are even to bad to put in a barn fire. In Belgium the crafts flourish and a lot of young people become master craftsmen.
Is it possible to change this? I don’t know, but I don’t have much hope for it. The Dutch culture is cheap and shallow; we prefer all-you-can-eat restaurants and large bulks of cheap clothes. Quantity goes above quality. But if we go on like this there will come a time when we can’t fix anything. We need a change in thinking about value and work. A combination of head and hands, mind and matter, not mind over matter!