The Craftsman. Richard Sennett. Yale University Press. 2008. $27.50.I think Joe and I and many others had high expectations of a book with such a simple but engaging title. Perhaps some disappointment is justified. I was looking forward to the book for the very simple reason that it has been published by Yale University Press and attention to the subjects of skill and craftsmanship by academia is centuries past due. The crafts community is deserving of attention and recognition. I'm doubtful that what we need most will come from academia but from craftsmen themselves. The hands are either the driving force of your intellectual life, or they are not. And they make a difference to your perceptions and subsequent response. A craftsman sees a problem, compares it to direct experience, imagines a possible solution for it, and the next impulse isn't to gather with a group of friends in the student union or library for further discussion leading to mind numbing research proving or disproving the obvious. We, and I'm including you in this, go to our workshops and make. That is essentially why I try to do as much demonstration and visual illustration as possible in the blog. What is an idea that isn't followed by direct action? Empty conjecture. We craftsmen have the unique predisposition to take matters into our own hands.
The crafts revival is over half a century old and has a rich literary tradition. Unfortunately, it would appear that Sociology Professor Richard Sennett is unaware of that that rich tradition. Instead, he lives up to the undergraduate canard about the “fuzzy studies” department in colleges and takes the reader for yet another ride through the thoughts of “dead white men”. The Greeks and the philosophers of the Enlightenment are the core of this rambling and inconclusive book. Rather than the reflective, broad, worldview of contemporary craftsmen that includes the Oriental approaches to craft, Sennett remains firmly rooted to the Eurocentric past.
Instead of a book about the craftsman and his relationship to his tools, materials, and products we get the musings of philosophers who watched work but did not participate except in long scholarly missives. I was reminded of an office sign I was given by one of my ergonomics clients: “I love work. I could sit and watch it all day”.
When I began my discussions with wood shop teachers about the fate of woodworking education, as a craftsman myself, I knew that to sit on the sidelines and whine would not lead us toward a solution. So in September 2001 I started the Wisdom of the Hands program at Clear Spring School. In that program I teach kids grades 1-12 using a woodworking curriculum that unites the wood shop with classroom studies in every area of school curriculum. From that experience, I have written woodworking education articles for six different magazines and the Fine Woodworking website.
There is a difference between an academic and a craftsman. The matter has to do with the hands, and the way the hands position a person in direct vs. indirect relation to concrete reality. If your toilet won't flush, do you call a post-doc or a plumber? If you really want to know about craftsmanship, you will need to talk to a craftsman.