A hundred years ago, about 40% of Americans lived on farms; today it is 1%. For the past century, occupations have moved consistently away from interaction with the world of things — agriculture, manufacturing, trades — and more toward professional and service-oriented work.
The upshot is that most of us spend the majority of our lives in a world of talk, with less direct contact with the world outside our heads. That makes it hard for us to think clearly about the real-world effects of our ideas.
This can be seen in the fact that so much of our public discourse is mere posturing, declaring attitudes and intentions without ever following through. We may have a pretty good idea of what we “stand for” but little practical knowledge of what the consequences of our stance will be.
If there is one thing you learn from working in the world of things — whether it is farming, manufacturing or construction — it is that intentions are very different from results.
Booker T. Washington, who founded the Tuskegee Institute, believed in integrating academic education and vocational training, not just for the purpose of earning an income but for the salubrious effects on character. In “My Larger Education,” he wrote:
“My experience is that people who call themselves ‘The Intellectuals’ understand theories, but they do not understand things. I have long been convinced that, if these men could have gone into the South and taken up and become interested in some practical work which would have brought them in touch with people and things, the whole world would have looked very different to them. Bad as conditions might have seemed at first, when they saw that actual progress was being made, they would have taken a more hopeful view of the situation. But the environment in which they were raised had cast them in another world. For them there was nothing to do but insist on the application of the abstract principles of protest.”
I certainly feel the truth of these words in my own life. The more time I spend in my head, in the sorts of activities my profession requires — reading, writing, thinking, teaching — the more cynical I become about the prospects for social progress. But when I turn to the world of making things, my disposition becomes increasingly practical and hopeful.
One reason is that doing something useful is itself an uplifting experience. Whenever you make something that has utility or beauty, you can look upon it and say, “I improved the world in this small regard.”
But even more important than the positive effect on one’s attitude is the way in which practicing a craft shapes how we perceive the world, giving us reference points for abstract ideas.
Take, for example, a common expression like “fly off the handle.” The phrase comes from logging, suggesting that a person who goes into a rage is as dangerous to those around them — and as indiscriminate — as an ax head flying through the air. When you have that image in mind, you don’t try to reason with an angry person; you just get out of the way until their energy has dissipated.
Working in the world of things also forces one to measure success and failure against an objective standard. The tomatoes one plants either grow into ripeness or they do not. The chair one builds can hold one’s weight or it cannot. You can’t just talk yourself into belief; the world itself has a say.
If we thought of politics as an enormously difficult craft rather than an arena for fighting over competing convictions, we would be better off.
That is how Plato thought of it. He frequently compared politics to shipbuilding, a complex craft requiring many different kinds of knowledge and ability and years of experience. Except politics is much harder.
Albert Einstein agreed. When asked why we could build an atomic bomb but could not be trusted to control it, he replied: “That is simple, my friend. It is because politics is more difficult than physics.”
When we are reminded how difficult it is to play a guitar, or grow a muskmelon, or build a boat, we should think how much harder it is to end racism, or achieve peace, or alleviate poverty. These are not simple tasks, and we should appreciate the difficulty of attempting them at all and neither disparage those who undertake the effort nor expect the changes to occur simply through the passage of a few well-intended laws or policies.
A recent survey by LendingTree found that nearly 60% of Americans took up a new hobby in the past year. Among those hobbies are a number of crafts such as baking, gardening and woodworking that involve close interaction with the physical world. One hopes this trend signals a lasting shift.
Here is a rule of thumb: If you want to change the world, first change the way you think, and if you want to change the way you think, change what you do. It may not change the world right away, but it is likely to ensure the changes you seek are both realistic and practical. And that is a good place to start.