chiselIf college affords us the life of the mind wherein we are liberated to think, philosophize, and plan, do we thereby lose sight of the necessary work of survival, and if so, is this a problem?

This article, “The Future of American Colleges May Lie, Literally, in Students’ Hands” (Scott Carlson, 2/5/12, The Chronicle of Higher Education), addresses these issues, argues that more college instruction should “include more hands-on, traditional skills,” and discusses some colleges where such traditional skills play a critical role in student education.

It’s an intriguing conversation, and it’s clear that beyond the academy, honing one’s hands-on skills and getting in touch with tradition seem quite fashionable: “DIY” in general is trendy, backyard and urban chicken farming are enjoying popularity, and families are taking “haycations” to introduce their kids to life on a farm. Even so, the article’s title is interesting to contemplate: if colleges’ futures are in students’ hands, I still see a common attitude among college students that manual labor is beneath them. Skilled craftsmanship and understanding how to make things seem undesirable to students who aspire to be thinkers, or as the article notes, the “designers” of society. While this article explicitly addresses this attitude among university engineering students, I’ve seen the same pattern of thinking among community college students. They’d like to study themselves up and out of jobs of manual labor.

While this may, indeed, be one attraction of college, students should be realistic about what college can do for them. Putting aside the intrinsic value of skilled craftsmanship and understanding (to borrow a TV title) “How Stuff Works,” let’s say college student X doesn’t end up being a janitor full-time, cleaning for a living. Let’s also say this student X is very smart and capable of achieving in a variety of fields. It’s still unrealistic to imagine student X, or any of us, could or should be full-time thinkers. In fact, very few of us can afford to do that. In addition, we shouldn’t digest the idea that by virtue of being smart, we should disregard the foundational tasks of basic survival: growing food, cooking, constructing. For one thing, if we do wash our hands of these tasks, we’re not at all self-sufficient. (See Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance.*) Additionally, concrete problem-solving affords a well-rounded person the opportunity to apply creativity and abstract thinking; and besides, immersing oneself in learning a new, old skill (one that isn’t computer- or even book-related) is enjoyable, rewarding and centering, and connects us to other fields and to ancient traditions.

So as you think about summer DIY college prep, think about planting a backyard garden, learning to cook, or building something small. If you don’t know anyone with these skills, you can find instructional videos on sites like eHow and YouTube, and don’t forget about your local library’s selection of instructional books.

*You can find this book at Project Gutenberg:

Image via / clarita