Blog - Grasping Vocation

Rethinking Handwork

Friday, November 11, 2011

We hear a lot these days about "knowledge workers.” One Harvard professor says, "The future belongs to knowledge workers.” Americans, writes Glenn Reynolds in a Popular Science article, "increasingly disdain manual labor.” In this thought-climate, Paul’s instructions to first-century Christians seem almost quaint: "Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands” (I Thess. 4:11). And his prescription for breaking someone away from a life of taking? "He . . . must work, doing something useful with his own hands” (Eph. 4:28).

In his book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford quotes Doug Stowe: "Without the opportunity [for children] to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.”

While doing research on teaching the theology of work in other cultures, I came across a revealing video from China. Parents there, it seems, have refused to require their children to do "drudgery” chores in the home. The one-child policy and memories of poverty in their own childhood have led many parents to excuse their offspring from physical labor so they may concentrate on their studies. Seeing where this is leading, the Anhui Normal University in Anhui Province, requires freshmen to complete five credit hours of a class in manual work. Students were "assigned to weed, clean the roads, wash dishes and do other labor work on campus that used to be contracted out to the property management company.” Responding positively, one student said "she and her classmates have . . . learned to respect the labor of others as they have become more aware of the hard work of cooks and of those workers who make their campus clean.”

This reminded me of one way my farmer-father taught me to work. Beginning in my early teen years, he set aside a half-acre of land as mine to farm. This meant putting my hands to tasks that stretched over six months or more. My hands steered the tractor as I prepared the soil with plow, disk, and harrow. My hands dug shallow holes and dropped Marblehead squash seeds every three or four feet in row after row. My hands cut ditches for irrigation, hoed out weeds, and dusted for plant-eating bugs. I watched in wonder as the seeds sprang to life and the plants burst through the surface. Behind many blossoms, little bulbs began to swell into what I knew would become edible, marketable produce. At the first frost the plants collapsed, exposing a field full of round, white-green Marbleheads. And then my hands went to work again, moving the squash into rows, loading them into our truck, and driving them to market in the nearby town. One or two squash, of course, went to Mom for baking and making pies.

Now, more than a half-century later, I do mostly knowledge work. But I thank God for that foundation of learning to work with my hands. Doing the manual labor on my mini-farm—from soil preparation to harvest—also involved an immense amount of brainwork. It linked thinking skills with tangible, useful outcomes. It taught me not to look down on manual labor or those who do it. It gave me an appreciation for just how much effort has gone into the food that reaches our table day after day.

These days young people immerse themselves in the "virtual reality” of electronic images on small screens. Their hands text and twitter. Today, few parents can send their children to farm a half-acre of ground. But many opportunities for handwork still exist. Mowing lawns for parents and elderly  neighbors. Weeding flower beds. Vacuuming carpets and sweeping floors. Raking leaves. Cleaning up neighborhood parks and sidewalks. Harvesting fruit for farmers desperate to find pickers. And so on. Grandparents, too, can come up with manual jobs. We have hired grandchildren for major painting projects, for landscape work, and for dismantling a large arbor that had passed its pull date.

In 21st century terms, we could probably describe the last three years of Jesus’ work as "knowledge work.” But he had earlier established a reputation as a carpenter (Matt. 6:3). So in his formative years, he learned to work with his hands.

Comments (5)

John Clum (11/11/2011 2:30:05 PM)
I like. My upbringing was the same and I hope my grandsons can experience manual labor.
David Gill (11/11/2011 3:46:57 PM)
You are right on target --- as is the book you mention, Shop Class As Soulcraft. We are "embodied" creatures and we are dehumanized without fruitful, creative, redemptive physical contact with the earth. I am a professional teacher and writer but my life would be horrible without lots of physical exercise, without my handyman building and repair projects, without getting in the garden dirt now and then.
Dr. Joe Alexanian (11/11/2011 3:53:00 PM)
Hurrah! My father, after emigrating to this country from the Middle East, went to school and became an automobile mechanic. I spent many hours and days after school and during vacations working with him and under his tutelage. Valued memories! I too have thought that the 20 or so years Jesus spent working with his hands were valuable for his preparation and future ministry. And they were an affirmation of the God-honoring value of manual labor.
Loren (11/11/2011 6:44:54 PM)
Appreciate the blog. There are tremendous opportunities to re-develop this core area while serving others while our economy is down. One will never know if serving one another might lead to a job lead unless they are willing to serve in capacities sometimes less than they are formally trained for. Even if it doesn't turn into a job lead, character develops.
Christian Overman (11/12/2011 5:18:57 AM)
The rabbis in Jesus' day were expected to not only know the Law (Torah), but to be apt at a physical trade. It went with the territory. It was said among Hebrews that if a father did not train his son in the Law and a trade, that son would grow up to be a fool and a thief. The Greeks had a much different attitude toward physical labor. That was what the slaves did. Not the well-to-do citizens.

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