Last weekend I spent several hours figuring out how to replace a valve and solenoid on the 32 year old sprinkler system at my house. The week before I finished reading Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. The two events together got me thinking about the power of learning by fixing things that are broken.
Crawford's book is made up of a story and two arguments. The story is autobiography. Crawford grew up fixing things on a commune, worked construction while in high school, learned to fix motorcycles, got a PhD in political philosophy at the University of Chicago, ran a Washington DC think tank, and after a period of great doubt, abandoned the think tank to open a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, VA. The arguments are these: that by devaluing craft work, trade skills, and production, the educational system alienates all sorts of people and demeans meaningful work; and that the United States is desperately in need of building the sort of values associated with repair work: thrift, creativity, humility, self-reliance, and learning through labor.
These arguments are of course nothing new. There is a long history of advocacy for production over consumption (and "knowledge work") best told in Christopher Lasch's The True and Only Heaven. And we are in a craft moment in American history, with "alternative crafts' springing up everywhere, and televisions replete with series focusing on re-use or repair: American Pickers, Pawn Stars, Extreme Home Makeover, etc.
I can't say whether it is possible to remake society around production, repair, and re-use. But I can say that you learn some things by fixing broken sprinkler systems that you wouldn't necessarily learn elsewhere. Here are the three lessons of my as-yet-unfinished repair of my sprinkler system:
1. Even the right tools don't mean you can do the work. There is a lot of tool-focused education speak. WE buy "tools" for assessment, or for teaching. Students develop the tools they need to succeed in the real world, etc. I own all of the right tools to replace a valve in a sprinkler system. But it is still a damn hard thing to do when you have never done it before. (BTW, instructions don't help a lot either. they describe the ideal way to fix things, not the real experience of repair.)
2. Always dig the hole deeper and wider than you think you will need it. Inevitably fixing something means fitting something meant to be assembled in a new system into an old system. Which means you lack the clearance, the vision, the access to make the switch. Too much of education still assumes students are learning new things rather than clearing space in a world view for new approaches to the truth. I'm not sure the "deep, wide hole" rule holds in neuro-cognition, but without that space new ideas just don't fit.
3. In theory, doing the same thing again hoping for a different outcome is folly. In practice, it is the way you repair. Replacing a part means tugging on it, cleaning it, tugging on it again, catching your breath, looking at the piece again, tugging, getting it loose, tightening the tool, tugging again, doubting and so pushing a different direction, then tugging again. Similarly, the learning of crafts requires the same perseverance, endurance, and obstinacy. Playing a musical instrument, writing research papers, nearly every task asks that you repeat the same steps again and again until your body is tuned to the problem. Only science imagines that you can tune the world to your work. For the rest of us we learn by coming up against our current weaknesses and then getting stronger by repeating our failed actions.
Tonight I buy the final correct coupling for the sprinkler system. More learning ahead.