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Archive for the ‘Work’ Category

A radically disruptive result of keeping the sabbath is that it denies the dominant cultural belief that we must always be working and doing. Particularly in an American culture that still suffers under the bastardization of the Puritan work ethic (which conflates righteousness with industriousness) and a sense that we are always missing out on something important, choosing to cease for one day every week is a disruptive witness to our neighbors. And it’s an act of faith in God’s providence—an embodied argument that fullness is not found in the desperate struggle of busyness. And yet it is hard for Christians to take a sabbath rest because Christianity can easily become yet another thing that fills our constantly busy life—something really no different from following football. There’s always another event to do, another study to read, another program to attend, another way to catch up, get ahead, or try to get out of the hole. A sabbath rest is an act of spiritual defiance against the ideal of existential justification through production and consumption. It is a denial of the founding principle of the American Dream—that if you want to get ahead and reach the good life, you must always be working or self-improving.

A sabbath rest is a rest from our good works, even while it obligates us to works of service. The difference is that the rest is a rest in Christ’s finished work on the cross. Sunday is not a day to “clean up our act” or “get right with God.” It is a day to rest in our imputed righteousness by Christ and turn that joy outward (the double movement) into fellowship with our brothers and sisters, meeting together and sharing the table, ceasing from our labor, meditating on the Word and on God’s natural revelation, and doing acts of service for our neighbors. I believe that sabbath rest also involves play—but it should be redemptive play, not the kind that consumes us and leaves us more mentally and emotionally drained than before. We should be refreshed, even if we are tired.

My recommendation is to see this time as a special time to love our neighbors. We might convene a small group on Sunday evenings or have people over for lunch or dinner. We should work hard throughout the week so we don’t have to work on Sunday, but remember that there is grace for those moments when work must be done—the lost sheep must be found. It’s wise to avoid shopping or work as a reminder that the marketplace is not the center of our lives, but a tool of culture we can use or abuse, like any other tool. We might also choose to rest from screens, or just smartphones and computers, and so create space for contemplation, reflection, and conversation. Alternatively, we might restrict our screen time to activities that are intentionally communal: watching a movie together, playing a game together, sharing photos and memories, or video chatting with family.

Thought of this way, the sabbath is a foreshadowing of the rest we have in Christ, which is not contingent on our good works. We don’t need to work seven days a week to be valued and important, and we don’t need to achieve spiritual maturity to receive God’s grace. But it also foreshadows the end of this age, when we will rest from the curse of toil. And what a beautiful thing that will be! By resting and refusing to participate in the rat race, we act in faith that God will care for us and that this race is no path to salvation.

— Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

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Our addiction to stimulation, input, and entertainment empties us out and makes us boring—unable to embrace the ordinary wonders of life in Christ.

Kathleen Norris writes,

Like liturgy, the work of cleaning draws much of its meaning and value from repetition, from the fact that it is never completed, but only set aside until the next day. Both liturgy and what is euphemistically termed “domestic” work also have an intense relation with the present moment, a kind of faith in the present that fosters hope and makes life seem possible in the day-to-day.

Daily life, dishes in the sink, children that ask the same questions and want the same stories again and again and again, the long doldrums of the afternoon—these things are filled with repetition. And much of the Christian life is returning over and over to the same work and the same habits of worship. We must contend with the same spiritual struggles again and again. The work of repentance and faith is daily and repetitive. Again and again, we repent and believe.

A sign hangs on the wall in a New Monastic Christian community house: “Everyone wants a revolution. No one wants to do the dishes.” I was, and remain, a Christian who longs for revolution, for things to be made new and whole in beautiful and big ways. But what I am slowly seeing is that you can’t get to the revolution without learning to do the dishes. The kind of spiritual life and disciplines needed to sustain the Christian life are quiet, repetitive, and ordinary. I often want to skip the boring, daily stuff to get to the thrill of an edgy faith. But it’s in the dailiness of the Christian faith—the making the bed, the doing the dishes, the praying for our enemies, the reading the Bible, the quiet, the small—that God’s transformation takes root and grows.

— Tish Harrison Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life

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The success of Deep Blue would seem not to shed much light on how expert chess players do what they do. It might well be objected, “ of course it doesn’t; it’s a computer!” This objection strikes me as just the right response, but sometimes common sense needs to be defended by an elaborate argument. We are constantly tempted to regard ourselves in the distorting mirror of technology, and in fact the “computational theory of mind” prevails in cognitive psychology (though it is becoming quite embattled). An entire academic field has its origin in the idea that we are computers. Further, the computer comes to represent an ideal, in light of which real thinking perversely begins to look deficient. Thus, when the postindustrial visionary reasons from the fact that complex systems involve “the interaction of too many variables for the mind to hold in correct order simultaneously” to the conclusion that “one has to use algorithms, rather than intuitive judgments, in making decisions,” he argues from the fact that the mind does not do what a computer does to an assertion about the incompetence of the mind. This seems to express an irrational prejudice against people. For, in fact, highly cultivated human minds can get to be pretty good at sussing out a burning building, playing chess, chasing down intermittent gremlins in a car’s electrical system, and who knows what else.

The fact that a firefighter’s knowledge is tacit rather than explicit, and therefore not capable of articulation, means that he is not able to give an account of himself to the larger society. He is not able to make a claim for the value of his mind in the terms that prevail, and may come to doubt it himself. But his own experience provides grounds for a radical critique of the view that theoretical knowledge is the only true knowledge.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

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Florida’s contribution is to update our view of these mini-Einsteins by taking a pop-existentialist view of their “creativity.” It is a view that is familiar to most of us from kindergarten: creativity is a mysterious capacity that lies in each of us and merely needs to be “unleashed” (think finger painting). Creativity is what happens when people are liberated from the constraints of conventionality. According to this hippie theory, the personal grooming habits of Albert Einstein are highly significant–how else does one identify a “bizarre maverick operating at the bohemian fringe”? The truth, of course, is that creativity is a by-product of mastery of the sort that is cultivated through long practice. It seems to be built up through submission (think a musician practicing scales, or Einstein learning tensor algebra). Identifying creativity with freedom harmonizes quite well with the culture of the new capitalism, in which the imperative of flexibility precludes dwelling in any task long enough to develop real competence. Such competence is the condition not only for genuine creativity but for economic independence such as the tradesman enjoys. So the liberationist ethic of what is sometimes called “the 1968 generation” perhaps paved the way for our increasing dependence. We’re primed to respond to any invocation of the aesthetics of individuality. The rhetoric of freedom pleases our ears. The simulacrum of independent thought and action that goes by the name of “creativity” trips easily off the tongues of spokespeople for the corporate counterculture, and if we’re not paying attention such usage might influence our career plans. The Tterm invokes are powerful tendency to narcissism, and in doing so greases the skids into work that is not what we had hoped.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

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Writing in Foreign Affairs, the Princeton economist Alan Blinder considers the question of job security and falling wages for U.S. workers in light of global competition:

“Many people blithely assume that the critical labor-market distinction is, and will remain, between highly educated (or highly skilled) people and less-educated (or less-skilled) people–doctors versus call-center operators, for example. The supposed remedy for the rich countries, accordingly, is more education and a general “upskilling” of the work force. But this view may be mistaken. . . . The critical divide in the future may instead be between those types of work that are easily deliverable through a wire (or via wireless connections) with little or no diminution in quality and those that are not. And this unconventional divide dose not correspond well to traditional distinctions between jobs that require high levels of education and those that do not.”

Blinder suggests the crucial distinction in the labor market will be between what he calls “personal services” and “impersonal services.” The former either require face-to-face contact or are inherently tied to a specific site. Physicians who treat patients don’t need to worry that their jobs will be sent offshore, but radiologists who examine images have already seen this happen, just as accountants and computer programmers have. He goes on to point out that “you can’t hammer a nail over the Internet.”

The MIT economist Frank Levy makes a complementary argument. He puts the issue not in terms of whether a service can be delivered electronically or not, but rather whether the service is itself rules-based or not. Until recently, he writes, you could make a decent living doing a job that required you to carefully follow instructions, such as preparing tax returns. But such work is subject to attack on two fronts—some of it goes to offshore accountants and some of it is done by tax preparation software, such as TurboTax. The result is downward pressure on wages for jobs based on rules.

These economic developments command our attention. The intrusion of computers, and distant foreigners whose work is conceived in a computer-like, rule-bound way, into what was previously the domain of professionals may be alarming, but it also compels us to consider afresh the human dimension of work. In what circumstances does the human element remain indispensable, and why? Levy gestures toward an answer when he writes that “viewed from this rules-based perspective, creativity [sic] is knowing what to do when the rules run out or there are no rules in the first place. It is what a good auto mechanic does after his computerized test equipment says the car’s transmission is fine but the transmission continues to shift at the wrong engine speed.”

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

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Of the Smith-Hughes Act’s two rationales for shop class, vocational and general ed, only the latter emphasized the learning of aesthetic, mathematical, and physical principles through the manipulation of material things. It is not surprising, then, that the act came four years after Henry Ford’s innovation of the assembly line. The nascent two-track educational scheme mirrored the assembly lines severing of the cognitive aspects of manual work from its physical execution. Such a partition of thinking from doing has bequeathed us the dichotomy of white collar versus blue collar, corresponding to mental versus manual.

These seem to be the categories that inform the educational landscape even now, and this entails two big errors. First, it assumes that all blue-collar work is as mindless as assembly line work, and second, that white-collar work is still recognizably mental in character. Yet there is evidence to suggest that the new frontier of capitalism lies in doing to office work what was previously done to factory work: draining it of its cognitive elements. Paradoxically, educators who would steer students toward cognitively rich work might do this best by rehabilitating the manual trades, based on a firmer grasp of what such work is really like.

This would take courage. Any high school principal who doesn’t claim as his goal “one hundred percent college attendance” is likely to be accused of harboring “low expectations” and run out of town by indignant parents. This indignation is hard to stand against, since it carries all the moral weight of egalitarianism. Yet it is also snobbish, since it evidently regards the trades as something “low.” The best sort of democratic education is neither snobbish nor egalitarian. Rather, it accords a place of honor in our common life to whatever is best. At this weird moment of growing passivity and dependence, let us publicly recognize a yeoman aristocracy: those who gain real knowledge of real things, the sort we all depend on every day.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

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Descartes, generally credited with inaugurating the scientific revolution, begins from radical doubt about the very existence of an external world, and builds up the principles of scientific inquiry from the foundation of a radically self-contained subject.

Yet this solipsistic ideal doesn’t gibe perfectly with the history of science. For in fact, in areas of well-developed craft practices, technological developments typically preceded and gave rise to advances in scientific understanding, not vice versa. The steam engine is a good example. It was developed by mechanics who observed the relations between volume, pressure, and temperature. This was at a time when theoretical scientists were tied to the caloric theory of heat, which later turned out to be a conceptual dead end. The success of the steam engine contributed to the development of what we now call classical thermodynamics. This history provides a nice illustration of a point made by Aristotle:

Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of the admitted facts. Hence those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena are more able to lay down principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development; while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

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