Friday, August 30, 2013

Cathedrals in the Sky

Our modern expectations are nothing short of astounding, and no, I'm not talking about anything related to the internet. I am talking about the modern expectations that our cars, planes, and other long standing technologies perform consistently and effectively. We may live in a "disposable society" but the modern trends in civic manufacturing (such as commercial aviation) stand in contrast to the forced obsolescence of the modern computing revolution.

Cathedrals in the Sky 

Recently I have been watching documentaries on the Airbus A380. The engineering challenges for such a Cathedral in the Sky are nothing short of immense. The amount of work it takes to produce such an airplane remind me very much of the efforts taken to build the great cathedrals.

Huge modular parts are made globe-stretching distances apart before these parts are then shipped, often at high cost and in unique fashion to one location for final assembly. It is a massive amount of human labor, augmented with mechanical technology, that sees these operations through.

Cathedrals of the older eras were built mostly with experience and certainly not with notions of engineering theory. Such a Master Mason of that day would not be surprised in the least by the division of labor and organization require to build the many massive modern projects; from skyscrapers to jumbo air planes. The master masons were the planners of their day, and in that day human and individual labor was viewed in a much different light then it is today. The whole notion of a strict planner was not an idea that many writers of that day were comfortable with.

Drucker's Stoncutter's

It is with this in mind that I would like to once again draw upon Peter F. Drucker's recounting of the stonecutters.

In Drucker’s version, when asked what they were doing, the first stonecutter replied:
“I am making a living”.
The second kept on hammering while he said:
“I am doing the best job of stone cutting in the entire country.”
The third stonecutter, when asked the same question said:
"I am building a cathedral"
Managers and thinkers like Drucker, and Rao  have a tendency to eschew the idea of a narrowly focused, second stonecutter, subject matter expert; one with "too much" skill is a problem to them for whatever inane reason, I'm here to tell you that such notions are deleterious to our society.

I keep coming back to this story perhaps because it is so emblematic of the many problems facing our economy right now. We have many many mis-trained unqualified "cathedral builders." (You might have heard them referred to as "over-qualified" yet the fact remains over-qualified is simply a more polite term for "dis-qualified"). It is important here to note the metaphor of Drucker's story. I would like to latch onto this. It's just a metaphor.

Perhaps unfortunate for thinkers like Drucker and Rao we as a species still engage in massive scale engineering projects. The Airbus A380 is one among many. I don't need to recount the entirety of modern attempts to build big, I shouldn't have to. YouTube has countless channels devoted to such efforts, from the Emma Maersk to the 747 Any number of these massive projects, despite the many improvements of the modern age could not and would not have been possible without the modern equivalent of a narrowly focused tradition of craftsmanship.

Modern Stone Cutters

Welding Turbine blades isn't a task that can be easily automated. Tolerances must remain tight but the space between blades is minuscule. So as much as Drucker hated the, "Best Stonecutter in the Town" he would be out of luck should he seek to hire either the first or the third welder. In this sort of circumstance, when people's lives matter, you don't want either a clock puncher or a smooth political player who knows just what to say to the boss when he walks by.

This is where I start to wonder what exactly Drucker meant with his story. He latches onto the idea that the third stone cutter has, "vision" yet with such an example I think this interpretation is overly generous. The example in itself doesn't really provide an adequate amount of data to definitely claim the third stonecutter was truly visionary. To be fair to Drucker I think he was using this example as motivation for executives. But even still I don't think the story as recounted is really that convincing. After all in this modern economy of, "the next killer app" Drucker would likely fire the third stonecutter as well.   

It would be easy to argue that the modern age has supplanted the need for craftsman. The number of graduates with Humanities and Social Science degrees and their subsequent problems finding work in the economy speaks to this notion. People still need the second stone cutter.

Many modern tasks, even those that require great precision are easily automated, and indeed many many tasks on the Airbus A380 are augmented with technology yet you can't escape that even in the modern age craftsmanship in its truest sense is still needed. Yet the type of craftsman who can weld turbine blades doesn't come by this skill over night nor does the master machinist who finish the parts.  In all these instances depth of knowledge is paramount. One cannot just walk into these craftsman jobs. Turbine blade welders and micron shaving machinists take years of hands on learning and they all are analogous to the second stonecutter.

The modern educational system, in America at least, eschews this very idea of apprenticeship, and manual on the job learning. Rolls-Royce (the manufacture of the A380s engines) is a British company and I from what little I know the British and the Europeans in general seem to have a much greater respect for craft then we do here in the States. 

The Virtues of the Second Stone Cutter

Many people, including the likes of Harvard view the second stone cutter as "incomplete" and "lacking vision." Yet this long standing view of our educational establishments dangerously places "vision" above measurable skill. So Harvard may see it a problem if it produces too many of the second stonecutters. Yet for the rest of the non-ivy-league world these sorts of vapid ruminations have a damaging influence. These "visions" are just that, mirages lodged deep in the heart. It is no wonder industry sees the current educational climate as ineffective at producing quality applicants, humanities academia, rather then focusing on simple problem solving always insist its students add their two cents towards the intractable problems of our age.

Yet the problems don't stop there, in this economy there aren't even enough of the third type of mason, the one just earning a living. For many many people in many different lines of work "vision" isn't what is desired for either fulfillment or "destiny" or any other of the poorly conceptualized ideologies of the ivory tower.

No, much of the educational establishment has forgotten the virtues of the second stone cutter. Too many people today want to skip the hard work, the sweat, and the toil that come with being genuinely good at something.

Being genuinely good is the traditional level that a craftsman operates at. It goes without saying these craftsman will never be peer to the generalist executive. Why would they want to be? The no skill beamer-driving "big-buck" executive will never respect the time and practice (measured in years) that it takes to be genuinely good at something. The second stonemason and the great craftsman is the man you hire because he is that craftsman and his skill is vital to the success and safety of your 15 million dollar state-of-the-art super-jumbo aircraft engine. What executive can ever claim he has had a measurable impact on the physical operation of such expensive equipment? In this sense the second stone cutter rises above the first, and third stone cutters. The executive can say whatever he likes about the character of the second stone cutter, but he is rightfully speechless when presented with the outcome of his steady craftsmanship.

What I am getting at here should be obvious to those who engage in and learn craftsmanship; perhaps this lesson is lost now on all the over-educated would-be executive types: "Vision" is nothing without substance. And as conventional wisdom rightly tells us we don't trust our lives with poorly crafted products. As long as this economic fact exists there will forever remain the need for the second stone cutter.

Now if I can only convince enough people, and educational institutions to stop focusing on the lessons of the third stone cutter and focus more on the forgotten lessons of the second.

So what about "Vision"

I don't want to be misunderstood here, I'm not against one having a vision or a dream or a desired outcome. We all have them and we all should act upon them; however, what I want to make absolutely clear is that a sloppy idea, or an inarticulate vision is nothing short of a worthless waste of time, and it will neither enrich you or improve the lives of those around you. These sorts of cathedrals in the sky plummet when subjected to test or measure.  

I view the humanities side of academia in this light. They are great at producing philosophy and study after study; yet both are simply vapid sources of further contention. The only substance to such matters is the money that the politicians and the public assign to those philosophies and endless social studies.

Skill on the other hand is a sort of substance all its own. In these instances "Vision" is both easier to come-by and more easily attainable, a good mechanic is more likely to be able to envision a custom car shop then say an English major. By the same token you might argue that the English major could be a better writer, but if that were true. I think it goes without saying, my point is that the good mechanic has his place and that place is much needed in addition to being standardized and well measured. There is however no similar standardized (or "needed") place for a graduate of English.

In the end both the English major and the Mechanic suffer for our society's inability to focus on the lessons of the second stone cutter. The English major because no one cares about them upon graduation, the least of which the former professors, and the mechanic because that English major will now forever look down upon him or her and those engaged in other such craftsmanship related professions. The Modern Language Association could perhaps do better and seek to find a place in society for its the graduates of English.

You are probably laughing right now, and for good reason. It is quite sad really, is it not? God forbid the MLA, or for that matter any other humanities organization actually seeking to establish some sort of apprenticeship or job transition for the countless numbers of humanities graduate each year. 

America needs a rebirth of the real apprenticeship, be it in the trades or in the office, otherwise we as a country are destined to produce graduates who are not qualified for anything; except perhaps entrepreneurship, and surely it is obvious that this is not a choice we as a nation can sustain, it's not working now.