Crafting New Problems

I was fortunate enough to hear Richard Sennett talking about 'craft' recently, and his ideas struck a real chord with me. His basic thesis is that today we teach people how to solve problems mechanically ("operational skills"), but we don't teach them how to identify new problems, set their own standards for achievement and be creative about deciding what needs doing next ("craft skills"). And the result of this, he believes, is a massive de-skilling of society.

Looking back at the Enlightenment (a topic of great interest to me at the moment after my work with the RSA), Sennett identifies two different strands of Enlightenment thought. The "Northern European" strand, draws on Rousseau and Kant to assert the primacy of the mind over the physical world, the angel part of us to 'transcend' into pure reason and nobility. The second strand is embodied by the RSA and the pragmatists, who valued action in the world alongside intellectual endeavour - a life of the hands as well as the head. It is his belief that we have privileged the former at the expense of the latter, and turned ourselves into machines in the process.

Rousseau, for example, argued for the "ideal parent", rational and complete - but his opponent Madame d'Epiney said that this "parent machine" ensures that nothing is ever good enough. Today, we assess our children in schools for their ability to find the right answer; we ask "who is the best at closure?" We measure them against an absolute right, rather than what is good enough for them. It is an abstraction that robs them of their humanity, their sociability. Finding the "right" answer denies individual expression, turns us into robots. Training us to solve problems actually leaves us "de-skilled".

According to Sennett, the key principle of "craft" is that it doesn't seek to find the right answer. Instead, it values the process of finding and solving problems, and therefore the ongoing joy of finding new things to explore. Craft values humanity because it values doing a job well for its own sake. Skilled people value "interesting wrong answers", new hypotheses. In other words, there is value in doing something badly because it helps us learn and improve.

It feels contradictory for a blog about "doing things badly" to espouse craftsmanship, when the word implies so much about quality and doing a job well. But could it actually be that our obsession with finding the one right answer in fact deprives us of our ability to learn and improve? If we set ourselves up against abstracted and inhuman standards, we position ourselves - in Ruskin's words - between "the twin crevices of achievement and despair." It is only by pursuing our crafts for their own sake, repeating actions without concern for failure, that we will get better than before.

As Sennett says, "we need a story of how people get better, rather than an image." Right answers close subjects down. Doing something badly is the start of a conversation.