Friday, November 10, 2006

Build This World

But not with us.

I'm teaching this ENGL 1203 this semester -- that's the first half of Freshman comp -- and we're at the end of the semester, where I start teaching them about Rogerian argument, and begging them not to do what America has been doing for the past dozen years or so. Build common ground, I say. Assume, even if, or especially if, you don't believe it, that those you are trying to convince are at least as well-intentioned and well-educated as you are. Treat the enemy like your neighbor: like your fellow human.

And why would you do this? Because Jesus and Buddha and Plato said you should?

No. Because it works.

Anyway, all of that, yap yap yap, I go on about it in class until my students can recite it like the alphabet, and then I give them essays and make them tell me what the writers are doing that's effective, in a Rogerian sense, or inneffective, in a Rogerian sense.

Which brings me to this essay, "Shopcraft as Soulcraft," by Matthew Crawford, lately linked off the Arts and Letters page of the Chronicle of Higher Ed:

Let me say up front that on the whole it is a fine piece of work, and that I like his thesis. Further, my students liked the essay too, despite its length and his discouraging habit of saying things like "gratuitous ontological insecurity is no fun for most people."

This point here, for instance, is an excellent one:

" While manufacturing jobs have certainly left our shores to a disturbing degree, the manual trades have not. If you need a deck built, or your car fixed, the Chinese are of no help. Because they are in China. And in fact there are reported labor shortages in both construction and auto repair. Yet the trades and manufacturing are lumped together in the mind of the pundit class as “blue collar,” and their requiem is intoned. Even so, the Wall Street Journal recently wondered whether “skilled [manual] labor is becoming one of the few sure paths to a good living.” This possibility was brought to light for many by the bestseller The Millionaire Next Door, which revealed that the typical millionaire is the guy driving a pickup, with his own business in the trades. My real concern here is not with the economics of skilled manual work, but rather with its intrinsic satisfactions. I mention these economic rumors only to raise a suspicion against the widespread prejudice that such work is somehow not viable as a livelihood."

But -- here comes my giant but -- all through the essay, Crawford has passages like these:

"The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, who has no real effect in the world."

"Finding myself at loose ends one summer in Berkeley, I built a mahogany coffee table on which I spared no expense of effort. At that time I had no immediate prospect of becoming a father, yet I imagined a child who would form indelible impressions of this table and know that it was his father’s work."

"More fundamentally, the durable objects of use produced by men “give rise to the familiarity of the world, its customs and habits of intercourse between men and things as well as between men and men,” as Hannah Arendt says."

Women, when they appear in Crawford's discourse at all, (apart from the scholars he cites) appear as wives -- there to sniff him when he returns from a hard day at work and attempt to guess, unsuccessfully, of course, about what he might have been doing all day long (such things being beyond a woman, I'm to suppose?) or to accompany the man to the bars he frequents and be the audience as he wins applause from the bikers whose machines he has repaired.

My students, who are, and I swear to you, good students -- they have cottoned on to this Rogerian thing, they understand the damage that is done when a writer fails to reach out to his audience -- but when I pointed this problem out to them, how Crawford, by ignoring half of the population, lost half of his audience, not only did they utterly refuse to agree with me, refuse to admit that this problem existed in Crawford's essay, they grew absolutely furious with me for pointing it out.

Not all of them, mind you. Three or four of the women agreed with me.

But about nine of the men and maybe three of the women were pretty angry.

So we've still got some room to go, folks, turning this red state blue.


Anonymous said...

But as women, aren't we so trained to see the world through men's eyes that Crawford isn't actually losing us as an audience?

Not saying that Crawford's sexist writing isn't problematic. Just that women readers compensate so that male authors don't suffer loss of audience when presuming a male perspective.

UltraViolet said...

Thank you! I googled the book, and your blog post came up. As I was perusing it, I noticed, "geez he seems pretty male-centric, sigh, what else is new", and lo and behold, that was your point! As a linguist, I know the power language has in shaping our worldview. I look forward to the day when gender-biased language seems outdated and bizarre to all who read it.