Software as Soulcraft?post by Chris Curran on September 7, 2009
In his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford contrasts the fulfillment from working with your hands with the abstract world of the knowledge worker. For an abbreviated version, check out his NY Times essay. Being a closet Maker myself (more here), I was drawn into this topic as I often struggle with the creative limitations of the tools of our trade – laptop and phone.
In the essay, Crawford says:
High-school shop-class programs were widely dismantled in the 1990s as educators prepared students to become “knowledge workers.”
It’s not clear to me what exactly was created in place of shop (and auto mechanics, and woodworking). I don’t think that whatever replaced these hands on electives was the Information Age equivalent – something that teaches you to design and build something yourself like programming or circuit design. So, it seems like we removed the Industrial Age “shop class” electives but didn’t adequately fill the gaps. Is this even a problem?
As I look at the middle and high school courses available today to my children (5th and 8th graders), most if not all of their classes are computer supported, but nothing available during the school day attempts to delve into the inner workings of hardware or software. If we had fully replaced the shop classes with their information analogs, wouldn’t we have classes in circuits, micro-controller programming, algorithms and game development? Sure, there are some clubs and robotics teams, but they exist mostly after hours.
Looking at college curricula, only the C-S degrees do any real experiences working with hardware and software. As far as MIS undergrad degrees go, only a few classes in a four-year program deal with programming (US News top MIS program in 2009, University of Arizona, offer 2 classes that seem to involve programming – data structures and database management systems).
I think there are several interesting questions to explore as we think about the balance of hands-on work with more abstract work we deal with in IT:
- Does software development yield some of the same satisfaction as other hands-on work?
- Do we have adequate courses available to students (and employees) to allow them to explore the hands-on programming experience?
- Do we provide adequate career paths for those inclined to develop software?
- How has outsourcing impacted a company’s ability to provide a “complete” career experience for IT professionals?
- What amount of software development experience is desirable for those managing and leading IT?
My biggest worry is that programming has become the “manual labor” of the Information Age and will be de-emphasized the way that shop class was.