There was a time, before college became accessible to all and the computer revolution transformed our economy, when all American schoolboys were required to take shop class (the girls took home ec). But today, “shop class is dead,” declares Forbes, “and so are the potential tradespeople that would be born out of that early exposure to a tool or machine.” One celebrity understands how far-reaching is the impact of that loss, and he has undertaken to revive shop class and the spirit of self-reliance that it fostered.
Actor John Ratzenberger may not be a household name, but as Cliff Claven, the trivia buff mailman and Norm’s bar buddy on the long-running Cheers, he was a still-familiar face on one of the most-loved sitcoms in television history. That was just one role in Ratzenberger’s very lengthy acting résumé that more recently includes voiceover work in literally every Pixar animated film to date (Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, the Toy Story franchise, etc.).
In the real world, Ratzenberger is now behind an initiative to bring back shop class to middle schools and high schools across America. The aim is to re-instill the fading virtue of self-reliance to young students who have grown up at ease with the latest high-tech games and gadgets, but who are utterly helpless when faced with a common problem like a leaky pipe or electrical short.
On the Fox News Channel’s Your World last weekend, host Neil Cavuto introduced John Ratzenberger as a man who wants to get America “back to making things and not just buying things.” The actor told Cavuto that America was “built by people who knew how to use tools. That’s what brought us to the dance.” But “this is the first generation in the history of the world that has been raised not knowing how to use tools. So we’re in jeopardy.”
When Cavuto asked what was the use these days of taking shop, Ratzenberger replied that “It makes you a more well-rounded human being, more capable and self-reliant if you can fix your own screen door.” That doesn’t mean you necessarily have to make a career out of working with your hands, he adds, but the basic skills you develop in shop class are indispensable in our daily lives.
(As an aside, I was reminded of the dinner party scene in an episode of Mad Men in which 1960s ad man Don Draper strips off his dress shirt to deal with a spraying leak in the kitchen faucet. “Look, it’s Superman,” says one of the admiring wives. While fellow exec Pete is still digging around in the toolbox, Don reaches under the sink and fixes the leak, to the applause of all present. That scene perfectly reflects the manual competence and self-reliance that the man’s man Don acquired during a hard-luck youth, and that distinguish him from his less handy, more upper-crust colleagues.)
If you do choose to pursue a trade, Ratzenberger continued, “there’s a lot of jobs in manufacturing right now, a lot of jobs in construction, and there’s nobody to fill ‘em because we neglected to teach our children how to use tools and we’ve denigrated the image of manufacturing.”
Part of the problem is an increasing emphasis in recent decades on college and “knowledge jobs” over apprenticeship and manual labor. Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe – another celebrity who understands the value of skilled labor – once testified before the Senate Commerce Committee that “in a hundred different ways, we have slowly marginalized an entire category of critical professions, reshaping our expectations of a ‘good job’ into something that no longer looks like work.” And the result is an America that less and less resembles the self-reliant country that built itself into the world’s preeminent superpower.
To address this, Ratzenberger personally donated one million dollars to his project called the National Educational Initiative. The NEI promotes the joys of working with your hands to students who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity for hands-on experience, so to speak, making or repairing things. It recently kicked off in Georgia, and Ratzenberger hopes to take it state by state across the entire country.
The NEI is part of Ratzenberger’s Foundation for America which “exists to educate and prepare American workers, manufacturers, educators, innovators and leaders for an American manufacturing renaissance.” Its goal is to help “put more Americans to work, produce more American-made products, spark innovation, grow the economy and re-establish America’s rightful place as the greatest producer of intellect, products and people the world has ever known.” Reinstating shop classes in our schools lays the groundwork for that.
In the compelling Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, Matthew B. Crawford writes about the dignity and satisfaction of manual work that actually produces something of worth, as opposed to an information economy job shuffling papers in a cubicle: “A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world.” At a time when many Americans are yearning for meaningful work but are beginning to question the necessity of a college education, John Ratzenberger’s campaign could help regenerate respect for the honest labor of skilled tradespeople, and reinvigorate this nation’s do-it-yourself spirit of old.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/3/15)