What Happened to the Craftsmanship Spirit?
THE scene inside the Home Depot on Weyman Avenue here would give the old-time American craftsman pause.
In Aisle 34 is precut vinyl flooring, the glue already in place. In Aisle 26 are prefab windows. Stacked near the checkout counters, and as colorful as a Fisher-Price toy, is a not-so-serious-looking power tool: a battery-operated saw-and-drill combo. And if you don’t want to be your own handyman, head to Aisle 23 or Aisle 35, where a help desk will arrange for an installer.
It’s all very handy stuff, I guess, a convenient way to be a do-it-yourselfer without being all that good with tools. But at a time when the American factory seems to be a shrinking presence, and when good manufacturing jobs have vanished, perhaps never to return, there is something deeply troubling about this dilution of American craftsmanship.
This isn’t a lament — or not merely a lament — for bygone times. It’s a social and cultural issue, as well as an economic one. The Home Depot approach to craftsmanship — simplify it, dumb it down, hire a contractor — is one signal that mastering tools and working with one’s hands is receding in America as a hobby, as a valued skill, as a cultural influence that shaped thinking and behavior in vast sections of the country.
That should be a matter of concern in a presidential election year. Yet neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney promotes himself as tool-savvy presidential timber, in the mold of a Jimmy Carter, a skilled carpenter and cabinet maker.
The Obama administration does worry publicly about manufacturing, a first cousin of craftsmanship. When the Ford Motor Company, for example, recently announced that it was bringing some production home, the White House cheered. “When you see things like Ford moving new production from Mexico to Detroit, instead of the other way around, you know things are changing,” says Gene B. Sperling, director of the National Economic Council.