One of the most common sights in today’s world is people of almost all ages attending to their smartphones or other electronic devices. More common among the young, but not unknown to their parents and grandparents, many live in an almost perpetual state of virtual engagement with friends, games, news, videos or music. The appeal is obvious and the benefits are many . . . but that’s not the whole story. And at this point in the world’s history, it’s not an entirely new story either.

Almost 20 years ago I was taking my wife’s car, an early 90’s Dodge Caravan, to a transmission shop. When the car was cold, it hesitated before engaging the first gear with a result that was both dangerous and uncomfortable. You’d push the gas, the engine would rev, the car wouldn’t move and then . . . slam, it kicked into gear and lurched forward. We had purchased the car with a 36,000 mile warranty. Since the problem developed at 38,000 miles (which is the subject of a different blog), I was headed to an independent transmission shop instead of to the dealer.

On my way there, I was participating in a modern state religious service by listening to public radio. The particular show was a feature on cutting edge technology then being deployed at a public high school in New Jersey. According to the commentator, the school had recently converted it’s “outdated and under used industrial arts classrooms,” into a new computer classroom. Industrial arts was a one-time modern name for wood and metal shop. It was a place where children learned how to build things and fix things with their hands. “In addition,” the commentator enthused, “the entire building was now wired for networking (today it’s no doubt wireless) so that every student has access to the Internet.” According to one of the history teachers, students search the net on particular topics as a way of completing their assignments. “Our goal,” explained the instructor, “is to empower the students. We can’t expect them to learn unless they are challenged and enabled to pursue subjects of interest to them,” and so on and so forth.

When I got to the transmission shop, the manager asked me about the problem and then said, “Let’s try something.” He hopped in the car and drove it down the alley next to the garage where four or five men were working on transmissions or differentials for half a dozen other cars. He disappeared into the bowels of the garage and emerged a moment later with a small, red plastic box, the top of which had a video display. On the side was a long, black cable with what looked like an old parallel computer plug. He reached under the dash board on the driver’s side, located an outlet and plugged in his portable device. The car, even in those days, had a couple of computers on board, one of which was supposed to control the transmission.

I stood there for perhaps 15 minutes while the manager and another mechanic tried to get the computer read out to work. They were good men. Clearly diligent, they patiently and without complaining tried all they good to get some information, knowing full well that in doing so they weren’t making any money. The best financial result they could hope for is that I would come back another time to have the transmission repaired.

While they were working I had time to look over the garage and watch the men at work, all the while thinking about the highly networked, state of the art, computerized high school in New Jersey, with it’s out of date and unused industrial arts building. The garage was at least 40 years old, built of steel with a large, high, half-round tin roof. It was undoubtedly modeled after the Quonset huts which became famous and familiar during World War II. (For younger readers, there is a great, short article with pictures describing Quonset huts on Wikipedia). The steel rafters that supported the roof were rusting wherever the paint was peeling, which was pretty much everywhere. Here and there a more recent addition, such as newer copper piping for some purpose, glistened in contrast to the backdrop of the older building. But for all the mess, work was getting done.

And therein lies the rub. When the car’s computer failed, the manager told me that the only way to find out what’s going on “is to yank the thing out of there, open it up and take a look.” Repairing cars is messy work. Transmissions are full of oil. Yanking it out and opening it up . . . let alone eventually repairing whatever is broken, will require tools made of steel, a building with hydraulic lifts sunk into the earth and someone with the physical strength, expert knowledge and willingness to go home at night with roughened hands and grease covered clothes to do the work. You can not create such men in a high school computer lab, now matter how fast your download speeds or sophisticated your smartphone, any more than you can satisfy your hunger with a virtual dinner. And if you do the work, your hands will be really dirty not virtually dirty.

For an excellent and more complete discussion of the blessing and importance of working with your hands, I highly recommend, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, by Matthew Crawford. You can by the book here from Amazon by clicking the following link. If you purchase the book that way, we earn a commission from Amazon on the sale but your price is the same.