Spaces in the world

Recently I was rereading Aldren Watson’s Country Furniture and was reminded of his observation that early American woodworkers were, as they had to be, generalists. In England the profession was ancient and structured and specialized; in the colonies a woodsmith had to be joiner and turner and sawyer and everything else, and as the cities grew and urban shops specialized there were always smaller towns where a generalist might be of service. There simply were not enough skilled workers — enough workers, period — to permit great specialization. What was needed in that environment, Watson wrote, was a “singular adaptability to find practical solutions,” not a learned understanding of existing solutions.

For that matter, a woodworker would be lucky to be able even to specialize in working wood; likely he raised some of his own food and perhaps ran one or two side businesses. Early American villages, Watson wrote, were only tenuously connected to the larger world, and so “Each person in the small community did all the things for which he had an aptitude.”

If a man in 1780 raised wheat in the spring, corn in the summer, sheared his sheep, worked a couple of days framing a new barn, cut sawlogs in the woods, and then built a table and a set of chairs form the lumber—what would he have called himself?… At a time when most occupational titles were conferred posthumously, most likely by a clerk who felt obligated to “put down something,” the label probably identified only what the man happened to be doing at the moment he died. It seems more sensible, then, to rank him for what he was—a man.

The space such a man occupied in the world was fluid, and so was he. They shaped themselves to one another — he to the needs of his place and his community, but his space in that community also to him.

Those passages resonated with me now especially because I realized that it’s how I’ve approached my work the past fourteen years, work that is now ending. I did a lot of things because nobody else was doing them and nobody told me not to, and then they figured out they really needed me to do them. I became the Guy Who Made Things Work. I aspired, at least, to have “a singular adaptability to find practical solutions.” I, like Watson’s country woodworker, was working on the margins, and so I could find a space and let it shape itself to me, rather than fitting myself to a space.

Now that space is a budget cut, but other spaces were not cut, and others have been created and filled even with scarce resources. (Think about the use of language: we create a position and then “fill” it. No human being appears anywhere in the sentence, or in the process.) The remaining spaces and the new ones are neat and orderly where mine spilled over, clearly defined where mine was colloquial, rigid where mine was fluid. What was marginal (and good, successful) has been absorbed into the institution.

Previous generations were, I think, more fluid, and so were the spaces they found. I don’t want to carry the generalization too far — of course there have always been specialized work and specialists to do it, and positions into which one had to be born. But as a rule both the people and the spaces were more fluid. There was a time, for example, when practically any educated person could try his or her hand at teaching, because the teacher, the classroom, and the curriculum were all permitted to adapt to one another’s possibilities. Two or three men could build a house, because it didn’t need plumbing and electricity and needed to meet only the (simple, limited) needs of a particular household. Now our houses must not only conform to building codes but have “resale value,” because they are spaces which others must be able to fill, and such spaces must be neatly defined, and so must we, to fill them. Margins were everywhere, even after the frontier was no longer a line on a map; now they are damned hard to find. When the city caught up to the country woodworker he could move a little farther on; now the city, literally and metaphorically, reaches everywhere.

Education has become largely a matter of being carved and molded to fit the world’s existing and ever narrower spaces. When one of those spaces closes — by technology or politics or the forces of “progress” — the person who filled it is simply squeezed out. There is nowhere else for him to fit. The result is an epidemic of what economists call “long-term unemployment,” but which could also be called mass uselessness. A generalist in a generalized economy will never be long out of work, but when a specialist loses his specialty, he’s finished. Government programs won’t solve the problem, because it’s built into our economy, our society, our schools, our culture. Most people are only good for one or two things, and if those things are no longer valued, then they’re not good for anything. Thus, at least, sayeth The Economy.

I’m not convinced that democracy is possible in a society that demands that people mold themselves narrowly to its spaces. Democracy assumes, I think, the dignity of the individual human being, but where is the dignity in such a system? Where, for that matter, is the human being? Democracy and humanity are fluid, messy things that overrun their banks with alarming frequency, and there is no room for them in a well-ordered world.

There is room for humanity and democracy and, I’m increasingly afraid, for good thoughtful work only on the margins, and so I suppose in looking for work — or rather in looking for money; I have plenty of work — I’m looking for a new margin I can occupy for awhile. That is a strange realization, but one that I find comes easier to me than filling in the spaces on a job application.

My daughter is taking her annual standardized test this week, which the state requires of all home schools. She thinks it’s a lark, because we haven’t suggested that it’s anything to worry about or to take any more seriously than the rest of her work, and because the rest of her life is not a series of spaces to be filled, with or without a number two pencil. Afterward she ran outside to weed the garden, and later designed a scratch-and-sniff menu for a restaurant for cats — a practical and adaptable solution, if ever there were one, albeit to a ludicrous problem. At age seven, it’s the thought that counts. Her world is fluid and so is she, and if remaining that way consigns her to the margins, so be it. She’ll have the chance to be fully human out there, and at least she’ll know what she’s in for.

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