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The one about Craft

Craft is a word to start an argument with.

David Pye (1978)


I’ve been thinking about craft lately, particularly in the context of increasingly competent AI. A lot of the commentary in this area suggest that the value of human beings will be in the ‘art’ and ‘craft’ of teaching, with the implication being that artificial intelligence (being a cold and emotionless algorithm) can have the ‘science’ part (or, at least, the admin).

But what do we even mean when we talk about ‘craft’? Is ‘craft’ something that’s hand-made? Something that includes imperfection? Something that takes time to produce? I think there’s a lot to be gained with an in-depth exploration of the idea of craft, especially since it seems to be the place that many of us are looking for refuge.


Klein, J. & Updegraff, M. Defining ‘Craftsmanship. Mortise & Tenon podcast. Accessed October 14, 2022.

In this latest podcast episode, Joshua and Mike tackle a particularly thorny question head on: What is “craftsmanship,” exactly? While woodworkers of all kinds share a mutual appreciation for craftsmanship, surprisingly, there have been different ideas of what it even means. Is “craftsmanship” the same thing as “making” or is there something more to it? Can woodworking skill be reduced to the ability to repeat precise hand motions? Joshua and Mike argue that there’s more to it than that. Throughout the course of the discussion, they explain that the aim of technology is to displace skill for the sake of ease and precision. While technical developments provide real, tangible blessings in so many areas of life, Joshua and Mike contend that it is worth pondering how the “technologizing” of our craft can diminish its splendor.

Thanks to David Nicholls, who turned me onto the Mortise & Tenon podcast and magazine. I really appreciate the academic rigour that the magazine editors and podcast hosts bring to the conversation on craft. This episode was an eye-opener for me, as I’d never seriously considered what it means to craft something.


Mills, C. W. (1980). On intellectual craftsmanship. Society, 17(2), 63–70.

Everyone seriously concerned with teaching complains that most students do not know how to do independent work. They do not know how to read, they do not know how to take notes, they do not know how to set up a problem nor how to research it. In short, they do not know how to work intellectually. Everyone says this, and in the same breath asserts: “But then, you just can’t teach people how to think,” which they sometimes qualify by: “At least not apart from some specific subject matter,” or “At least not without tutorial instruction.” There is the complaint and there are the dogmatic answers to the complaint, all of which amount to saying: “But we cannot help them much.” This essay is an attempt to help them.

I’ve been a long-time proponent of the idea that ‘work’ and ‘life’ should be kept separate, so that you can focus deeply on each. One of the main ideas I took away from this essay was that, with enough care, you can use each to enrich the other. The work of scholarship means that we have the opportunity to design a way of living. In the words of the author, “…the intellectual workman forms his own self as he works towards the perfection of his craft.”


Mortise & Tenon magazine. (2021). House by Hand. Mortise & Tenon Magazine.

This project is the fruition of 15 years of dreaming, and saving, and working. It is not only an exhilarating and fascinating exploration for the carpenters involved, but it is also designed to be the focal point of the Klein boys’ homeschool education. The Kleins want to show their boys that “another work _is_ possible.” Just because we may not _currently_ have the skills or knowledge to achieve our goals, we would do well to remember that attainment is not hopelessly outside of our reach. But it takes dedication, discipline, and a willingness to routinely fall on your face.

I’ve included this link as it got me thinking about several ideas that may be relevant for teaching:

  • Many ‘old’ things are worth saving.
  • Sometimes we need to learn new skills in order to move projects forward.
  • Some projects take a long time to complete.
  • And they require care if they’re to be done well.
  • They may also require significant investment of time and money.
  • Building a community around a project ensures that you don’t have to do everything on your own.
  • Failing is part of growing.
  • …I’m sure that there are many other lessons that could be learned here, but these are the ideas that resonated with me.

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