The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous “self-esteem” that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.
— Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft

As with most of the hair-brained projects I take on, doing my own motorcycle repair is a hobby I've taken up to fill the void left by the lack of physical results manifested in my vocation. I grew up riding dirt bikes, so it was inevitable that I finally buy a motorcycle for the road, and it was always a dream of mine to own a vintage bike that I could do all modifications and maintenance on myself. I bought a 1975 Honda CB750, one of the bikes that's always been on my list to own (along with the Triumph Bonneville and the Norton Commando). It had already been restored and rebuilt into a cafe racer by an experienced mechanic, so there was no work to be done to get it in riding condition, which was a good opportunity to learn the ropes of riding on the road, and all the dangers associated therein without having to worry too much about the technical side of things, however, it wasn't long before I began to make modifications on my own, and run into a few issues inherent in riding a vintage bike.

Learning curve

The first mishap was that I ran out of gas one day. Not a major issue, and I was glad to have my dad come bail me out (not the first or the last time) but it was an issue that was incurred through the reality that the bike came with no fuel gauge (or speedometer, but that matter was quickly resolved). I realized that there was an assumption made with these vintage bikes that their owner would be the owner and exerciser of some level common sense, and that to keep the bike in working order, the owner would have to rely on their intuition and know-how, rather than a series of gauges, read-outs, and mechanics capitalizing on ignorance. (Early bikes didn't even come with a oil pump, the rider would have to push a bubble repeatedly to prime the engine.)

We have a generation of students that can answer questions on standardized tests and know factoids but they can’t do anything.
— Jim Aschwanden, Cultural Agricultural Teachers

So, in order to ride without incident, I found I would have to visually check various aspects of my bike every time I got on it. However, this did not stop the clutch cable from breaking. One day during a leisure ride through the local college campus, I pulled the clutch to shift gears, and found it discouragingly slack. The cable had broken, and I was about 5 or 6 miles from home. In this situation, I found I had to improvise, by running alongside the bike, popping it into gear, and not stopping until I got home, which was an impossible feat. Needless to say, there were a few times where I could be seen jogging down the road in a very undignified manner. I did make it, however, and replaced the cable post-haste.

I later ran into an issue with the engine running rich and one of the carb bowls leaking fuel when the petcock wasn't closed, so I realized it was about time I rebuilt the carburetors. This was one of more enlightening maintenance projects I've performed on the motorcycle, because the carburetor is the lifeblood of the engine, and the bike wouldn't run without some fine tuning here. I replaced the jets, the needles, the float pins, the floats, and the valves. The bike wasn't running rich anymore, but now it was all four carburetor bowls that were leaking. Profusely. After a bit of adjustment with the floats and float pins, I was back in business, with the satisfaction of the bike being in better working condition after I was done than before I started.

What I enjoyed the most about working on a carburetor, is that if there's a problem with the way it's running, you can just look at it, and assess the issue, and fix it through a little bit of ingenuity and problem solving. With a computer, if something is broken, you can't just take it apart and look at its innards to find the damage. There is nothing on the surface of an electronic device that would indicate a flaw, but with physical objects like a motorcycle carburetor, if you've got a will to fix it, and only slightly more knowledge, the problem is evident and offers itself up for a solution. However, there are never two problems with the same solution. Unlike a computer, it is impossible to diagnose an issue simply by running a series of pre-programmed tests and applying a pre-determined solution. Every problem in the physical world requires some measure of abstract thinking and improvisation. That's where the brain is truly engaged in critical thinking, and that's what truly keeps a mind refreshed.

The loss of real-world skills

I've noticed quite a gap between the subject matter taught in schools and the skills useful for essential life. What I mean is, no teacher has ever instructed a student in the public education system in methods and techniques for sustaining primal life, disregarding inadvertent osmosis. We learn math, reading, writing, the sciences, anatomy, business dealings, stock markets, softwares, and all manner of intangible utilities, but if you were to take a student of the textbook and put him into an unfamiliar setting, he would be unable to provide for himself. Our hunting and gathering forefathers used tools, the hammer, the knife, the spear, and we have only the keyboard, the mouse, the pixel, and the email. Has the jungle changed? Undoubtedly it has, but the system of the survivalist nature hasn't.

It's not wrong that our young students learn arithmetic and science, but what is wrong is that we don't teach them to solve problems and arrive at their own conclusions, they are trained instead to memorize facts and answers. Reading is not based on phonetics, such as how the letter 'P' and the letter 'H' combine to make an 'F' sound. Students are taught to recognize whole words, and memorize a response to the combination of the building blocks, so that when these puzzle pieces are seen individually or in an unfamiliar arrangement, the reader is helpless to identify them or make any sense of their meaning. The same goes for arithmetic.

It is a popular method to "learn your times tables" in such a way that you must memorize the fact that 8 x 8 = 64, but no student truly understands why that is the case, nor is shown the mechanics of that reality or how many copies of 8 there really are in 64. They are meant to take someone's word on the matter, and if such a problem arises that doesn't match a previously memorized solution, or the memory fails, that student does not have the necessary equipment to solve the conundrum.

The key here is that we do not break down these scenarios into their essential parts and show students their inner workings. They are forced to take each situation as a whole at face value, so instead of learning how a carburetor disperses fuel into an engine to cause combustion to oscillate pistons to turn a gear to transfer power to a wheel, they are taught, "this is an engine, it makes a motorcycle go." so that anything that breaks or fails on any deeper level has delved down into the realm of mystery, and the subsequent solution is to replace the engine altogether out of ignorance.

More than a motorcycle

At this point, I hope it is clear I'm not talking merely about motorcycles, but about the egregious lack of problem solving skills that we are leaving our public school students with. They are taught to memorize answers so that they can pass tests, but as soon as a moving target is introduced with multiple variables, they are overwhelmed and they feel helpless to discern a solution. We are training our generations to run to google before they look to their own devices, and it's producing a workforce of non-starters and button pushers. They must be put into reliable situations with as few variables as possible and asked to perform menial tasks repeatedly so as not to allow for a possible error in judgement. And these workers will continue to produce mediocre, sub-par work and they will never innovate or find new ways or means. They will continue to operate in an expected pattern, fail to think abstractly, helpless drones, carrying out commands. We have created a generation of humans who have been programmed like computers, to carry out a set of commands to achieve expected results in one situation, with no skill for improvisation or common sense thinking.

Which would have advanced the most at the end of a month — the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necessary for this — or the boy who had attended the lectures on metallurgy at the institute in the meanwhile, and had received a rodgers’ penknife from his father? Which would be most likely to cut his fingers?
— Henry David Thoreau

In this case, there is no reason why a computer or robot could not perform their tasks with equal, or even greater skill, even without the risk of possible failure, or the possibility of those pesky emotions getting in the way, or any of that morale to sustain. The era of John Henry is over, and the steam drill has won. Because the new John Henrys are trying to figure out how to hammer a nail without smashing their fingers or getting their hands dirty. The future belongs to those who swim against the current, who aren't afraid to get dirty. Problem solving skills don't appear on resumés anymore, and those who have them are outnumbered and frustrated by the hoard of drones who can't see why things should change.

We have created a generation of children who can't think for themselves, and it will lead to the demise of industry, and subsequently, the erosion of the economy and the country. We are mass-producing test takers in the name of convenience, and no child is left behind, even if it would help them in the long run. We pretend that every human's cognitive process is exactly the same and we teach them all according to the same die-cut system. The smarter ones are slowed down, they get bored, they act out in class, are diagnosed with ADHD, and then drugged into a barely lucid stupor so that they learn at the same pace as the slower children. We are solving for the lowest common denominator. The kids who learn at a slower pace are pushed through the system anyway so that a school maintains their spotless record and continues to receive grant money. These students are graduated into the world without any real knowledge whatsoever, or as often is the case, into the penal system. How can such a society as this, with a system so dysfunctional as this succeed? I submit that it cannot.

An Artificial Wilderness

An Artificial Wilderness

Harper Creek

Harper Creek