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Wisdom Through Writing: The Poet as Maker

I woke up early this morning to the sound of my dog tearing apart the garbage bag that certain unnamed members of my household left out overnight, so I decided I’d look for the annual Quarantid meteor shower in the north combined with Venus approaching its highest and brightest point over in the east with Mercury just below her. To add insult to insult, not only had the dog made a particularly smelly mess, but the sky was too cloudy to see anything.

Consequently, now I just feel lousy and have turned to my blog for consolation. In my previous post, I asserted that we need to prioritize making over doing or processing, which was not an entirely clearly distinction, as Kimberly points out in her question in the comments to that post.

So I thought about this distinction with the awareness that I mainly want to emphasize the importance of thinking about the distinction so that we can think with it. It follows that getting one person to ask the question accomplishes my purpose.

However, I also am asking the question, so it might not be harmful to include some reflections. As I perceive it, the difference between making and doing may best be visible when observing the work of a line worker in a factory versus the work of a craftsman in his workshop.

The factory worker knows very little about what he is making and his part in the making is very small. As a result, I would suggest that he is not really making, but simply doing.

Why does this matter? Primarily because it dehumanizes the worker. To make is one of the defining functions of human beings. To do is the role of a slave or, at best, a servile worker, one who is under the authority of another, who does not put anything of himself – his talents, insights, experience, gifts, etc. – into the work. Indeed, the doer is commonly prevented from incorporating anything of his own.

Here is a quotation from Wendell Berry’s Home Economics, from which this meditation grew (the essay is called The Loss of the University:

But to assume that there is a degree of specialization that is proper is at the same time to assume that there is a degree that is improper. The impropriety begins, I think, when the various kinds of workers come to be divided and cease to speak to one another. In this division they become makers of parts of things. This is the impropriety of industrial organization, of which Eric Gill wrote, ‘Skill in making… degenerates into mere dexterity, i.e. skill in doing, when the workman… ceases to be concerned for the thing made or… has no longer any responsibility for the thing made and has therefore lost the knowledge of what it is that he is making…. The factory hand can only know what he is doing. What is being made is no concern of his.’

As one who has had the misfortune of working in a factory, I understand both the truth and the limitation of what he is saying. Essential to my argument is the realization that knowledge and responsibility are bound together and that true making requires both.

The distinction applies forcefully when we teach students to write. I don’t want my students to do an essay. I want them to make one. I want them to be responsible for the craftsmanship and the knowledge involved in the making. I want them to strive for quality, not quantity or even completion. They must order their thoughts purposefully, not administratively. The goal is to make makers, thinkers – not bureaucrats and space-fillers.

I find it compelling to remind myself that the Greek word for maker is poet.

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