College Quarterly
Fall 2005 - Volume 8 Number 4

A Response to William Humber’s Article "Intellectual and Utilitarian Identities", Fall 2003

by Dave Armishaw


This article is written in response to Humber’s concerns regarding the Ontario’s community colleges need to form a new identity. It is argued that a fresh view of craft could act as a catalyst in bringing together intellectual and vocational interests. This bond could affect the identities of the colleges and also graduates who enter the workforce with greater confidence in their vocational readiness and their importance to society. Craft is presented as an inclusive principle affecting varied forms of work, as opposed to an exclusive occupational category. Ultimately the community colleges affirm their role as a primary partner in delivering post secondary education.


William Humber should be commended for his candour in asking tough questions about identity in Ontario's community college system. As we partner with universities for all the right reasons, we have, as he pointed out, entered a secondary role.

Identity issues are sociological issues. They arise from the values and beliefs that we colleges hold and demonstrate when interacting with partners, the public and our graduates as they form their own identities.

It is therefore timely to consider the variety of participants affected. They include parents, seeking to help their children make wise choices for their education, and college faculty who recognize our increasingly differentiated academic rankings. The new roles and relationships that result from partnerships between community colleges and universities impact on these participants. Universities unapologetically expect to shape the personal identities of their graduates. Should the colleges not similarly redefine and project their identity?

These issues will be presented below in the context of craft, both as a rich and affirming heritage and as a potential catalyst to unify varied interests within the college system. I will promote a fresh consideration of craft in the light of various expressions of differentiation in society, which often do little more than gratify some people at the expense of others.

Misshapen Identity

The community colleges’ role in delivering skills training is directly affected by such dichotomies as mind versus body and intellectual versus vocational skills; so are the identities of many skilled workers who obtain their formal education from community colleges. As identity issues become increasingly important, our colleges must consider their beliefs about the relative value to society of the forms of knowledge they deliver. These beliefs and values will in turn greatly influence the identities of both the colleges and their graduates.

Let's begin by affirming our links to the rich tradition of skills transfer in the long history of craft. An examination of our own heritage will look well beyond the recent founding of the community college system in Ontario, to the establishment of guilds in England and Europe for skills training a millennium ago. Universities and craft share a great deal of history. Those guild organizations provided the pattern for universities and the professions they spawned (Krause, 1996). One of the greatest strengths of the university, however, is craft’s greatest need: an articulate voice to advocate on their behalf.

Many readers have experienced some form of craft work or have greatly admired a close relative who did. Yet were it not for our current shortage of skilled workers, they would rarely receive public mention. Are craft workers conspicuous only by their absence? And if delivering degrees becomes a key role of the community colleges, who will remain to speak for craft?

As Humber notes, the colleges continue to struggle in coming to terms with their changing roles (Humber, 2003; Barrett & Doughty, 2005). The uneasy alliances and conflicting identities that derive from differing academic and technical interests compare with sibling interactions, which can carry far into adulthood. The author recalls reminding his two now grown children that they were valued equally although their gifts and motivations were different. Their relationship and interactions seemed defined not by what they had in common but by the exaggerated importance of real or imaginary differences. While their personal identities continued to evolve, and still do, they seemed to be less than at ease with one another. (Thankfully I can report that a mutual appreciation is beginning to blossom.)

Students face similar identity issues as soon as they begin to compare their choice of education and the status and earnings they might enjoy in the future with the choices and successes (or failures) of other family members and friends. A community college education, as preparation for employment, has no less potential than a university education to provide solid ground for an individual’s work identity, as working with one’s hands is widely recognized as rewarding (Lowe, 2000, p. 84; Saunders, 1980).  As vocational training providers, community colleges have a great opportunity to positively reinforce the identities their graduates will take into the marketplace, since they prepare graduates both vocationally and intellectually.

An individual’s personal identity develops through adolescence (Erikson, 1968, p. 127) and remains pliable throughout adulthood, after being shaped by an individual’s choice of vocation (Cote, Allahar, 1994 p.34; Ransom, 1999, p. 168). It is widely recognized today that our work defines us in the view of the public, as evidenced by social introductions (Ciulla, 2000, p. xii).  As sociologist Lewis Coser noted years ago, pre-industrial artisans became defined in their local community and gained their personal identity as a direct result of the specific trades and occupations they took up as adolescents (Coser, 1984, p. x). So too do modern workers derive their identities from their work.

Intelligent Making

Community colleges need to be convinced that (as Humber points out) vocational training does indeed have an intellectual component. A group examining craft training in British public schools coined the term “intelligent making” when speaking of the twofold abilities of skilled, experienced and versatile individuals (Press, 1999). This term succinctly expresses the important role of native intelligence in skilled work. Writers discussing the history of craftsmanship emphasize this while recognizing the abilities of master masons, carpenters and metalworkers of the past (Lister, 1967, p. 11).

Craft excellence is the product not just of the proliferation of techniques, but also of essential human traits. Craft grows not solely as a result of more training, but also through effortful practice in one’s chosen vocation. Writers on the notion of a good workman lacking intelligence are puzzled by the idea that skills of the body and mind can be considered apart from each other (Ingold, 2001, p. 21).

A purely academic environment such as the traditional university might afford the luxury of elitism in deeming vocational skills lesser than intellectual ones (Axelrod, 1990). But vocational training providers need to confront such false and damaging prejudices.

A leading cultural anthropologist, the late Andre Leroi-Gourhan countered the mind-body dichotomy. Further, he stated that the artisan was essential to society’s progress. He expressed the conviction that “it is on the artisan that all technical progress depends” (Leroi-Gourhan, 1992 p.59). This was echoed by David Pye, an English craftsman and educator, who stated that a designer may conceive of something new, but the success of that plan depends totally on the craftsman, who alone possesses the ability to bring the idea into reality (Pye, 1968, p. 5). In contrast to the continually evolving abilities of the technical worker, Leroi-Gourhan, when referring to intellectual abilities, observed “how can we claim that anyone (in the strictest sense) thinks better than Plato?” (Leroi-Gourhan, 1992, p. 173).

In stark contrast to this view of the skilled worker who brings intelligence and dexterity to the workplace, North American society has abandoned the high view once held of the craftsperson. This has occurred after a century of deskilling, specializing, credentialing and professionalizing, resulting partly from the division of labour in the industrial revolution. Craft's loss of status intensified with the time study work of Frederick Taylor.

Though often recognized as unjustly divisive, such dichotomies as mind versus body, blue-collar versus white-collar, vocation versus profession and intellectual versus practical continue to have significant though subtle effects at various levels both within colleges and in the college-university relationship. Community colleges are not immune to these subtle effects while providing the in-school component of learning, which should contribute to excellence in the craft experience of plumbers, tool and die makers, graphic designers and nurses. How successfully these varied differentiations are managed within the colleges determines the identities of both the colleges and of their graduates. It has been said that we as individuals get the respect we expect. Is this not equally true for the view that the public holds of colleges?

The Role of Research

Humber's article expresses concern that research by colleges may divert scarce funds to activity that merely duplicates a role of the universities. We can agree that research must fulfill a worthwhile purpose. I am suspicious of a great deal of current research, which seems to have no other justification than to support an occupational group’s quest for full professional status. Occupational Advocacy Groups (OAGs) through their membership fees fund research. This is to fulfill a critical part of their quest for full professional status, since a unique and established body of research is essential to that quest (Moloney, 1992). However, colleges stand to gain very little from promoting this form of research.

Two important questions come to mind. First, could research not serve a positive role in bridging the longstanding dichotomy in colleges between academic and technical proponents? Secondly, is professionalization the only course that OAGs can take to gain the respect of the public? In the transition from vocation to profession, the mandate for preparing for vocational certification (a criterion of professional status) transfers from the college system to the university. Perhaps colleges could provide an alternative way to gain status that would be more appropriate to the function that the OAG's adherents perform in society.

Tacit Knowledge

Just as important as this research issue is the contrast between how experts acquire most of their knowledge and how educational institutions commonly deliver knowledge. Even as education relies heavily on measurable outcomes, it is important to remember that anyone who achieves a high degree of skill possesses knowledge infinitely greater than he or she can express verbally or in writing. Competence cannot always be accurately judged on the basis of what an individual can articulate.

"Tacit knowledge," academia’s preferred term for craft knowledge, is the wisdom or experience that a worker commonly uses at work. Extensive research confirms that an expert’s store of knowledge is largely composed of tacit or non-declarative knowledge, which is acquired and conveyed in a non-verbal fashion. (Dormer, 1992; Rothman, 1998, Gee et al., 1996, p. 66). Surgeons, automotive technicians and physiotherapists alike may be unable to explain everything they know or to justify their reasons for preferring certain techniques, but that does not reflect a lack of knowledge or suggest that their techniques are inappropriate.

These experienced individuals demonstrate “worker wisdom” or craft, yet none of those whom this author ever spoke to had heard the subject talked about. One, a local urologist who had taught medicine at a Canadian university, had personally experienced automaticity (the boon and the bane of the tradesman), but in his educational experience had never heard the topic discussed.

The tendency of craft workers to go about their business relatively contentedly irritates some people. Nursing advocates, for example, feel impatient with nurses who have no interest in progressing toward professional status (Moloney, 1992, p. 37). Though craft manifests itself in an understated fashion, it combines reflective and purposeful action with dexterity to accomplish complex tasks. Also, craft workers see the tangible results of their day’s work.

In some ways what we have discussed distills down to forms of social differentiation. Some covet the appearance of superior status as part justification for their years of personal sacrifice for education and advancement (Axelrod, 1990; Ehrenreich, 1989). Some, out of envy, seek to reduce or downplay the significance of the seeming elevated status of others. Skilled workers scorn the ham-fisted or clumsy workers, and educated people often scorn those with less formal education. A century of utopian writers and socialists have not discovered a cure for this dichotomy. Modern society is increasingly differentiated across economic and social lines.

Mr. Humber has suggested that colleges need some way to link applied education with intellect. Perhaps some catalyst could bring about this bond between dissimilar and seemingly incompatible elements. This catalyst would need to be broad in its base, historically sound, well rooted in the social sciences (sociology of work, labour studies, philosophy of technology) and of lasting benefit to colleges and to their relations with universities and graduates. Could that catalyst be craft?

A Place For Craft

What is craft? Craft refers to the acquired abilities of motivated individuals on the job, through apprenticeships or through preceptorships. Craft appears most prominently in vocations combining intelligence and skillful use of hands in planning, organizing and executing projects that bear visible evidence of fine workmanship. As a principle, craft must be appreciated apart from being embedded in organized labour, from hobby work and from the pervasive effect of Marx’s analysis of the alienating effects of industrialization on university and college curricula.

However, in place of endless rumination over the plight of the poor working masses, we can promote craft as both timeless and as underlying humanity at its productive best. The excellent knowledge and skill of the artisan, since earliest recorded history, has been honoured and recognized as essential to the ongoing betterment of society. This was true even for the ancient Greeks, who disdained performing manual labour themselves but respected its result.

Craft as a principle presses on in spite of a century-old euphoria over technique, which is rarely questioned in open forums and then only briefly. Craft presses on despite the accompanying technological determinism, which considers technique both beneficial and inevitable. The desire of most of us for meaning and a sense of full identity from our work, and for satisfaction from excellence and recognition (Rothman, 1998, p. 114), however, finds its best expression in the craft experience.

While not supplying us with our definition, several common uses of the term can help us understand craft. For example, an experienced teacher demonstrates craft as she enters a classroom, with a strong sense of competence about the field of study, and adjusts to unexpected events such as room schedule changes and diversionary questions from students. She is able to bring the class back on track, to think ahead through the lesson as she teaches, and cover essential issues within the required time frame.

A nurse caring for a patient uses as many tacit skills as those she learned formally, as she exercises the caring and spiritual sense she has developed. She is so well versed in conventional practice that her formal evaluation of the patient’s condition takes place below her level of consciousness, leaving her able to notice telltale signs that a novice would not recognize.

Finally, more in keeping with traditional use of the term, a fine woodworker moves quickly but deliberately as he completes a major remodeling of a homeowner’s kitchen. The homeowner’s misgivings about the woodworker's assurances of completion time change to begrudging admiration, as the worker's advanced proficiency makes the work seem deceptively simple.

Where we go from here

A craft-centred curriculum would direct students to a long-term view of their vocations, to methods of learning that are reflective (Schon, (1987) and incremental, to applying mastery across subject domains and to developing problem-solving skills. By knowing that at various career stages they will experience identifiable shifts or changes in personal competence, they will take opportunities to grow through formal upgrades, on-the-job learning opportunities with peers and their own ingenuity (Erickson et al., 2000).

Overlearning (the rehearsal of procedures until they are done unquestioningly) is the answer for certain tasks such as firefighting or electrical safety procedures. However, even an industry that benefits most from single-minded compliance to management's wishes recognizes its need for workers who can think laterally and are not stumped by the unexpected, as were those highly educated but overspecialized technicians during the disasters in Bhopal, India, or at Three Mile Island. Every profession calls for the ability to reach beyond the expected.

Craft occurs when the modern worker is able to move beyond what has been formally learned. Craft is not based on heuristics or formal rules, as researchers in the artificial intelligence field assume. Rather than being fully representable by an agglomeration of cascading true-or-false flow charts, expertise arises from years of reflective, informed and metacognitive practice. In time, craft workers develop to the point of being able to handle most of the unexpected in their work, without the novice's panic and helplessness. Hence craft-centred education emphasizes lateral thinking and problem solving.

In summary, the significance of craft to colleges and their training delivery appears on several fronts. First, colleges gain from recognizing craft not as quaint (basket weaving), problematic (labour unrest) or atavistic (bringing back the obsolete), but rather as a powerful expression of the maturing process in an individual’s normal work life. As has been discussed, craft is an inclusive, widely applicable principle rather than applying solely to traditional crafts and artisanry. Second, colleges benefit from recognizing that craft work can be gratifying when it offers a significantly degree of autonomy -- the right to select tools and to establish one’s own pace of work.

And third, colleges benefit from reconsidering their dependence on measurable outcomes. Rigid assessment of the student’s learning and the teacher’s performance increases dependence on fragmented, prescribed bits of declarative knowledge. This penalizes those students geared to the incremental, tacit knowledge that leads to genuine expertise.

This discussion has only touched on issues raised by William Humber. I hope that others will join in the discussion of how community colleges can evolve and project their identity more effectively.


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David Armishaw teaches at Georgian College, Barrie Ontario and can be reached at or (705) 327-5403


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2005 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology