COOL CLASSES: “The Contest Over Quality: The Ethics and Politics of Craft and Design”

This political science course explores the central question: What balance should we as individuals strike between craft, design, and marketing, given that the world economy is increasingly elevating design and marketing over craft, while all have undoubted values?

Class name: “The Contest Over Quality: The Ethics and Politics of Craft and Design”

Taught by: Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science Thomas Donahue

Here’s what Donahue had to say about his class:

Design and marketing have triumphed over craft in the world economy. Steve Jobs—the very model of a designer-cum-marketer—is the messiah, while Dennis Ritchie—a true craftsman—is forgotten. Is this all to the good? What is lost when craft is marginalized? This course examines the value of both craft and design, and the forces backing them. The course centers on one main question: What balance should we as individuals strike between craft and design, given that both have undoubted values? How much authority should we give to design, and how much to craft? How can we tell what is good quality and what isn’t when people disagree so vehemently and in apparent good faith about what is good and why? The course aims to give students the tools to work out their own answers to these questions. To do this, we examine how the world economy and society have become ever more abstract, focused on images and unexamined ideas, rather than things and worked-out concepts. We will look at the exploitation involved in the making of industrial necessities and luxury goods, and the alienation inherent in both the manufacturing work of today and much so-called “knowledge work.” We examine how design and marketing triumphed over craft in their struggle for authority, thanks, in good part, to modernism’s attempts to achieve social justice and efficiency through large-scale industrial production. Next, we look at the value of good design and marketing: what they achieve and what they give to the world. We then examine the nature and value of craft and work(wo)manship. We will look at arguments that only handwork and dedication reliably prevent alienation from one’s labor in the new hyper-capitalism, and at defenses of the budding handcrafts movement.

I wanted to create this course because I am struck by how design and spin increasingly marginalize craft. In the world economy today, designers are the heroes and marketers their hatchet men. Those who actually get the job done—who realize the design, build the object, make the model a reality—are ignored. The design and how to spin it are what have authority nowadays; the process and the making are seen as dirty, unskilled jobs. This hegemony of design over craft definitely has benefits. It aids and abets large-scale capitalism. Economies of scale and streamlined design processes let big makers produce ever niftier gadgets at ever lower prices. This benefits everybody: people living in mud huts today have smartphones. But when design marginalizes craft, something important is lost. Dedication, handwork, good materials, adjusting the work to the environment in which it’s done, putting your soul into it, learning from tradition, respect for excellence—in short, the qualities that make up craft—are increasingly devalued. This obviously harms small and scrupulous makers. But it harms others too. For in a world economy in which designers are the heroes and marketers the hatchet men, work and its products become ever more abstract and insubstantial.

Of course, craft and its defenders are putting up a spirited resistance to the hegemony of design and spin. Yet what should we make of all this? In particular, how much value should we assign to design, and how much to craft, knowing that the world economy gives a lot more weight to the first than the second? Obviously, design and marketing do have value. So what kind of value should we give them, if we think that the values in craft are worth promoting? How you answer these questions will shape how you answer the basic question of ethics: how should I live?

See what other courses the Political Science Department is offering this semester.

Cool Classes is a series that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford experience.