The Master Builder Tradition – what happened? Part II

Before plowing on with this topic, I wanted to look again at what I said about General Contractors in Part I- I would say my characterization of them was limited and perhaps came across as dismissive. I respect anyone who works hard for their daily bread, and the nature of work for a General Contractor is fairly complex and demanding, especially with larger projects. I was only seeking to compare them to a Master Builder, and I definitely have a greater esteem for the former over the G.C., and I’m sure that came across loud and clear. My description was simplistic for sure, and my lack of regard for the G.C. is rooted in some larger issues and objections I have to the specialization.

It’s definitely true that the hat of ‘manager’, is one of the important legs of the business triangle mentioned by Gerber in his book “The E-Myth”, that of entrepreneur, technician, and manager. And many fail in business because of their weakness in one of these legs, often the managerial component. So, those with strengths in this area can receive good financial rewards – I guess I resent that this may often be disproportionately more than the crafts-person. Just because you are a fine carpenter or bricklayer does not mean that such technical proficiency translates into success in business – it may well work against success, if one spends too much time focused on technical matters as opposed to managerial ones. And if one ignores the entrepreneurial vision the business essentially lacks direction.

Management is in fact directly connected with the decline of the Master Builder tradition, or should I say, the ‘cult of scientific management’ that has come to have great sway over our society. This ‘cult’ originates in the former empire known as Prussia, a former state in North central Germany. Prussia went to war with France under Napoleon in 1806, and was thoroughly trounced in the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt. As a result, Fredrick William III had to flee and Prussia lost about half of its land area. It was humiliating for the country, and the Prussians went back, as they say, ‘to the drawing board’. Prussia became ever so much like a re-made Sparta in a few short years – the education system was revised along ‘scientific’ lines, with compulsory attendance, and the military was also re-organized along similar lines, with military service also becoming compulsory. This was a society so regimented that women needed to make report to the police every time they got their period. If you’re wondering where modern forced schooling got it’s start in the US, look no further than the Prussian model. The Japanese adopted it too, and school kids there today still wear uniforms straight out of Prussian Naval and Army academy patterns.

These re-organizations of Prussian society along ‘scientific’ lines led to the creation of a much more effective fighting force, and in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Prussia got it’s revenge, playing a key role in the defeat of Napoleon. Other countries ‘took notes’ as it were, seeing Prussia’s dramatic comeback, and re-acquisition of lost territory. They were clearly onto something. Soon thereafter, the French intensified their development of the military academies started under Napoleon. Same in the US, with places like Westpoint, begun also in the first few years of the 19th century, solidifying its curriculum in 1817, a curriculum still in use today.

By the 1880’s further developments in the social sciences lead to the development of “Scientific Management” also known as Taylorism, developed as it was by Frederick Taylor. These ideas dovetailed perfectly with the needs of the rising class of industrial entrepreneurs, known affectionately as the ‘Captains of Industry’, less affectionately as the ‘Robber Barons’. These people, such as Carnegie, Vanderbuilt, Dupont, and of course J.P. Morgan, made their money on the back of the explosion in use of coal as a source of energy, concomitant with the advance of the industrial revolution and steam power.

One of the great fears of these magnates was that of ‘over-production’ – that some upstart might take it into their head to actually start their own coal-based business and, god forbid, compete with them. They weren’t interested in competitors, self-directed entrepreneurial types or polymaths, of the likes of Benjamin Franklin, or Edison, so they set about applying their vast resources to solving the problem of ‘over-production’ and the main vehicle for this was the funding of a forced schooling system, where pliant workers could be molded along the lines of scientific management’s wildest dreams.In such a controlled environment, the individual’s spark for learning and discovery could be controlled and carefully dampened, if not snuffed out altogether. These financiers spent vast sums, far more than the US government did, in helping to set up the nation’s school system along the Scientific Management model.

Part and parcel of this process was a debasement of any forms of worker associations, like craft guilds. Craft guilds held a monopoly on labor and specialized knowledge, and they had to be broken, because these interests ran counter to those of industrialized production. Scientific Management called for work to be broken into small discrete tasks that could be mastered and thus improve efficiencies. Thus increase profits. Of course, this becomes another race to the bottom in many cases. Japanese management culture, I might add, is modeled on Scientific Management as well. It’s a highly successful method.

Let’s say you are an artisan who makes sewing needles, start to finish, raw wire to finished product, and you make them by hand, or possibly with the aid of a few jigs. Let’s say this process of making takes 10 steps. The scientific management perspective and approach to the rationalization of production, would apply a solution whereby each of those 10 steps will be done by a specialized worker, who does nothing but that one particular step, and the production sequence will be arranged in an assembly-line fashion (sometimes termed ‘Fordism’ after Henry Ford. It might be said that Taylorism + Fordism = Americanism. Interestingly, Stalin modeled the Soviet Union’s 5-Year Plans on these very ideas). So, one worker cuts the rod to length, another flattens the eye-end, another drills the eye-hole, another sharpens the point, and so on. Inevitably, if you only do the one mind-numbing task all day, day after day, you will become quite practiced, possibly developing improved shortcuts and better jigs, in time being far more skilled in your task than the artisan who used to make the entire needle. It all makes great ‘sense’, and is very ‘rational’, until one considers the position of the person doing the work, and the nature of that work. As William Torrey Harris, US Commissioner of Education from 1889-1906 said:

Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual…

The scientifically managed school and workplace seem determined to maintain that situation. It works beautifully, and very reliably. Well done chaps!

Only problem is that none of those people working on the assembly line knows how to make a pin themselves, just part of it. Of course, this is but a simplistic analogy, but I hope it transmits the point. The work that most people have in producing stuff is hardly what you might call inspirational. For a look at how this model plays out in a country that makes a lot of our stuff, China, I highly recommend the film documentary “Manufactured Landscapes” The scene of the woman testing aerosol nozzles still haunts me.

Specialize, specialize, specialize -it’s the good old, tried-and-true, ‘divide and conquer’ approach. This killed a holistic discipline like the Master Builder Tradition more surely than any other factor I think. It has created a nation with forced schooling from K-12 with a 70% literacy rate (or is it lower than that now?), and where most school graduates have come to absolutely hate, viscerally, the beautiful language known as mathematics. It’s too bad – even industry wants people who can perform basic arithmetic after all, so the math-phobia is a matter needing some re-calibration at the education end. It can all be managed, tested, streamlined, made more ‘efficient’, right?

So, the Master Builder tradition does appear largely dead, but I would argue that it need not be buried. I think it offers a way forward in terms of improving our built environment, and I hope to explain why I think so in upcoming posts. –> on to part III.


2 Replies to “The Master Builder Tradition – what happened? Part II”

  1. Hey Chris, My family gave me “The Pillars of Earth” by Ken Follett a few years back for Christmas. The story chronicles the mental development of just such a master builder in fictional medieval history. Clearly the author did a fair amount of research about medieval building culture and practices. It may not take you further on your quest to learn about master builders but it sure will keep you excited and engaged. I enjoyed the read.I can’t find the book on my shelf right now but I could swear that the author did include a bibliography of relevant material in the rear of the book. It might be worth a look.-Shawn

  2. I’ll look into that book – I haven’t read it, though the title is familiar. My local library trawls with a wide net, so i should be able to snag a copyThanks a lot Shawn!

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