19th Century Surgical Instruments. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

An optimistic new book argues that we can all become expert at something

An appreciation of physical craft ranges from surgery to flower-arrangement. But it doesn't untangle the way most of us actually work
November 13, 2020

We worry about work a lot: lack of work, furloughed work, unstable work on zero-hour contracts. And then there’s new forms of work, guided entirely by an algorithm, stripping out any sense of agency or job satisfaction. These fears go back a long way, in step with the gradual spread of the industrial revolution from the late 18th century onwards. By the turn of the 20th century there was, as the historian Jose Harris puts it, “a lurking grief at the memory of a lost domain,” a sense that where work was concerned, “change was inevitable, and in many respects desirable, but that its gains were purchased at a terrible price.”

In Marx’s Capital, the passages on the division of labour and the perfection of complex machinery are written with the vivid energy of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Some 80 years later, Walter Benjamin laments the passing of “the atmosphere of craftsmanship” in a world where time is constantly being abbreviated. Robert Linhart’s 1978 classic The Assembly Line records the time-and-motion experts at a Citroen factory in Choisy ignoring the craft skills of their workforce. Anxious writing specifically about the industrial workplace might now seem less relevant in a world of computer-inputting and robotic machinery. But the problems of where and how things are produced and how individuals achieve satisfaction in their work have not gone away; indeed they have intensified.

There has been a particular bout of soul-searching since the financial crisis: a number of thinkers have anxiously examined modern work, and offered some striking solutions to reconnect us with a lost world of physical craft. Sociologist Richard Sennett has argued that a post-industrial world dominated by “flexible” employment practices, here-and-now organisation and short-term contracts damages people’s idea of self, making it harder to construct life stories with a sense of cumulative achievement. His panacea is “doing something well for its own sake,” arguing that it is only “the craftsman” who “can sustain his or her self-respect in an unequal world.” For the young Sennett, who grew up in a deprived part of post-war Chicago, being a craftsman had involved mastering the cello, until an injury cut that journey short. In his now classic The Craftsman (2008), he put tacit knowledge and long practice at the heart of meaningful endeavour, whether writing code, glass blowing, cooking a chicken or talking to a patient on a hospital ward.

Meanwhile Matthew Crawford’s The Case for Working with Your Hands (2009) positioned skilled handwork against the brainlessness of corporate culture, with its “soft despotism” of teamwork and phoney emphasis on worker creativity. In the corporate setting, despite all the talk of “thinking outside the box,” mavericks are only valued up to a point. Most employees are required to be endlessly sunny and compliant. Crawford argued that discretion and agency are increasingly being removed from all but a tiny working elite. With his laconic prose, Crawford pitched himself as a spirited individual appalled that we can no longer get under the bonnet to fix a car. Better, he concluded, to be the sort of person who can rebuild a carburettor and “Be Master of One’s Own Stuff.” As he laments challenged masculinities, Crawford also makes a case for what he calls “manual competence”—that “tacit knowledge” that can only be achieved by actually doing something, and those skills that can only be achieved, as the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott pointed out, by apprenticeship to a master and “by continuous contact with one who is perpetually practising” a skill. This kind of learning, and the empirical intelligence it develops, is undervalued at our peril.

Roger Kneebone’s new book Expert is a particularly vivid response to our current insecurities, rendered more painful by the Covid-19 pandemic. Kneebone’s own expertise is never in doubt—as a surgeon who honed his skills operating on victims of stabbings in Soweto, as a GP for 17 years in rural Trowbridge where he developed a programme for teaching minor surgery to fellow GPs, as an academic at Imperial College where he has set up a Masters in Surgical Education and, in collaboration with the Royal College of Music, the Centre for Performance Science. There he has developed the idea of “reciprocal illumination,” in which skilled individuals in a multiplicity of fields are able to instruct and learn from each other. He is currently professor of anatomy at the Royal Academy of Arts. In his spare time Kneebone is not idle, learning to fly light aircraft, building and playing a harpsichord, and passing serious time in the workshops of makers of every kind.

“Kneebone argues that it is reductive to grant more status to a vascular surgeon than to, say, an embroiderer”

We meet a fast-changing cast of characters that include the wood-engraver Andrew Davidson, chef Jozef Youssef, potter Duncan Hooson, scrub nurse Florence Thomas and magician Will Houstoun. In the company of these individuals, Kneebone leads us through the stages by which expertise is gained—through the monotony of apprenticeship, the gaining of skills that bestow a measure of independence and, finally, mastery and the possibility of instructing others. His message is hopeful: “We can all become expert at something.” Recognising medicine to be a science, an art and a craft, Kneebone describes the uncanny similarities between his early training and that of figures like bespoke tailor Joshua Byrne and stone-carver Paul Jakeman. Good work begins with apprenticeship—“doing time”—undertaking tasks such as drawing blood and inserting cannulae, making pocket flaps for suits, pre- paring a perfectly flat surface of stone using a chisel.

This is not the familiar story of individual excellence, in which an innate talent is honed against the odds to become a parable of success. Rather, Kneebone looks to a more collective pre-industrial model—that of the guild or the workshop. As skill develops, the neophyte joins a “community of practice,” learning how to behave in relation to others, performing skill more publicly, learning how to find a singular voice and how, when things go wrong, to put them right. This may sound an almost pre-indus- trial template based on the guild or the workshop, but in fact Kneebone is offering a variant of “peer review,” which still plays a big part in modern academic, professional and even managerial life—although he seeks to strip it of the audit-culture utilitarianism that came to dominate notions of excellence in the 1980s.

Kneebone’s accounts of some of his more terrifying surgical experiences are compelling. And yet he is not arguing that being a surgeon is a higher calling than being an embroiderer or a tailor or a hairdresser or a chef. Recalling how as a student a kindly midwife taught him how to lay the instruments for doing an episiotomy in a logical order, he later discovers that chefs describe this as mise en place, the vital ordering of the workplace so that the appropriate tools are at hand. The potter Duncan Hooson’s definition of throwing on a wheel as “thin materials on the verge of collapse” has instant resonance with Kneebone as he recalls dealing with a perforated bowel rendered thin and unstable by typhoid. He goes on to argue that it is not only physical materials that become thin: “Whether you’re drafting a report, managing conflict in your workplace, practising a piece of music or writing computer code, completion and collapse are never far apart. Too little, and it’s not enough. A fraction further, and it’s over the edge.”

Expert has something of the air of a contemporary monomyth, a tale of challenge with Kneebone as our hero, embarking on a journey to discover the secrets of good work. On his quest Kneebone wandered into the Art Workers’ Guild in Queen Square, London during an Open House weekend. This remarkable institution was founded in 1884 as a talking shop for young architects and designers, including prominent figures in the arts and crafts movement. Astonishingly it has survived, still a radical force for the value of embodied knowledge. There are today over 350 members from potters to botanical illustrators, to stone-carvers to glass engravers to ornamental plaster-workers to jewellers; and this was where Kneebone met a key collaborator, the embroiderer Fleur Oakes.

One of the book’s most fascinating passages describes Oakes coming to one of Kneebone’s surgical simulations in which students are taught how to join segments of intestine using sutures and needles. Oakes realised that she was on familiar territory. The surgical team was engaged on what she called “thread management.” As she told Kneebone: “I noticed you’d got all these threads floating around during that operation. That’s what happens with my students too. The first thing I have to teach them is how not to get their threads tangled up. I tell them that a thread should never be longer than the distance from your fingers to your elbow; that you have to pay constant attention to each thread’s tension; that you have to make sure the thread doesn’t twist up in a spiral like an old-fashioned telephone cable if you’re sewing along a curve.” The encounter led to a remarkable day at the Art Workers’ Guild with thread management as its theme, bringing together surgeons, a scrub nurse and other thread users—puppeteers, an angler who makes his own flies, an experimental knitter and a couple of engineers. The focus on transferable technologies had the happy effect of bringing the sciences and the arts together.

Kneebone teaches us that although skills may appear very different and may have different levels of recognition, it is reductive to grant more status to a vascular surgeon than to an embroiderer or a plumber or a computer programmer. The pursuit of skill is seamless and to an extent interchangeable. At the end of the book, Kneebone notes how when instructing young surgeons he became conscious of how few embodied skills they possessed. Some could barely handle scissors or tie a convincing knot or speak in front of other people, despite their excellent academic results. He ends Expert with a plea for a restoration of fluency in the physical world. This means, he argues, an end to the marginalising of art, design, music, dance, cooking and drama in primary and secondary education, all subjects that involve skill, dexterity and performance.

Kneebone’s Expert, with its folkish accounts of the lives of a catholic range of individuals, is undeniably inspiring. As much as anything it is a self-help book written against the grain. Through elevated anecdotes, Kneebone offers models for a more fulfilling life. He tells tales replete with possibility. That in itself counts for a lot. Kneebone acknowledges that becoming expert may be peripheral to your main occupation. Many people are more proficient at, and more absorbed by, their hobby than their “proper” job.

This is where a bat squeak of doubt creeps in. Kneebone has written an optimistic book, perhaps too optimistic. We live in a culture of measurable productivity where even gifted and skilled individuals are often treated as mere units of resource to be commoditised and audited. And while we might all aspire to take a path towards a measure of skill, economic incentives increasingly point towards an expanding world of “flexible” work that does not require much more than complete obedience to an app. These are problems that will require a huge recalibration of political economy to resolve. This lack of constructive engagement with the harsh realities of our current regimes of employment also characterises Crawford and Sennett’s critiques of the world of work. These are not revolutionary tracts, since they do not explain how labour’s helplessness in the face of capital may be overcome. One area of expertise is therefore lacking—how to pull off the momentous change that an admirable desire for new ways of working would appear to require.

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Expert: Understanding the Path to Mastery by Roger Kneebone (Viking, £16.99)