My role in de-skilling the arts | J. E. Johnson

When I see the perennial behind-the-scenes tour groups gawking wide-eyed at the 10,000 square foot scenic studio outside my office at The University of Texas, I am reminded that I have a very cool job. Every year our staff of professionals and students produces beautiful stage sets and generally “make the magic happen.” Even so, I feel like the magic is fading in our shop. Returning students have confided to me that work in the shop is “not as much fun anymore” and, reluctantly, I have to agree. We feel less like a team. There’s more stress, less camaraderie, and less vitality.

I blame the students. But I’m convinced it’s not their fault.

Compared to those who came into our shop ten or fifteen years ago I can expect most of the students I meet this year to be less “handy.” They will have less dexterity, less of an eye for craft, and considerably less knowledge of tools and materials. Astonishingly, many of them will have never worked with their hands at all. For years the running joke has been that we teach students which way to hold a hammer – last year we had our first student who had never held a hammer before. Not funny.

Full disclosure: I am situated squarely in Generation X. This year’s freshmen occupy a similar position within the Millennials. I really don’t think my perception of their skills is rooted in generational contempt. They’re really great young men and women. They are intelligent, witty, and hardworking – I enjoy their company and even the music they play on Spotify. I genuinely like them.

But these virtues alone do not compensate for their weak understanding of the manual arts. In time, we can train them the basics of how to use that hammer – or a lay-in brush, paint roller, table saw, welder, laser level, and any of the other dozens of tools we use to shape raw materials into art. The greater challenge is to cultivate in them the good judgment, risk-taking, and self-confidence that comes with a deeper relationship with hand skills – there just isn’t time in one semester. Without these skills, flats take longer to construct, every layer of paint is less effectively applied, and production slows to a crawl.


No one should be surprised by this generation’s diminished hand skills. Most industrial arts and home economics classrooms have been repurposed. Art classes have also suffered more than their fair share of cuts. In talking with our students, I have found that even in Texas, where there are a surprising number of technical theatre classes available in high schools, instructors are often too risk-averse to allow teenagers to operate anything but the most basic, least dangerous of power tools. Despite this, the quality of our scenery has not diminished in recent years. In fact, I think we’ve improved overall quality and efficiency. As a manager I am proud of this accomplishment, but as a teacher and mentor I’m dubious.

When I started my career in technical theatre hand drawn designs and technical drawings were still the norm. When interpreting a hand-drafted drawing there are a certain number of shop standards that must be understood by the person building the set. Having an eye interpreting design details is especially important. Now I use ever more multi-featured CAD[1] software to model every detail in three dimensions down to the 1/1000th of an inch before we begin construction. I can generate drawings that leave very little room for interpretation; I can even generate cut lists directly from the drawings so that no novice need bother with the messy math of Imperial units and nominal material sizes. All this detail takes a lot more time to complete than old school hand drafting but when depending on a minimally experienced crew, the finished results are more certain. But this also means more screen time for me and fewer opportunities for students to acquire their own sense of hand-work judgment.


We can go one step further and take the student crew out of the process altogether with our CNC[2] router. For years I advocated for this expensive technology and I’m thrilled to have it in our shop. It can cut or carve just about any profile or relief sculpture we want. With this machine we cut out hundreds of parts that a young craftsperson and a saw once would have been responsible for interpreting and cutting out – with mixed results of course. For every year we’ve had the CNC it had displaced more opportunities for hand skills.


David Pye avoided the word “skill” in his broadly influential book, The Nature and Art of Workmanship, preferring instead two more narrowly defined terms: the workmanship of certainty where “every operation during production has been predetermined and is outside the control of the operative” and the workmanship of risk where quality is determined by “care, judgment, and dexterity.”[3]

More and more our studio depends upon the workmanship of certainty as we aspire less and less toward the workmanship of risk. So to compensate for our students insufficient care, judgment, and dexterity we have – like the proverbial boiled frog – altered our methods of planning and construction to reduce or eliminate the workmanship of risk from our shop. In order to maintain the standards of our craft we are literally taking the tools out of the hands of students – continuing the process that was started in their childhood educations. This process didn’t start with me. I realize now that I am playing a part in a long trend that began with the elimination of skilled work on Henry Ford’s assembly lines, what political economist Harry Braverman aptly described as deskilling. Essentially, my response to the pressures of the deskilling further up the supply chain of education has been to transform our artisan studio into just another assembly line.

Not much magic in that.

At the university level, I am unsure whether we can get the magic back for a generation whose childhood has been deskilled to the degree that I’ve witnessed. How can we begin reskilling? It will take a system-wide overhauling of values. We need to value risk over certainty. We need to take the time to teach the hand skills rather than taking the most efficient route to production. I can do my part to bring back the magic – it won’t be fast, it won’t be efficient and it might not always look pretty – and I certainly can’t do it alone.

[1] Computer Aided Drafting
[2] Computer Numeric Control
[3] Pye, David. The Nature and Art of Workmanship. London: Cambridge U.P., 1968.


  1. avatarRon Keller says

    A lack of skills seems most common in students or employees who lack enthusiasm or curiosity. I fault the preoccupation with tech devises for a large part of this.

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