Should we keep the secrets?
When I was about fifteen, my grandfather arranged for me to help out a young cabinet maker friend of his during the summer. I was working with him on the installation of some kitchen cabinetry that he had just built when the home owner asked me a few questions about our methods. I, of course, was thrilled that an adult would ask me to share my knowledge. So, I pulled myself up to full height, puffed out my chest and proceeded to tell him everything that I knew about installing cabinetry.
In short order, the young cabinet maker asked me if I would accompany him outside, on the pretext of bringing in some material. He led me to the far side of the truck and began speaking to me in quiet but very earnest language. He explained to me that he had a wife and children that he supported by his work as a tradesman. And, what made him a tradesman was that the knowledge he possessed was not universally known, it was not public, it was secret. Keeping trade secrets guaranteed that a craftsman engaged in trade would be able to make a reasonably profitable and secure living. If the secrets were shared with everyone, and anyone could figure out how to do the work, we would no longer be needed.
This would not be the last time that my youthful enthusiasm would earn me a “talking-to”.
Over the course of my lifetime, the secrets of our craft have been revealed by commercial interests and the media to the broad public. Large manufacturers and retailers have convinced home owners and hobbyists that “anyone” can do everything carpenters and cabinet makers do, they simply have to “follow the easy directions”. Unfortunately, one of the major results of this phenomenon is that it has become harder and harder to make a decent living by working at the craft. And the status that carpenters and cabinet makers once enjoyed in their communities has been significantly diminished. Another, perhaps unforeseen, result has been the “dumbing down” of much of our craft knowledge. Steel, manufactured masonry and plastics have displaced much of what would have been considered to be “carpenter’s work”. Only a handful of people across the globe are still capable of practicing the craft as it was practiced at it’s zenith.
So, what’s a body to do? Do we resurrect the arcane knowledge of the past? Do we pledge ourselves, anew, to secrecy? The reality is that if the arcane is to be saved, it will probably only be done by bringing it fully into the public arena, where it can be appreciated by the many, rather than by just the few. I am reminded that the “Middle Ages” was characterized by the nearly complete loss of the art and knowledge of “the classical past” and this was, in large part, due to most of this knowledge being guarded a small and very secretive group of scholars and scribes. It laid buried for nearly a millennium, until wide public interest resurrected it.
Still, I remember my grandfather and his fellows telling me that we are brothers because of the secrets we share. These are the secrets that give us status and security. Now, I blog about what I was raised to keep secret. It is a conundrum…