Fixing auto shop for a 'car skeptical' generation

Planned Obsolescence
Planned Obsolescence | Photo: Lester Public Library| Flickr: Creative Commons License

My brother trained to be high school auto shop teacher. He had been taking things apart and putting together since he was two years old. By the time he was 18, he had advanced from fixing bicycles to powered lawn mowers to putting new engines in semi-junked cars.

By the time he was 20, he was building dune buggies in our backyard from the belly pans of wrecked VWs. He could make anything motorized run again.

But my brother never became a shop teacher. The field shrank around him as he graduated from college and took the required education courses. He never taught. He retired not long ago after many years of owning his own garage.

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My brother's skills and his education made a good life for him during a time of accelerating change in the way cars were built. By necessity (and with considerable aptitude), my brother became as good with computers as he already was with motors.

I was drafted as my brother's unwilling helper for most his backyard years, picking up a modest education in auto mechanics. I learned how to gap spark plugs, bleed brakes, and time an engine. If the car you drive was made before 1970, I can replace your alternator or water pump.

Cars since then aren't built the same. And the innards of tomorrow's cars - hybrid or all electric or alternatively fueled, increasingly internally and externally networked - will be even less available to a kid smelling of carburetor cleaner and brake fluid. Car engines don't have carburetors any more, do they?

School districts in California - out of economy and misplaced priorities - began abandoning auto shop programs when my brother sought a career in teaching. Now, some school districts are bringing shop classes back. But I wonder about their value.

Certainly, there is work for auto mechanics after graduation. Fixing your car is one job that can't be out-sourced (although an engine diagnostic can be sent to a computer screen in Mumbai as easily to one in Manhattan Beach). And some college bound students learn better when the principles of physics or geometry are taught in conjunction with things they can do with their hands. It's even likely that a few students, failing in a college oriented curriculum, will find useful lessons in the workings of a crankshaft, in the hydraulics of a brake line, in the orderliness of a machine.

But our chaotic educational policies don't offer much for students whose work will always be with their hands, as my brother's work was. Thousands of jobs requiring both manual and technical skills are unfilled in an otherwise miserable job market because we don't have an educational system that responds to those needs.

High school auto shop might be a gateway to one of those good-paying jobs for that kind of student, but it seems unlikely.

There's even something retrograde in advising students to get under the hood of a car, like offering courses in tobacco farming or journalism. As the Los Angeles Times reported, when the students in Belmont High's auto shop gutted a donated VW, they didn't install a rebuilt transaxle; they wired the car with an electric motor and batteries. That was as much a lesson in adaptability as it was in auto mechanics.

Young adults don't fetishize cars the way my brother and his high school buddies did. Among "smart growth" and alternative transportation activists, the private auto is a fearsome thing, and having one is akin to owning your own nuclear reactor.

Today's youth may prefer to see themselves in a car-free future, riding public transit to work, walking, or commuting by bike. Perhaps school districts should skip auto shop for bicycle repair.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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