Shop Class as Soulcraft

A philosopher turned motor-bike mender meditates on the rewards and joys of manual labor.

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In his debut book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, Matthew Crawford examines for us his (mostly) joyful transition from philosopher and think tank director to self-employed mender of motorbikes.

Crawford is not lamenting the passing of some golden age of the artisan craftsman; nor is he extolling the virtues of hobby-craft as therapy for the intellectual desert of modern office work and management. Instead, he is presenting the acquisition of a manual skill as a viable option in life, one that could be both intellectually and financially rewarding.

Living in a commune from age 9 to 15, Crawford was working as an electrician’s helper by the time he turned 14. Crawford’s introduction to philosophy – for him “a jolt of clarity” – came in his senior year at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Unable to find a job after graduating with a degree in physics, he put his work experience to good use and started his own electrician’s business.

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Crawford writes that he “continued to feel the tug of philosophy ” which eventually took him to the University of Chicago and a PhD in the history of political thought. Currently a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, Crawford also owns and operates a motorcycle repair shop, Shockoe Moto, in Richmond, Va.

Being thus both philosopher and tradesman, Crawford is eminently well placed to discuss the intellectual and practical aspects of work and indeed, between chunks of often amusing and always informative motor-bike lore, he branches out into philosophical discussion, ranging from Aristotle to the present. Chapters are broken into shorter sections, with occasional illustrations by a fellow mechanic, Thomas Van Auken, who is identified by Crawford as a “painter of nudes and diagnoser of steering shimmies.”

Passages from Heidigger – “a projection of thingness which, as it were, skips over the things” – jockey with absolutes. “Where the rubber meets the road, the mechanic is still responsible for the thing,” writes Crawford, quite wonderfully.

“Shop Class” is primarily concerned with the philosophy of “scientific management,” which has transferred craft knowledge from employee to employer, recast it as “process engineering knowledge,” and subsequently degraded blue-collar work largely to an unskilled “labor sausage” – the intellectual and work satisfaction dimensions of which have been replaced by “the moral legitimization of spending.” Consumerism and consumer debt were thus born, swiftly becoming a vital part of the economy for the very firms that created them to survive.

As with blue-collar jobs a century ago, white-collar work is now suffering a similar intellectual and skill degradation, Crawford argues, whereby “the cognitive elements of the job are appropriated from professionals, instantiated in a system or process, and then handed back to a new class of workers – clerks – who replace the professionals.” Corporate culture and teamwork have taken the place of individual responsibility. Brand projection has replaced the actual production of goods (now largely outsourced). Workers are judged subjectively by their somewhat opaque contribution to the bottom line, over which they have little individual control.

Written before the full extent of the credit crisis became apparent, the most prescient example Crawford gives is the modern mortgage broker. “Stripped of the kind of judgments that are at the heart of credit” and knowing the mortgage will be bundled, securitized, and sold on as generalized housing debt, the broker silences “the voice of prudence” and writes loans that he or she “knows to be bad.”

In contrast, Crawford argues forcefully that a manual skill – or a trade – is not, as many would imagine, just brute physical work without any intellectual component. Manual skills, from piano playing to motor-bike repair have to be learned; they require real knowledge that has to be honed over many hours of practice and experience. The end results are real too: if you play the piano badly nobody wants to listen; if you build the house poorly, it falls down; if you don’t repair the washing machine, it doesn’t work.

There is no escape from the consequences of bad workmanship or an ill-learned craft. The converse is that work well done gains the respect of co-workers and customers alike, and provides the objective means of judging the worker’s competency. Therein lies the satisfaction, security, and, increasingly, in this world of nonexpertise, the financial reward.

Crawford finally, perhaps all too briefly, touches on the contrast between how we in the West have been successful in preventing “the concentration of political power” by the “separation of legislative, executive and judicial functions” yet have failed miserably to prevent a concentration of economic power or to “take account of how such concentration damages the conditions under which full human flourishing becomes possible.”

For me, as an aspiring historian reluctantly diverted at age 18 into the family boat-building business, learning manual skills was initially challenging. Increasing dexterity and experience, however, brought confidence, the ability to run a complex business, and finally the satisfaction of becoming a yacht designer as well as a builder. I enjoyed “Shop Class as Soulcraft.” The fact that it resonated in many ways with my own experience and philosophy of life simply enhanced the pleasure.

The newly fledged college graduate, for whom this could be a very important book, might find it less than an easy read. Persevere, though: there are serious nuggets of truth here. It is worth at least thinking about going on to acquire a manual skill instead of disappearing into some amorphous office job. It could lead to a richer, more financially secure, and more fulfilling way of life.

George Whisstock designed and built custom yachts for over 30 years. Now living in Rockland, Maine, he specializes in downloadable yacht designs for home build. George blogs at The George Blog.

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