To Do is to Be

Matthew Crawford
Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry Into The Value of Work
(Penguin Press, May 2009)

In the overgrown field of books that aim to define a critical failing of modern society (and set us on the path to fixing it), very few deliver. Usually these books spend most of their time listing evidence for familiar problems (global warming, broken trade policy, the decline of morals, what have you) that are already over-discussed. Often they finish up with a brief chapter that makes general stabs at a solution (“policy must change! social attitudes must shift!”) that are too grandiose and ill-defined to be effective. These books may sell, but they do little more than re-convince the already convinced. Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft takes a novel approach to this genre by arguing on behalf of an idea so old it sounds like it came straight from your great-grandpa: the social and moral benefits of manual labor. Crawford, a motorcycle mechanic with a PhD in philosophy, makes the case that Americans have put too much emphasis on university education, and that other career choices can be not only financially sound, but also intellectually satisfying.

Initially, this argument seems counter-intuitive given the successive information revolutions that have been building bridges to tomorrow for the last forty years. And, of course, it goes against the advice offered by virtually every college recruitment officer and high school guidance counselor in the country. Yet, Shop Class makes a solid, cogent argument for rethinking how a person might decide to make a living. This is the lynch-pin of Crawford’s generous, eloquent book: it doesn’t hinge on overhauling the failing educational system, or unanimously reorganizing our social values. Instead, Crawford slowly and carefully builds a case through both anecdotal and empirical evidence, that, for an individual unsure whether she’s really interested in higher education, there are alternatives, and with a little forethought, there are ways to avoid becoming deeply dissatisfied with one’s career.

Crawford’s basic argument is that the so-called “information economy” has lead to a new type of intellectual-work automation, similar to the physical-work automation that occurred during the industrial revolution, at the beginning of the 20th century, when artisan mechanics and machinists were replaced with rote factory workers, specializing in one repetitive action instead of designing an entire machine. He focuses primarily on the personal-scale problems associated with this change, the resulting loss of job pride, the increasing sense of alienation from the physical objects that clutter our lives (due to a lack of real understanding about how they work), the pervading disposability of everything, and the resulting belief that our only real relationship to things is that of consumer. This, Crawford argues leads workers to become less intellectually curious, less engaged in understanding or making sense of their environment, and more self-centered (i.e. centered around only what their self needs, as opposed to what any other part of the environment needs).

Interestingly, one of Crawford’s biggest problems is the high school and university educational system, with its focus on “liberal arts” and college preparatory classes, at the expense of education—the “shop class” of the title—that might provide students with a deeper, more physical engagement in their world. Accordingly, this leads to people who only have a theoretical understanding of their world. For instance, Crawford describes an incident with his father, a physicist, which happened as he was trying to fix a broken car he owned:

 One day as I came into the house filthy, frustrated, and reeking of gasoline, my dad looked up from his chair and said to me, out of the blue, “Did you know you can always untie a shoelace just by pulling on one end, even if it’s a double knot?”

This anecdote becomes a symbol of the difference, for Crawford, between real-world knowledge and theoretical knowledge, which he finds far less helpful. Crawford outlines several things which might contradict this: the shoelace might be wet, or made of a material that prevents it from untying, or it might break as you pulled on one end. “He was speaking of a mathematical string,” he explains, “which is an idealized shoelace, but the idealization seemed to have replaced any actual shoelace in his mind.” This is the crux of Crawford’s argument. “It began to dawn on me that my father’s habits of mind...were ill suited to the reality I was dealing with in an old Volkswagen.”

In many ways this book is meant for someone like me, and while trying to review it, I had a hard time avoiding the personal influence the book has had on me. I read this book while finishing my second Master’s degree in a liberal arts field. Because of my over-education I’ve earned far less than friends and colleagues who went to work straight after college, or who skipped college altogether, and learned a trade. Other than a small amount of teaching (mostly as a teaching assistant), I have developed no specific skill-sets that I can offer to an employer, much beyond basic data-entry and organizational skills, which I had leaving high school. Often, when talking with friends and family, the subject of what I mean “to do” with all my education comes up. My options seem to be limited to becoming an adjunct instructor at a local community college or university, which pays little, or to go on for more schooling to enter the already-glutted market as a PhD, which seems ridiculous.

So, within a day or two of reading Shop Class, I began to tell colleagues that I was considering apprenticing to become a plumber. The response was surprisingly positive. “That sounds like that would be wonderful,” said one friend, who has been an adjunct for the last several years. “The money’s much better, and you know you’ll always have work to do.” Another friend, who works in an office, waxed rhapsodic about “not being cooped up” and getting to “really get things done.” Crawford’s arguments are incredibly alluring to those of us who came to our current occupations in search of intellectual engagement, and who have found ourselves instead increasingly alienated from any sense that we make a difference in the world. At the very least, learning to install and fix electrical systems, for instance, means that a person is quantifiably aware of their impact on the world.

Crawford shows, both through sociological research and personal anecdotes something that I feel deeply—that most people who work in “white-collar” jobs aren’t really sure what (if any) larger meaning is attached to what we do, or whether it is of any real value. He juxtaposes this with the more traditionally “blue-collar” jobs of mechanics, plumbers and carpenters, where the quality of the work is instantly recognizable in the result. If the toilet does not stink or leak, then the plumber knows she’s done good work. But Crawford doesn’t really draw his work distinctions along blue collar/white collar class lines. He includes doctors, for instance, among those whose work have intrinsic value, and allows that there are many low-paying working-class jobs that are just as boring and rote as any office job. He defines the best work as “stochastic,” that is, engaged with real-world variables as opposed to theoretical ideas (as in the material the shoelaces are made of, which prevent the knot from being easily undone). Crawford makes the case that for workers to feel useful, to be fully engaged in their work, they need to interact with the world in a physical way, grappling with complex systems (human bodies, motorcycles, electrical systems) that require a great amount of experience in order to adequately attend, and that are not entirely subject to a person’s whim. This type of work, he argues, is not only more satisfying but can help develop the type of creative, attentive intelligence that gets lost when work is removed from the physical world, or when workers must mindlessly repeat a prescribed activity over and over.

The argument has some clear faults. Though he doesn’t necessarily deny that physical labor has its drawbacks (he describes his worst job ever as on a construction crew where he was ostracized, taunted, and made to do meaningless work) Crawford also avoids any discussion of the bureaucratic frustrations of joining unions, the exhausting toll that construction work takes on the body (for instance, the high rate of painkiller addiction among workers, due to on-the-job injuries), or any of the hundreds of other drawbacks to life in a skilled trade. He has a clear agenda, and his occasional criticisms of the country’s “liberal political instincts” are slightly absurd.

And though he says that he does not mean to idealize construction work, he overrates the terrors of politically correct speech codes in the office, and speaks reverently of “dirty jokes” and other racially/sexually demeaning banter, arguing that because workers in these fields are able to prove their worth through the quality of their work, they are then “free” to express themselves through swearing and name-calling. While there may be some amount of validity to that, it’s also clear that in many cases, the name-calling and dirty jokes serve to create in-groups, and to exclude certain people, no matter how good their work might potentially be. As much as Crawford wants to show that his “stochastic” jobs are meritocratic and egalitarian, his ideal shoelaces run into some of the same real-world material-problems that tripped up his father.

Overall, Crawford makes a compelling argument for the value of physical labor: its ability to convey a sense of accomplishment, the way it grounds a person in their environment, and in their community, and the moral and social benefits of learning a skill that involves giving over oneself to the repair needs of a complex system. And Crawford follows his own advice—sort of. Looking at the back page-flap, one can see that not only does he own a bike shop, in Richmond, Virginia, but he’s also a fellow at the “Institute for Advance Studies in Culture” there. So maybe, as good as it might be to become a lowly bike mechanic, it’s even better to keep a foot in both worlds.  


Christopher Michel

CHRISTOPHER MICHEL is a writer and stay-at-home dad. He lives in Brooklyn's secret Chinatown.