Posted September 22, 2016 by Amy Timco
Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work is one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read. Author, thinker, and motorcycle mechanic Matthew B. Crawford tackles the sweeping subject of work in America and how it has changed dramatically over the past century, covering such broad topics as technology, vocational education, car and motorcycle repair, business management, the degradation of blue-collar work, and many other ideas and institutions we take for granted. Crawford challenges the easy assumptions of what he calls our “throwaway culture” to make a compelling case for the cognitive rigor, objective standards, and personal dignity inherent to skilled manual labor.
I was hooked from the start when he began talking about the pervasive ways technology has helped us not to help ourselves. He calls it “the hood beneath the hood,” when you open up your car to fix something yourself and are confronted with a more aesthetically pleasing view that precludes the possibility of your getting at the actual problem itself. Or when you’re confronted with a water faucet that you can’t turn on manually but must activate by inanely waving your hands before it to coax a short stream of water out. I’ve experienced this frustration myself with our DVD player that, presumably to make things “easier,” has no buttons on it but is instead controlled solely by the remote (which often doesn’t work).The rather sobering point is that as technology becomes more complex to increase our convenience, it also increases our dependence as we become passive users rather than active problem-solvers.
Crawford explains the evolution of vocational education and why it took on the stigma it still carries, even today when its cognitive and practical value has been demonstrated. He compares today’s knowledge worker and office environment to the fast-disappearing skilled craftsman, to the detriment of the former. Knowledge work is subject to offshoring to an extent unprecedented among the trades which require a person to be on site, pounding a nail or fixing a drain. Also under critical examination are the nebulous rules and qualifications which the office worker (and management) must navigate and often make up as they go along, as opposed to the carpenter who faces merely “the accusation of his level” (that is, an objective and unchanging standard).
Crawford is uniquely qualified to write a book like this, having lived on both sides of the knowledge worker/skilled craftsman divide. After college he worked for several months at a think tank, coming up with what he calls “the best arguments money could buy.” The work was extremely well paid but lacked the tactile satisfaction inherent to physical labor. He soon quit to start a motorcycle repair shop where he wrestles with the innards of recalcitrant bikes (and loves it).
Not only is it thought-provoking, but this book is also skillfully written. Crawford has a keen sense of phrasing and doesn’t waste a word. I found Shop Class as Soulcraft to be well worth the read, fascinating as well as slightly disturbing where our culture’s shortcomings and weaknesses are exposed. Still, there is hope for the next generation of workers. The skilled trades aren’t going away; people will always need houses built and healthcare provided and services skillfully performed. And today we are seeing a national shift toward career preparation that is broader than the traditional college-to-career path. The key is to find what you’re passionate about, what you’re good at, what challenges and stretches and becomes part of you somehow — and do it, regardless of what the larger culture thinks.
As a defense of hands-on, skilled labor, this book is convincing. As a confrontation of the fallacious and empty ideals we’ve inherited about knowledge work versus blue-collar jobs, it’s more important than ever. Recommended!