Review: Shop Class as Soulcraft

Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford. New York: Penguin Books, 2010.

Summary: A philosopher turned motorcycle mechanic explores the nature of satisfying work and the intellectual dignity of the manual trades.

Why would a Ph.D. give up a prestigious job in a Washington think tank to open up a motorcycle repair shop? Why does he find greater intellectual satisfaction tearing apart a motorcycle engine, working with solvents, grease, and oil, than producing articles on political philosophy? This work is Matthew B. Crawford’s personal answer to those questions.

He begins with some observations that caught my attention and helped explain the title of the book. When I attended middle school, all the boys (sexist as we were in those days) had to take classes in the mechanical arts–shop class. Even though I was on the geekier end of the spectrum, I had to buy the requisite safety glasses and learn mechanical drawing, basic wood and metal working including working around power equipment without losing a finger or other appendage. We learned what tools to use for different jobs. From about the 1990’s on, such classes were phased out because the emphasis increasingly was on preparing for college, and for becoming a knowledge worker. Which explains Crawford’s friend who has a surfeit of power equipment (as well as the dearth of people in the trades).

Crawford argues that our society’s focus on “knowledge work” has degraded the manual trades. Principally, it fails to recognize the kind of intelligence it takes to wire a house, build a building, plumb a bathroom properly, or diagnose a misfiring problem in a motorcycle when all the diagnostic procedures fail to yield an answer. Crawford observes that we no longer know how to care for and repair our stuff–indeed, some of it has been engineered by people who haven’t thought about making such repairs, or made those repairs a proprietary process. We’ve separated thinking and doing, denigrating the doers whose work takes skill, intuition, problem-solving ability, and imagination, while upholding knowledge workers often disconnected from the world of things.

Crawford narrates his own journey from electrician to working for an abstracting service whose productivity demands impaired his ability to do what the work really required. After completing a doctorate in political philosophy, he went to work for a Washington think tank but quit after five fatiguing months of struggling to do anything of tangible worth. He found he had more of a sense of individual agency and connectedness to his work and community as an electrician or mechanic.

He takes us into a deep dive into the work of motorcycle repair, describing challenging repair jobs on old machines he’d never encountered. We learn about the “guild” of mechanics, the wisdom acquired from years of experience that leads to a kind of intuitive knowledge when one encounters a particular problem. He traces the journey from apprenticeship to becoming a master mechanic. This work occurs in a community of other mechanics, parts dealers, enthusiasts, and novices in which one is alienated neither from the material one works on or the web of relationships within which the work occurs.

The subtitle of this book is “an inquiry into the value of work.” Crawford argues that many are disconnected from the value of their work, and sometimes find this in leisure activities. Meaningful work, he would argue, involves full engagement with the stuff of one’s work, allowing for “progress in excellence,” contributing to a life well-lived by those served by the work. He argues that a humane economy allows for and rewards such work. He also notes the built in accountability of good work–an improperly vented toilet stinks up the whole house! Such accountability needs to be built into knowledge work as well, and happens best in community. At one time, for example, mortgage lenders were in a community and knew their clients and were responsible for good lending practices. The loss of this connection to one’s work contributed to the disaster of 2008.

I found myself applauding much of this book. My father-in-law, a high school educated laborer, designed and built his own garage–a structure still standing fifty years after he passed. This kind of intelligence needs to be honored and those who work in these kinds of jobs held up to high regard if they do their work to the standard of excellence Crawford describes. I hope at the same time that this will not have the effect of denigrating all knowledge work. I think of researchers who build their own research apparatus, write their own computer code and combine mental and mechanical skill with the same skillful agency Crawford describes. I think of skillful managers who combine technical expertise and soft skills to develop products that serve others while creating flourishing environments for those on their teams. His larger discussion of what makes good work applies both to manual trades and “knowledge work.” All good work involves both thinking and doing, agency and engagement, the flourishing both of worker and the common good.

Both manual and knowledge work can be organized in ways that demean or dignify the worker. Good societies will not play one off against the other but recognize the dignity of meaningful work in all arenas. Crawford also raises good questions about the communities within which good work takes place. Increasingly, I find myself wondering if we can afford the global economy we have created, where we rely on workers and supply chains half way around the planet while living disconnected economic lives from our neighbors. This book is about a lot more than shop class!