Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work

( 21 )

Overview

A philosopher/mechanic's wise (and sometimes funny) look at the challenges and pleasures of working with one's hands

Called "the sleeper hit of the publishing season" (The Boston Globe), Shop Class as Soulcraft became an instant bestseller, attracting readers with its radical (and timely) reappraisal of the merits of skilled manual labor. On both economic and psychological grounds, author Matthew B. Crawford questions the educational imperative of turning everyone into a ...

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Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work

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Overview

A philosopher/mechanic's wise (and sometimes funny) look at the challenges and pleasures of working with one's hands

Called "the sleeper hit of the publishing season" (The Boston Globe), Shop Class as Soulcraft became an instant bestseller, attracting readers with its radical (and timely) reappraisal of the merits of skilled manual labor. On both economic and psychological grounds, author Matthew B. Crawford questions the educational imperative of turning everyone into a "knowledge worker," based on a misguided separation of thinking from doing. Using his own experience as an electrician and mechanic, Crawford presents a wonderfully articulated call for self-reliance and a moving reflection on how we can live concretely in an ever more abstract world.

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Editorial Reviews

Francis Fukuyama
Shop Class as Soulcraft is a beautiful little book about human excellence and the way it is undervalued in contemporary America.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Max Bloomquist brings his considerable talents to Crawford's meditation on the meaning of work and disparity between “blue collar” and “white collar” occupations. Crawford draws on his own experience—he quit a miserable think tank job and has found joy and meaning working as a motorcycle mechanic—to question the presumed value of the cubicle working world, deplore society's disconnection from the material world and vividly convey the reward of working with one's hands. Bloomquist reads with authority and erudition; his steady, everyman narration makes Crawford's well-founded arguments even more persuasive. A Penguin Press hardcover (Reviews, Apr. 20). (June)
Library Journal

Philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Crawford presents a fascinating, important analysis of the value of hard work and manufacturing. He reminds readers that in the 1990s vocational education (shop class) started to become a thing of the past as U.S. educators prepared students for the "knowledge revolution." Thus, an entire generation of American "thinkers" cannot, he says, do anything, and this is a threat to manufacturing, the fundamental backbone of economic development. Crawford makes real the experience of working with one's hands to make and fix things and the importance of skilled labor. His philosophical background is evident as he muses on how to live a pragmatic, concrete life in today's ever more abstract world and issues a clarion call for reviving trade and skill development classes in American preparatory schools. The result is inspired social criticism and deep personal exploration. Crawford's work will appeal to fans of Robert Pirsig's classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and should be required reading for all educational leaders. Highly recommended; Crawford's appreciation for various trades may intrigue readers with white collar jobs who wonder at the end of each day what they really accomplished.
—Dale Farris

Michael Agger
It's not an insult to say that Shop Class is the best self-help book that I've ever read....It's kind of like Heidegger and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
—Slate
The Barnes & Noble Review
When the battery came a cropper a few months after I purchased my first iPod, I was shocked to learn that there was nothing to be done. It's one of our era's familiar sensations. This sleek technological confection, like so many others, seems meant to be sucked dry of its juices and then discarded -- only the latest and most flagrant iteration of the disposability that seems to be the telos of our tools. Unwilling to accept this fate (and too broke to spring for a new iPod), I went a-Googling for solutions. And I met another sensation familiar in these days: the welcome discovery that a hack exists. A mouse-click or two and a few days later a replacement battery had arrived, packaged with two plastic, vaguely dental tools designed to unstitch iPod's seemingly seamless case. Painstakingly, clumsily, I applied the tools -- and like a rip in the tissue of existence, the impregnable case cracked open to reveal the iPod's tawdry innards, all microprinted serial numbers and vermiform wires. In so doing I had reconnected with our species' ancient ways, our own tool-making, world-altering habitus; I had also voided my warranty.

This kind of debasement-by-design, this punishment of our wonted practicality, pains Matthew B. Crawford. It's of a piece with so much else that seems to speak of decadence and infantilization: the digitization of automobile engines, the complexification of telephones and televisions (don't try giving your spasming plasma screen that sharp rap one used to apply to a stuttering TV display). For Crawford, nothing serves as a better synecdoche for our despair than the disappearance of shop class from most high schools. There are technology high schools (where C. P. Snow's "two cultures" of science and the arts are reduced to Excel and Photoshop, respectively), health professions high schools (medical billing and phlebotomy), even arts and performance high schools (polish your portfolio on YouTube!). But nowhere -- certainly not among the blue states -- is one likely to find adolescent Americans stooped placidly beneath the fluorescent lights working a solder gun, a torque wrench, or a tungsten-blade router with the kind of sustained, beatified, moral attention that mechanical work requires. That's how Crawford sees it; that's how the followers of Ned Ludd once saw it as well. But that's not fair to Crawford, who has got chops in both the shop and the seminar room; he's a University of Chicago?trained political philosopher and a motorcycle mechanic. So before dismissing him as a crank with a crankshaft, it's worth examining what he's getting at in his first book, Shop Class as Soul Craft.

Here's Crawford's argument in brief: we've accorded respect and material rewards to those kinds of work that allegedly levy the greatest cognitive demands -- the professions, certainly, but all kinds of white-collar work of managerial and administrative stamp as well. At the same time such work has grown in value, it has been degraded by double-talk, routine, and infantilization, to the degree that it fails to provide the mental stimulation that sustains happy engagement. Our manual trades, meanwhile, have been automated and robbed of social value, marginalizing young workers who feel their call. We feel our children pursue them only when they lose in the competition for places in the white-collar world. Crawford argues that society loses on both fronts: so-called knowledge work becomes a morass of diminished sinecures, while the honorable trades are tarnished. Regardless of the color of our collars, we increasingly lack chances to do work worth attending to -- or taking pride in. Not only the product of our labor, but the quality of our working lives, suffers in the bargain.

Crawford resists the lure of nostalgia -- he's not tracing a corrupting historical process as much as he is anatomizing a disposition, one to which our technology-dependent culture easily falls prey. It's not simply that with increasing automation we become further alienated from a world of tools and competence our forefathers took for granted. The "knowledge workers" of old were highbrows; they couldn't shoe a horse or raise a barn any better than I can rebuild a carbueretor, but the work they did was rich and challenging. Whether writing social novels or making history paintings or running parliaments, whether teaching classics or investigating natural history or crafting letters to faraway friends, highbrows of old did work that required lively and flexible minds. The so-called lowbrows meanwhile not only used tools, they often made them as well, suiting their technologies to novel problems; and the practice of the skilled trades today as ever requires minds as lively and flexible as those required of the actor, the architect, and the novelist.

Today's cognitive labor, however, is mechanized and simplified, broken down into flowcharts and algorithms. In an early chapter that's a tour de force of popular intellectual history, Crawford traces the latter-day evolution of industrialization, showing how its effects now apply to the cubicle and the classroom as much as the factory floor. The first tradespeople to take jobs on the assembly lines rebelled at the enervating repetitiveness of the new factory work; today, industrial methods of business, teaching, and professional work have turned the office into a Dilbertian dystopia, a brightly lit abyss of alienation and self-loathing. "The new frontier of capitalism," Crawford concludes, "lies in doing to office work what was previously done to factory work: draining it of its cognitive elements." In the midst of this fluorescent wasteland, what's the "spirited man" (or woman) to do? Crawford has an answer: cultivate the need for speed. Learn the ways of metal, oil, and electricity; plumb the mysteries of internal combustion.

For the speedway and the motorcycle repair shop have been Crawford's salvation, as he tells us in loving detail. Emerging from a childhood spent in the effete realm of the vegetarians and mathematicians who were the adults of his childhood, Crawford found solace in shaping energies to the zero-sum requirements of building and maintaining Things With Engines. Exploring the motorhead's dedication, he limns its deeply moral qualities -- sustained attention on focal practices; subtle recognition of pattern and variation that comes with true mastery; easy and intimate familiarity with the idea of excellence. Crawford's descriptions of his manual mentors and their skills as well as his précis of the philosophy of work and value offer lively and suggestive reading.

Shop Class as Soul Craft is as spirited as the way of life it recommends; its author is as quick with a quote from Anaxagoras as he is well versed in the ways of the spanner wrench and the voltmeter. Crawford doesn't explore fully the deficits that the trades carry -- how they need highbrows just as highbrows need them. The liberal arts are so called because they involve books; they're neither above nor below but complementary to the manual arts, the trades. Traditionally, it was understood that society needed both in fruitful engagement with one another. Extolling the shopkeeper and craftsperson's practical mien, useful skills, and satisfying labors, Crawford risks forgetting that the same set of dispositions can breed complacency and small-mindedness when turned to the work of making and maintaining a society.

We do well to follow the way outlined in Richard Sennett's magisterial book The Craftsman (to which Crawford offers grateful acknowledgment). There, Sennett describes ways in which the moral disposition of the skilled trades offers a healthy approach to kinds of world-making work, whether pursued in the study, the cubicle, or the shop. We can lament our enervation -- or we can make the tools we need to render our work and lives moral and meaningful. (Have you checked Google? The instructions required are probably available online.) There are skilled approaches to knowledge work, household work, and teaching work as well as to machine work; the spirited disposition Crawford celebrates should be brought to bear however one pursues a living. Failing a shop-class renascence, it may be our best hope. --Matthew Battles

Matthew Battles is the author of Library: An Unquiet History. He has written about language, technology, and history for such publications as The American Scholar, The Boston Sunday Globe, and Harper's.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143117469
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 4/27/2010
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 114,853
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.60 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Matthew B. Crawford is a philosopher and mechanic. He has a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago and served as postdoctoral fellow on its Committee on Social Thought. Currently a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, he owns and operates Shockoe Moto, an independent motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 A Brief Case for the Useful Arts 11

2 The Separation of Thinking from Doing 37

3 To Be Master of One's Own Stuff 54

4 The Education of a Gearhead 72

5 The Further Education of a Gearhead: From Amateur to Professional 103

6 The Contradictions of the Cubicle 126

7 Thinking as Doing 161

8 Work, Leisure, and Full Engagement 180

Concluding Remarks on Solidarity and Self-Reliance 198

Acknowledgments 211

Notes 215

Index 239

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 21 )
Rating Distribution

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(6)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 21 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 17, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Did Not Find My Soul

    I preform physical blue collar mechanical related labor for a living so I figured I would readily identify with this book. What I did not realize was how deeply steeped in philosophy this book really is. This book takes deeper philosophical journies into basic values and principals of hands-on physical labor to attempt to demonstrate their inherint value over more information based office enviroment type labor.

    The arguments are well made and studiously supported with citations. However the deeper philosophical explorations are where the book really loses me. Granted, that is where most philosophy related book lose me. I won't hold it against the author.

    I did find that the conclusion were still very opinionated despite the well supported arguments. I was still not convinced that being a motorcycle mechanic was any more gratifing to the soul then an environmental think tank consultant. It still comes down to point of view, even if the author held a first hand knowedge of both points of view.

    If you like book like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance then you may well like this. But if that type of book is not your cup of tea this certainly won't be either

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 15, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Values and your occupation

    It has many good ideas but is not well constructed in terms of readability. I had to push myself to finish the book because I felt I had gotten the message early on and continuing to read left little to be gained as it did not entertain me. The message that the value of 'hands-on, physically productive' work is generally not appreciated in our society is valid. Yet, according to the author, in its many forms, it commands a generous income and leaves the producer with a sense of inner satisfaction not found in much of the corporate world where shuffling papers, attending meetings, etc. leaves little real sense of accomplishment/satisfaction. The author's supposition that there will be an increasing need for people who 'fix things' or do the other mundane tasks that keep our cultural substructure going resonates while there is an increasing push by parents that their children attend college to learn to do more 'meaningful' work. College may not be the best choice for everyone.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 5, 2014

    highly recommended for philosophically minded

    In some ways this is an extension of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance but only in concept. This book will make you think. It's written with complex sentence structure. Likely can help parents direct kids in choosing satisfying, good work.

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  • Posted February 19, 2014

    This was an ok book, but it could have been written better. The

    This was an ok book, but it could have been written better. The first few chapters were very interesting and enjoyable to reed. The author went on to tell us how blue color work is undervalued and miss under stood in todays society. But after that, the book becomes very dry and some what hard to reed. I began to loose interest and decided to stop reading it all together. Over all, I would recommend a different book if you are interested in reading about the values of blue caller work.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 5, 2012

    an excellent read

    As an aircraft mech. it made me reevaluate what I do and how I do it. Currently my work place is starting a CI culture and this book has made me take a closer look at that program

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 27, 2011

    An Important topic diminished by self-importance

    I expected a lot more of this book. I'm one of those well-educated people who also ditched the corporate world and executive positions to do something where my head and hands worked together. However, I found the author's perspective to be arrogant and pedantic, patronizing and, frankly, oftentimes juvenile. As a philosophical treatise this book is sabotaged by the elements of political diatribe. I would not recommend it to anyone.

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    Posted March 27, 2011

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