Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Shop Class as Soulcraft by, Matthew B. Crawford

Over the course of the 20th Century, the nature of work changed. Through advances in technology and assembly line techniques, most of the economy, at least in the US, has been transformed into “knowledge work”; that is, work that doesn’t produce a physical product. Increasingly, the American worker has become disaffected with his work, sometimes questioning if he provides any value at all. Are these two phenomenons related? Matthew B. Crawford makes the case in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft.

Adapted from his essay in The New Atlantis magazine, Crawford argues that we reconsider the ideal of “manual competence”. He says,
A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our mode of inhabiting the world: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves installing a pre-made replacement part.

This segues into the psychic appeal of manual work. The tactile experience of building or repairing something creates a connectedness with the real world that you don’t get when the output of your work is an idea.

Crawford’s story itself is interesting. He has many degrees from many big name universities and worked for a time at a think tank outside Washington, D.C.. Becoming dissatisfied with knowledge work, he quit his job and opened a motorcycle repair shop. Since this change, he became much happier and achieved a sense of community that he felt lacking as a cubicle drone.

The trades aren’t for everyone, but Crawford’s attempt to rehabilitate their image is a welcome one. Not everyone is suited to be a motorcycle repairman or master electrician, but, conversely, not everyone is suited to sit at a desk and stare at a glowing screen all day. In some ways, the trades might offer a better future for young people today; a lot of knowledge work can be outsourced, but craftsmen need to be local.

The original essay (linked here and above) is well worth the read. There are sections that need to be fleshed out and expanded, and that’s what the book does. There is a long middle section of the book that reads like memoirs of a mechanic. It made for unique reading because the first section sounds exactly like something you’d expect from an academic. Unfortunately, I was a little bored by the memoir section. He could have condensed some of the anecdotes and used them as examples for his arguments. Spending too long on how he got into the trades ultimately distracts from the broader point he was trying to make.

Overall, a thought provoking read. I’d say read the essay and continue on to the book if it seems like something up your alley.

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