Review: Shop Class as Soulcraft

by David Zetland

Review: Shop Class as Soulcraft

I can’t remember who recommended this 2009 book (subtitle an inquiry into the value of work) by Matthew B. Crawford, but I have been recommending to many people — whether they have rough or soft hands.

The hook: Crawford got a PhD in political philosophy (U Chicago). After getting a job at a think tank, he decided that work was neither tangible nor useful. So he bought a motorcycle repair shop to start repairing old bikes sold at Zecycles.

So this book is about two things: debunking the myth that manual labor doesn’t require brains, skill & judgement, and focussing readers on the existential question of “why am I doing this?”

It came to me at an opportune time, as I have been putting more of my time into hobbies like woodworking, boats (1 part maintenance for each part boating), and renovating (e.g., painting ceilings, demolishing a chimney, or installing a new floor).

Top line: The book is short (160 pp), well written and thoughtful. I’m including many quotes because Crawford brings so much concise wisdom to the page. They are merely the appetiser for the main course: reading this book!

Many Quotes & some notes [emph added]

  1. “We want to feel that our world is intelligible, so we can be responsible for it. This seems to require that the provenance of our things be brought closer to home. Many people are trying to recover a field of vision that is basically human in scale, and extricate themselves from dependence on the obscure forces of a global economy.” — p 12
  2. “The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous “self-esteem” that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.” — p 17
  3. “Since the standards of craftsmanship issue from the logic of things rather than the art of persuasion, practiced submission to them perhaps gives the craftsman some psychic ground to stand on against fantastic hopes aroused by demagogues, whether commercial or political. Plato makes a distinction between technical skill and rhetoric on the grounds that rhetoric “has no account to give of the real nature of things, and so cannot tell the cause of any of them.” The craftsman’s habitual deference is not toward the New, but toward the objective standards of his craft. ” — p 19
  4. “Parents don’t want their children to become plumbers. Yet that filthy plumber under the sink might be charging somebody eighty dollars an hour. This fact ought, at least, to induce an experience of cognitive dissonance in the parent who regards his child as smart and wants him to become a knowledge worker. If he accepts the basic premise of a knowledge economy that someone being paid a lot of money must know something, he may begin to wonder what is really going on under that sink, and entertain a suspicion against the widely accepted dichotomy of knowledge work versus manual work.” — p 21
  5. “The invention of modern shop class… was recognized as a necessity for the broader working-class population, precisely because the institutions that had previously served this socializing function [also see The Secret of Our Success], apprenticeship and guild traditions, had been destroyed by new modes of labor.” — pp27-8
  6. “The result is downward pressure on wages for jobs based on rules… The intrusion of computers, and distant foreigners whose work is conceived in a computer-like, rule-bound way…  compels us to consider afresh the human dimension of work. …”creativity is knowing what to do when the rules run out or there are no rules in the first place.” — p 31
  7. Scientific management meant converting autonomous skilled labor into scheduled repeated tasks that left workers unfulfilled. The rise of consumer culture (and debt), combined with the regular wages available to those who fit into the system, made it harder to live by the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin: “be frugal and free” [p 38]. These trends also choke most of the creativity and passion that we should be seeing in schools and white collar trades. Instead, we’re seeing more bullshit jobs.
  8. And managers are trying to hide that fact among empty slogans: “The simulacrum of independent thought and action that goes by the name of “creativity” trips easily off the tongues of spokespeople for the corporate counterculture… The term invokes our powerful tendency to narcissism, and in doing so greases the skids into work that is not what we had hoped” [p 43].
  9. “So what advice should one give to a young person? If you have a natural bent for scholarship; if you are attracted to the most difficult books out of an urgent need, and can spare four years to devote yourself to them, go to college. In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences. But if this is not the case; if the thought of four more years sitting in a classroom makes your skin crawl, the good news is that you don’t have to go through the motions and jump through the hoops for the sake of making a decent living. Even if you do go to college, learn a trade in the summers. You’re likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems or low-level “creative.” — p 44
  10. “…one is urged to consider the “opportunity costs” of fixing one’s own car… Spiritedness is an assertion of one’s own dignity, and to fix one’s own car is not merely to use up time, it is to have a different experience of time, of one’s car, and of oneself.” — pp 45-46
  11. We must be wary of consumerism cloaked in “choice and freedom” as an alternative to autonomy (self-direction) and active engagement with challenges that force us to understand and collaborate. There’s a big difference between “have it your way” (the Burger King slogan) and making your own burger.
  12. “The mechanic and the doctor deal with failure every day, even if they are expert, whereas the builder does not. This is because the things they fix are not of their own making, and are therefore never known in a comprehensive or absolute way. This experience of failure tempers the conceit of mastery; the doctor and the mechanic have daily intercourse with the world as something independent, and a vivid awareness of the difference between self and nonself. Fixing things may be a cure for narcissism.” […many pages later…] But by the mere fact that they [mechanics] stand ready to fix things, as a class they are an affront to the throwaway society. Just as important, the kind of thinking they do, if they are good, offers a counterweight to the culture of narcissism.” — pp 65, 81
  13. Sometimes it’s better to accept 90 percent working than struggle with 100 percent frustration. This wording is mine, but the advice borrows from Crawford, as well as the famous dictum: “do not let perfect be the enemy of good.”
  14. “Further, though the demands made on workers are invariably justified in terms of their contribution to the bottom line, in fact such calculations are difficult to make; the chain of means-ends reasoning becomes opaque, and this opens the way for work to become a rather moralistic place… Throughout this literature one finds an imperative for the manager to care, and to sincerely hold forth to his subordinates the possibility of personal transformation. He is not so much a boss as a life coach.” — p 100
  15. “In 1942, Joseph Schumpeter wrote that the expansion of higher education beyond labor market demand creates for white-collar workers “employment in substandard work or at wages below those of the better-paid manual workers.” What’s more, “it may create unemployability of a particularly disconcerting type. The man who has gone through college or university easily becomes psychically unemployable in manual occupations without necessarily acquiring employability in, say, professional work.” — p 101
  16. “One’s career depends entirely on these personal relationships, in part because the criteria of evaluation are ambiguous. As a result, managers have to spend a good part of the day “managing what other people think of them.” … This gives rise to the art of talking in circles.” — p 108
  17. “Maybe we can say, after all, that higher education is indispensable to prepare students for the jobs of the information economy. Not for the usual reason given, namely, that there is ever-increasing demand for workers with more powerful minds, but in this perverse sense: college habituates young people to accept as the normal course of things a mismatch between form and content, official representations and reality. This cannot be called cynicism if it is indispensable to survival in the contemporary office, as it was in the old Soviet Union.” — p 114
  18. “Not surprisingly, it is the office rather than the job site that has seen the advent of speech codes, diversity workshops, and other forms of higher regulation. Some might attribute this to the greater mixing of the sexes in the office, but I believe a more basic reason is that when there is no concrete task that rules the job—an autonomous good that is visible to all—then there is no secure basis for social relations. Maintaining consensus and preempting conflict become the focus of management, and as a result everyone feels they have to walk on eggshells. Where no appeal to a carpenter’s level is possible, sensitivity training becomes necessary.” — p 121
  19. “The more children are praised, the more they have a stake in maintaining the resulting image they have of themselves; children who are praised for being smart choose the easier alternative when given a new task. They become risk-averse and dependent on others. The credential loving of college students is a natural response to such an education, and prepares them well for the absence of objective standards in the job markets they will enter; the validity of your self-assessment is known to you by the fact it has been dispensed by gatekeeping institutions. Prestigious fellowships, internships, and degrees become the standard of self-esteem. This is hardly an education for independence, intellectual adventurousness, or strong character.” — p 122
  20. “An apprentice may aspire to be a journeyman so he can enter that circle, quite apart from considerations of pay. This is the basis on which his submission to the judgments of a master feel ennobling rather than debasing. There is a sort of friendship or solidarity that becomes possible at work when people are open about differences of rank, and there are clear standards.” — p123
  21. “The worker’s product is “torn away” from him, and Marx suggests that it becomes an alien thing, hateful to him, because it is used by another. But why should this be? I find Marx unconvincing on this point. If I am a furniture builder, for example, what am I going to do with a hundred chairs? After all, I want to see them in use; this completes my activity of making them, and gives it social reality. It makes me feel I have contributed to the common good.” — p 143
  22. “It is harder to take pride in one’s work as “a Rolls-Royce man,” for example, if the car is assembled from parts made who knows where.
    One remedy is to find work in the cracks; work the market rationale of which is fully contained within a human scale of face-to-face interactions. This is what the speed shop offers; it is a community of making and fixing that is embedded within a community of use. Such enterprises are not “scalable” in the way that whets the appetite of remote investors, much as they might like to explode the happy scene and “take it global.” — p 145
  23. Crawford makes several good points about how abstract work (e.g., repackaging and selling mortgages) can encourage immoral decisions that may benefit the worker but harm society (more on economists’ role in the financial crisis).
  24. This is way grades (and salaries) are so dangerous to our happiness: “The hypothesis is that the child begins to attribute his interest, which previously needed no justification, to the external reward, and this has the effect of reducing his intrinsic interest in it.” [much later] “…the experience of failure seems to have been edited out of the educational process, at least for gifted students. Those who struggle academically experience failure all the time, and probably write off attempts to sugar-coat it with “self-esteem” as another example of how deranged adults can be. But the praising of gifted students for being smart, by parents and teachers, has a far more pernicious effect, especially when such praise is combined with the grade inflation and soft curriculum that are notorious at elite schools. A student can avoid hard sciences and foreign languages and get a degree without ever having the unambiguous experience of being wrong.”– pp 149, 156
  25. “The special appeal of the trades lies in the fact that they resist this tendency toward remote control, because they are inherently situated in a particular context. In the best cases, the building and fixing that they do are embedded in a community of using. Face-to-face interactions are still the norm, you are responsible for your own work, and clear standards provide the basis for the solidarity of the crew, as opposed to the manipulative social relations of the office “team.” — p 152

My one-handed conclusion is that everyone should work on difficult projects (as a hobby if that’s not your job), as a means of learning humility from failure and appreciation of a job well done (or poorly done). FIVE STARS.