Matthew B. Crawford has a distinctively interesting curriculum vitae that includes, but is not limited to, work as an electrician, a bachelor’s degree in physics, apprentice work with a VW mechanic, academic abstract-writing in a sweatshop environment, a PhD in something like political science, and an 11-month position as the executive director of a “think tank.” He quit to open his own motorcycle repair shop. (I know. Whew! ) The interests I share with him include lean, strong academic writing and motorcycles, but I’m no repairman.
The draw to Crawford’s book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work runs deeper than mere affinity. I find his writing uniquely on point as self-help, as a challenge to vocational/economic presumptions, and as social commentary. Filled with well-crafted pages and chapters, the book is not light reading by any stretch, yet the author has a way of breaking up the intense and perfectly worded analytical verbiage with down-to-earth phrases like “bending metal conduit” and “master of your own stuff.” I first came in contact with Crawford at the all-faculty meeting of Sheridan College/Gillette College in the fall of 2014. Crawford was the guest speaker, and I actually took some notes. (I mention this to suggest a consistently high assessment of his content.) Fast forward two years, when I read this book review, about the same time as I came upon a copy of the book at Walls of Books in Atchison, Kansas.
I don’t claim to grasp fully the philosophical, educational, and economic angles that Crawford handles adeptly as he probes white-collar and blue-collar work. Despite the bias inherent in the book’s title, Crawford’s emphasis is not to denigrate the work of thinkers and “knowledge workers”; I’d say he rather handles both sides fairly, but he does engage in a bit of “affirmative action,” seeking to right some wrongs that have led to societal devaluing of manual labor. Crawford challenges assumptions, as well—for instance, the assumption that every smart young person ought to go to college:
So what advice should one give to a young person? . . . 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 a low-level “creative.” To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, as it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable. (p. 53)
Crawford also seeks to connect the world of the intellect with the world of manual labor:
If thinking is bound up with action, then the task of getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on our doing stuff in it. (p. 164)
I imagine Crawford, now that he works in motorcycle repair, would say he still thinks vibrantly, but differently so than when he was in academia or employed in “knowledge work.” There might seem to be a built-in conflict (risking loss of credibility?) when one thinks deeply, writes eloquently, and produces a highly significant book: such enterprises as philosophizing, writing, and reading do not represent what he has set out to advocate. Again, though, he does not aim to oppose philosophy or graduate school or books (or even think tanks); he aims to highlight aspects of manual labor that have for decades or even centuries been downplayed or ignored. Below are some more excerpts from Crawford’s book. Maybe your appetite will be whetted for more from the book. (And now I get to combine a little manual labor with thought as I trade in this book to the bookstore, helping my wife, the manager, by considering its best possible exposure . . . and then engaging in my periodic activity of alphabetizing and shelving books. It can be satisfying.)
The popularity of Dilbert, the office, and any number of other pop-culture windows on cubicle life attests to the dark absurdism with which many Americans have come to view their white-collar work. Absurdity is good for comedy, but bad as a way of life. It usually indicates that somewhere beneath the threshold of official notice fester contradictions that, if commonly admitted, would bring on some kind of crisis…. (p. 126)
A carpenter faces the accusation of his level, an electrician must answer the question of whether the lights are in fact on, a speed shop engine builder sees his results in a quarter mile time slip. Such standards have a universal validity that is apparent to all, yet the discrimination made by practitioners of an art respond also to aesthetic subtleties that may not be visible to the bystander. (p. 207)
How far we have come from the hand oiling of early motorcycles is indicated by the fact that some of the current Mercedes models do not even have a dipstick. This serves nicely as an index of the shift in our relationship to machines. If the oil level should get low, there is a very general excitation that appears on the screen: service required. Lubrication has been recast, for the user, in the frictionless terms of the electronic device. In those terms, lubrication has no rationale, and ceases to be an object of active concern for anyone but the service technician. In a sense, this increases the freedom of the Mercedes user. He has gained a kind of independence by not having to futz around with dipsticks and dirty rags.
But in another sense, it makes him more dependent. The burden of paying attention to his oil level he has outsourced to another, and the price he pays for this disburdenment is that he is entangled in a more minute, all-embracing, one might also say maternal relationship with… what? Not with the service technician at the dealership, at least not directly, as there are layers of bureaucracy that intervene. Between driver and service tech lie corporate entities to which we attribute personhood only in the legal sense, as an abstraction; the dealership that employs the technician; Daimler AG, Stuttgart, Germany, who hold the service plan and warranty on their balance sheets; and finally Mercedes shareholders, unknown to one another, who collectively dissipate the financial risk of your engine running low on oil. There are layers of collectivized, absentee interest in your motor’s oil level, and no single person is responsible for it…. It used to be that, in addition to a dipstick, you also had a very crude interface, simpler but no different conceptually from the sophisticated interface of the new Mercedes. It was called an “idiot light.” One can be sure that the current system is not referred to in the Mercedes owners manual as the “idiot system,” as the harsh judgment carried by that term no longer makes any sense to us. By some inscrutable cultural logic, idiocy gets recast as something desirable. (pp. 61-62)