Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford (New York: The Penguin Press, 2009. 256 pp)

Matthew B. Crawford is a philosopher and mechanic. He has a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago and served as a 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.

An Apple Nowhere Near the Tree

They say the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Whether it’s culinary taste, similar joys in sports, or comparable career paths, parents and children often resemble each other.

However, this apple fell nowhere near the tree. My father works with his hands. He raced hydroplanes at my age and soon after whittled his own high-powered boat. He leveraged his handy skills into full-time employment in the tool industry and has made a career out of assisting those in the trades.

In his off-time, he fashions complicated objects. My father handmade my most cherished pen—I wish he would start a side business selling those things!

My Dad’s Pen

I could not be more opposite. The thought of building anything strikes the fear of God in me. What if I mess up? What if shoddy craftsmanship results in pain or disappointment in others? Do I even have the patience to walk through such complicated problems? To me, I would much rather remain employed in a position where my brain requires more use than what negligible brawn I possess. In short, my father and I have been called to opposite métiers.

These differences remained in the forefront of my mind as I read Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft.

The Power of a Story

Throughout the pages of this book, Crawford philosophically expands on his intriguing life story. As a teenager, Crawford became introduced to the trades. Always holding the personality type which finds joy in the work of the hands, Crawford’s first job was in an auto shop. While earning his undergraduate degree, Crawford sustained himself through work as an electrician.

Even as he ascended academic peaks, Crawford continued to feel drawn to the trades. After completing a Ph.D. in Philosophy, Crawford found employment as a director of a Washington D. C. think-tank. Six months of unfulfilling work later, Crawford quit his job and established a small motorcycle repair shop.

Redeeming the Trades

In its most basic terms, Shop Class as Soulcraft is an argument for the value of the trades; it suggests an alternative route for vocational fulfillment; it even wonders whether the trades offer a more lucrative lifestyle given its demand versus the small supply of capable laborers.

Central to this book’s thesis is the value of work. For Crawford, the current trend toward knowledge work coincides with a trend toward deadening, unfulfilling office jobs.

Photo by Emyr Jones

While a client judges a motorcycle mechanic on whether or not the motorcycle works, how does a client assess the influence of a mid-level marketing manager at a multinational corporation? Sure, quarterly reports provide a general idea of the overall health of a company, but how do you evaluate that specific manager aside from getting a general sense of how her fellow employees view her?

Crawford argues that the trades offer an alacritous alternative to knowledge work, where you use all aspects of your brain and your fiduciary responsibility to your client has a face, a name, and real expectations for your work.

“To respond to the world justly, you have to see it clearly, and for this you have to get outside your own head. Knowing you’re going to have to explain your labor bill to a customer accomplishes just this” (103).

Just as the personal connection to the client causes handiwork to carry significance, it also adds an element of application to the knowledge in your head.

“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. And in fact this is the case: to really know shoelaces, you have to tie shoes” (164).

Where knowledge work disconnects employees from the physical world, Crawford believes the trades provide a tangible example of application—a space where the mind meets reality.

“The trades are then a natural home for anyone who would live by his own powers, free not only of deadening abstraction but also of the insidious hopes and rising insecurities that seem to be endemic in our current economic life. Freedom from hope and fear is the Stoic ideal” (53).

Exercising Caution

While I find Crawford’s arguments compelling, I think it is easy for the reader to mistranslate his point. Because Crawford’s story involves his hands, it’s easy to read this book as a defense of handiwork and an urge for people to drop that college degree and find an apprenticeship in the trades. Even if Crawford thinks such a route ought to be taken by more people, he’s not suggesting everyone become a mechanic, electrician, plumber, or stone mason. Such an argument would be problematic for someone like me. My hands are as handy as a brick.

Instead, I believe Crawford writes Shop Class as Soulcraft as a warning against the trend of dehumanizing knowledge work. In fact, he writes,

“Any job that can be scaled up, depersonalized, and made to answer to forces remote from the scene of work is vulnerable to degradation, even to the point of requiring that the person who does the job actively suppress his better judgment” (198-199).

I agree thoroughly. Business is best conducted in relationship. When you know your client, recognize their desires, and understand what makes them tick, you will serve them better. It doesn’t matter if you work with your hands or your mind, the personal touch of a relationship matters as much or more than the final service rendered. For Crawford, he found his soulcraft in shop class. Where will you find yours? Read this book.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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