Friday, February 17, 2012

Book Review: Shop Class as Soulcraft

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford

Kansas Dad bought and read this book months ago and has been encouraging me to read it ever since. He knew I would agree with much of the author's assertions, and I do.
This book advances a nestled set of arguments on behalf of work that is meaningful because it is genuinely useful. It also explores what we might call the ethics of maintenance and repair, and in doing so I hope it will speak to those who may be unlikely to go into the trades professionally but strive for some measure of self-reliance--the kind that requires focused engagement with our material things.
Dr. Crawford has a PhD in philosophy and is a motorcycle mechanic. He pursued the doctorate because he was fascinated by philosophy but found himself unfulfilled when working at a think tank. In this book he tries to show how contemporary American society and education purposely or mistakenly fails to provide opportunities for people to build and create real things. At the end of the day, what has an office worker accomplished? To what product can they point and say, "I did that and it is well done."? How can they be properly evaluated in their jobs and communities?
I would like to consider whether this poignant longing for responsibility that many people experience in their home lives may be (in part) a response to changes int he world of work, where the experience of individual agency has become elusive.

The most interesting parts for me discussed education and society's expectations for educated youth.
Today, in our schools, the manual trades are given little honor. The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into "college prep" and "vocational ed" is overlaid with another: the fear that acquiring a specific skill set means that one's life is determined. In college, by contrast, many students don't learn anything of particular application; college is the ticket to an open future. Craftsmanship entails learning to do one thing really well, while the idea of the new economy is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement.
As a homeschooling mother, a university professor's wife, a graduate of a competitive college and an employee of a non-profit organization dedicated to career based instruction in high schools, these are topics I frequently ponder and discuss. It is difficult to find the right balance in our own family and even more complicated to consider how such a balance could be or should be maintained in public schools and communities. Mr. Crawford's book encourages us to think carefully about the direction higher education is taking in this country and to decide whether we will participate and whether we will attempt to shape secondary and higher education in a different way.

I think it's also important for people to face the fact that a college education and office job may not be what we want for our children. Of course we want them to be able to earn enough money to care for themselves and their families, but what kind of career do we guide them toward?
[White-collar and blue-collar] seem to be the categories that inform the educational landscape even now, and this entails two big errors. First, it assumes that all blue-collar work is as mindless as assembly line work, and second, that white-collar work is still recognizably mental in character. Yet there is evidence to suggest that the new frontier of capitalism lies in doing to office work what was previously done to factory work: draining it of its cognitive elements.
Mr. Crawford shows how this "dichotomy of mental versus manual" becomes popular in America through historical trends in business, education and sociology. I found these arguments generally acceptable. While I do agree with many of his statements, I thought his arguments that all college educations are meaningless were overstated. Mr. Crawford states that once a college has accepted a student, what happens in the college classroom is irrelevant. That may be true for some students at some colleges. (It may even be true for most students at most colleges.) I believe, though, that it does not adequately describe experiences at truly elite colleges and at those that provide a niche environment for a select group of students. There are some unique opportunities provided by colleges (not all expensive or competitive). Perhaps he assumed we would realize he did not mean every college or perhaps he simply doesn't know all of the possibilities available. In general, however, I would agree that too many students attend college with no coherent plan to graduate college with any measurable increase in knowledge or skills. It's simply the next step in a plan devised by society as the best preparation for anything without any serious consideration of the fact that it is possible it is a waste of time and money for a great number of people, many of whom are forced into college when jobs require a college degree merely as a hoop through which to jump.

After critiquing the state of secondary and higher education in America, Mr. Crawford expands his arguments to the economy. If we are to increase craftsmanship in this country, we need economic policies that encourage entrepreneurship, small businesses, more localized services and fewer huge global corporations.
Too often, the defenders of free markets forget that what we really want is free men. Having a few around requires an economy in which the virtue of independence is cultivated, and a diversity of human types can find work to which they are suited.
I recommend this book to all who are carefully considering the goals of education for individual children and for all children.


  1. You're right! I totally need to read this book!

    I *think* George Sanker talked about this book in one of his CiRCE talks this year. Is the author the guy that originally worked for a think tank, but felt sort of dehumanized by it all?

  2. I don't know if it's the same guy, but this author did work for a think tank and was dissatisfied with it.


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