Crawford, Matthew B. Shop Class to Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. New York: The Penguin Press, 2009. Pp. 246. Hardcover, $25.95.
An important theme here is the recognition of the worth of the mechanic arts in liberating the spirit. Much of the story deals with fixing motorcycles. A motorcycle mechanic knows when he or she—actually nearly all the book is about men—has succeeded. Excellence is more easily recognized in a concrete (tangible) outcome than in the results of typical white collar efforts. Because such recognition is possible when the result is a physical thing, a community of practitioners develops that recognizes the subtleties of the output, and such a community is a good thing. Shop classes are disappearing from our schools, so fewer people gain the “psychic satisfactions of manual work.” The diminution of shop work reduces opportunities for a student to realize her or his interests and promise, so a person is fortunate if he or she finds work that fits. Jobs for craftspeople, like mechanics or electricians, also are much less likely to be outsourced to Asia. The converse of finding fitting work is that the work a person does acts to form that person. Mechanics and doctors fix things not of their own making—they need to be attentive not assertive. But being assertive is necessary in creating new things, as an architect or a research mathematician does. In any case, truth does not reveal itself to idle spectators. Iris Murdoch described how understanding requires “unselfing,” being attentive to the actual problem, not to one’s perception of it. Work and leisure become inter-twined when one is doing absorbing work, and the implication is that manual work can be absorbing. The example given is the author’s story about feeling compelled to work an unrealistic number of hours removing a clutch rod oil seal on a motorcycle he did not particularly like. This incident has particular poignancy—how much do you charge the customer? Another aspect of familiarity with technology is the possibility of being able to understand, even repair, one’s belongings, thereby being freed from dependence on an impersonal repair shop service representative. Life is better when one can talk to the person who fixed your car, or your stomach tumor. Crawford states he wrote the book “to get a critical handle on his own work history.” The history was uncommon, to say the least, ranging from pulling wires as an electrician at an early age, to discovering philosophy in his senior year at college, to gaining a PhD in the history of political thought, to being a group leader at a Washington think tank. He eventually opened a motorcycle repair shop. He has much to say about how in contemporary American industry thinking is separated from doing by “scientific managers,” diminishing the attractiveness of physical work. He also has much to say about the general knowledge advanced by academics compared to the particular knowledge needed by practitioners. Shop Class to Soulcraft is certainly provocative and erudite, but probably harder on white collar jobs and big corporations than it needs to be. A major concern is whether our society can create significant numbers of jobs that are absorbing and fulfilling, but this concern begs the question of whether many people really want such jobs.