This could easily be the most important book a parent or young adult reads this year.
Matt Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft touched a chord with me. Both his life and his book are a rebuke to the assumptions which govern modern ideas about work, economics, self-worth, and happiness. Crawford would seem to have lived the American Dream right into his twenties. He finished his formal education (which, to judge by the breadth of references to literature and philosophy in the book, wasn't shabby) and was quickly hired by a Washington "think tank". Any young, aggressive climber would recognize this as a coveted place from which to launch of career. But where others would see a rapid ascent up the social pyramid, Crawford sensed emptiness. He left to work in a motorcycle repair shop, where he got his hands dirty, fixed bikes, and used his brain. Where others might see "mere" manual labor, he learned the value of a tangible skill. He now shares with readers his thoughts on this value, how it is vanishing from modern society, and the implications for us as a people.
Crawford traces the evolution of shop class, its intended and unintended consequences, and its subsequent rapid retreat from our schools. He lays out the historical transition from individual craftsman to interchangeable piece of a human assembly line during the industrial revolution. Much more frighteningly, he reviews how the same approach is well underway in the "white collar" information economy. Whether one has lived the absurdities of cubicle farms first hand or only through Dilbert, it is not hard to see how the modern, homogenized college prep education and liberal arts degree leaves a modern worker predisposed to try to fit as a cog in a modern information assembly line. Crawford taps a fundamental part of the psyche as he reminds us of the inherent pride in being able to say "I fix bikes" when asked what he does for a living. Does a country really need every high school student to strive to attend college? Crawford makes the case that for many this will not only be a waste of time and money, but will ultimately land them in careers in which they have trouble seeing the value of what they do. Too many will, in the words my son once used to describe my job, "type on the computer and answer the phone".
This advice may be coming at a perfect time. Although he claims it is not his goal to discuss the economics of working with one's hands, Crawford still makes a compelling case. As anyone who has called tech support can vouch, it is easy to transfer information economy jobs overseas. Helping someone deal with computer software can be done from India or the Philippines, but you can't hammer a nail over the internet. Crawford builds his case with anecdote, WSJ articles, and quotes from professors of economics. We may all make jokes about droopy overalls and plumber's crack, but there's a good chance that that plumber has better job prospects than many in the graduating college class of 2009. Plumbing may not be totally recession-proof, but there will always be a demand for a person who can fix a plugged drain.
Still, the best parts of the book are where Crawford talks about what working with the hands can do for a person's mind and soul. When he describes the satisfaction of hearing the roar of a motorcycle leaving his shop, knowing that it arrived in the bed of a truck, it is clearly heartfelt. His desire to share that experience with others is palpable. Well, maybe that not exactly it. More the desire to say "there is another path" to the members of our society, in particular those about to shuffle off to college because that's simple what one does after high school. To them I would say: read his book, and consider how your brain might be engaged by the thoughtful application of experience and labor in a trade. Decide if the potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars of college and years of debt really return enough value to your life to make college worthwhile.
For the rest of us, now past that decision point, consider Crawford's thoughts on freedom and specialization. Maybe it _does_ make financial sense to contract out our projects and repairs, but does that necessarily make it wrong to try to fix things ourselves? Are we truly free if so much of the technology we depend on is beyond our ability to repair it? Perhaps Crawford has a point, that there is more to work than simple money and time. Maybe dirty hands will be good for our souls.
"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."
-Robert A. Heinlein
on June 1, 2009
This is very nicely done. There is a dignity and elegance to hands-on work, and a pointlessness to much that's done in a cubicle these days, and the author does an impressive job of bringing both to the reader's understanding. Probably the expression in this book of what can be fulfilling about craftsmanship is unmatched. If you love working with your hands but have never put your finger (pun intended) on exactly what that magic is this book will make you smile. If you've never fixed something yourself it will have you tearing apart whatever you own that can still be serviced (probably not much) and chasing the feeling you got from reading about it. I've done a lot of mechanical work but never could have expressed its virtues the way Mr. Crawford has. Great job.
There are two problems. The first is the 'Malcolm Gladwell problem'. Remember when our founding fathers published pamphlets? Let's bring that back. This first appeared as an essay and probably should have stayed as one, it's just not full length book material.
The other problem is that he presents a simple truth which is only half the story. To the author, there is hand-work, in which feedback is absolute therefore the work stays meaningful, and office work, in which achievement is unnecessary and an accent on procedure over substance has ruined everything. What he's missing (and this is where some of the condescension toward craftsmanship Mr. Crawford bristles at so is actually based on a grain of truth) is that all these possibilities exist in both worlds, they're just more obvious in the hands-on. We have all gotten back a car that's still broken because a mechanic only followed the procedures in a shop manual he was ordered to follow by corporate hq. Gertrude Stein's famous term was actually borrowed from a Paris car mechanic who found the younger mechanics went through the motions but didn't understand what they were working on and so missed the nuances. He called the up-and-coming mechanics a 'lost generation'. The point is that hand workers make the mistakes and work in the ways the author treats as unique to offices. Likewise, good managers cause nebulous organizations to work better. In, say, a school, it is much more difficult to diagnose a case of students who don't learn what they could than it is to notice a light that doesn't light. And you can bet the fix will take perception, subtlety, strength of character tempered with patience, tolerance for bureaucracy, etc. etc. yet people do this. It's just harder, that's why they fail a lot.
The problem with this book seems to be that the author could not find a way to do this in his former (white collar) work life and instead moved to a world in which he could recognize faults and determine fixes. When he found this spot, life became more satisfying for him. That's wonderful, and he expresses the process and joy marvelously. But it's quite different than one world being wrong and the other right - the impression he gives.
on June 27, 2009
It's hard to put into words the message I got from this book. As a college graduate with dual degrees in economics and engineering who spends most of his day in a cubicle, pushing paper and feeling my soul drain out of my body, this book put into words a lot of the feelings and internal conflicts I struggle with daily. About a year ago, I grew tired of not working with my hands and using my creativity so I enrolled in a machinist training program at a local community college to satisfy my needs. I got so much out of working with my hands, it was almost therapy for me. The author writes about how much we can gain from working with our hands, stimulating creativity, problem solving, and a real connection with a tangible result from our work. Think of how many days you've spent at the office, making conference calls, sending emails and filling out spreadsheets, only to go home and wonder "What did I really do today? What is the proof of my work today?" Reading this book puts a lot into perspective and extolls the virtue of skilled trades, and the author urges a well-deserved re-examination of the skilled trades as a rewarding career option.
on February 17, 2010
I connected with this book in several ways. First, while in Junior High (remember when it was called that) in the 60s I was told by my guidance counselor I couldn't take Shop II because I was on a college prep track and Shop 2 was for those kids who would be blue collar workers. The bias of those comments stuck with me all these years. Second, there is an option pursued by myself and many of my close friends. While I was a white collar worker my entire professional career my hobby was restoring and maintaining cars. I needed the satisfaction of that work so took it on as a hobby and developed mechanical proficiency many mechanical skills including engine and gearbox rebuilding. After reading this book I realized many of my close friends have the same approach. A teacher who built his own house. A doctor who hand builds kayaks. A CPA who welds, restores and works on cars. Somehow we all value working with our hands and while we don't do it to pay the bills we all do it to satisfy our souls to great success. Crawford explains why we all feel this way. All of these friends have now read the book and enjoyed it. Crawford nailed it.
on August 12, 2009
The concept presented in this book is excellent. I am absolutely the hands-on kind of person that he talks about, and whole-heartedly agree with the value of being such. However, his over-indulgent vocabulary and run-on sentences frequently left me wondering what the heck he was talking about! It's as if the author floated between writing from his heart, and trying to make his argument sound scholarly. I wish he would have stuck to writing from his heart because within those lines he spoke to me. Ultimately, I did not finish the book because I lost interest.
on October 25, 2009
"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." (19)
"Occupations based on universal...knowledge are more prestigious, but they are also the kind that face competition from the whole world as book learning becomes more widely disseminated in the global economy. Practical know-how, on the other hand, is always tied to the experience of a particular person. It can't be downloaded, it can only be lived." (162)
These two quotes pretty much sum up the focus of this book, that we have lost value and appreciation for craftsmanship and hands on work in this country in favor of a ridiculous belief that somehow the only work that is to be valued is work that is performed "intellectually" in a shirt and tie. Crawford left a political think tank to start his own motorcycle repair shop and this book is his reflections on how our country has come to view work, the values and unstated labels we place on "white collar" vs. "blue collar" work, and how our schools and government are partly to blame for our unrealistic beliefs that everyone needs to go to college to have a "good life." As someone who lost more then $20,000 a year in a "blue collar" job to happily go into the "white collar" teaching profession, only to specialize in teaching a majority of future "blue collar" kids, I have a passionate interest in this debate. I have and will continue to advocate for a revision of these destructive and condescending educational beliefs. Crawford believes, and I agree, that we have turned our schools into "square holes" with no room for our "round" non-college bound kids to fit into by eliminating trade oriented classes such as wood and auto shop in favor of more (less expensive) college prep classes. Crawford reflects on the Catch-22 of addressing or changing this situation by stating:
...any high school principal who doesn't claim as his goal "one hundred percent college attendance" is likely to be accused of harboring "low expectations" and run out of town by indigent parents. This indignation is hard to strand against, since it carries all the moral weight of egalitarianism. Yet it is also snobbish, since it evidently regards the trades as something "low" (32).
I deal with kids everyday in my high school intervention classes that exhibit what happens when years of passive aggressively telling kids through our educational actions that their interests and their skill sets are not as "good" or "valuable" to our community as those of the college bound kids. My kids repeatedly tell me that high school has absolutely no purpose or use for them and looking at what they are up against I can sympathize with their frustrations. When students believe this about school it only results in negative self images and frustration which then, over time, turns into behavior and truancy issues as these "round kids" struggle with being forced into our school's "square holes."
I wish school boards and administrators would take the time to read and think about the issues that a book like this raises so we can begin to give the trade and non-four year college track kids the respect and dignity they deserve, and more importantly, are entitled to. After all, these are going to be the only truly secure professions in our growing global economy. As Princeton economist Alan Binder states in the book, "you can't hammer a nail over the Internet" (34).
on September 16, 2009
I heard Crawford interviewed on NPR and was so excited about this book I ordered two copies - one for myself and one for my Dad. Unfortunately, the book was not as advertised. I hung with Crawford for about 30 pages but finally set it aside. The problem for me is that the writing is academic and not very engaging for me. As an example, "Many inventions capture the reflective moment in which some worker has made explicit the assumptions that are explicit in his skill", or "I take their point to be that a realistic solution must include as hoc constraints known only through practice, that is, through embodied manipulations." Yawn. I'm disappointed becasue I think Crawford's unique experience provides a real opportunity to deliver an important message about hands-on work that might be more broadly received were it written in a more interesting and accessible manner. I can say, irrefutabley, that none of the guys I know who really do get their hands dirty for a living (several repairing motorcycles) would read this book. Then again, I am now convinced Crawford did not write the book for that audience, or even the wider audience caught between the intellectuals and the hands-on working class. I believe this book reflects an internal conflict for Crawford: he has rejected the intellectual crowd but still wants to prove he can run with them. Mission accomplished.
Make no mistake, this book is no easy read. It is a work of philosophy by a man who has a Ph.D. in the field. Still, anyone with even a basic familiarity with philosophy can read it with profit. If one lacked such preparation all they would need is a good dictionary. A friend of mine who is in a Ph.D. program recommended it to me when we were talking about my dream of restoring a muscle car on my own. What a great book!
This work touches on many different areas: from education, to anthropology, to the nature of work itself. I found myself largely agreeing with it throughout, although I would quibble on a few of the details. For instance, if I am reading him correctly, the author seems to get the history of modern scientific method wrong, and seems ignorant of new work on the Middle Ages. For a philosopher this is problematic (how can a professional philosopher not thoroughly understand scholasticism and the history of monasticism?) but that is the state of the academy these days.
I am no scholar, just a teacher with interests in music, history, theology, and philosophy. However, I recently had some life changing experiences that this book really speaks to.
With our conversion to Catholicism, and the commensurate arrival of our third child, my wife informed me of the importance of her staying home with the children. She desired to home-school them to provide them with a classical education, and that meant changes in my life (I was a Catholic school teacher at the time).
I had to leave my job in favor of public schools in order to make the necessary income for her to stay home, but that was only the first step. Expenses had to be cut, and drastically. I have had to find ways to save money and make it on one salary. The brakes were going on my car and I did NOT want to put the bill on my credit card.
A guy at Church told me that disk brakes were easy. I should do them myself. I bought a couple of books, looked on-line for vehicle specific directions (Auto Zone has a GREAT website), bought a ratchet set and got to work.
My friend was right. I replaced brakes and rotors and bought tools and books at it cost me less than it would have cost at a facility to get the brakes and rotors done for me. Plus, I was equipped to do it again and again.
That was just the beginning. She wanted new cabinets in the kitchen. I had to build them. My mom's car needed new plugs and wires. I had to do it (she lives with us and is on a fixed income). I have had to make MAJOR changes, and the biggest one is that I rarely have the money to hire people. I am redoing the back porch. I have been amazed at how much I love the process of doing all this work myself.
And, the thing is, I am truly happiest when I am doing this work. There is no time when I am more at peace than when I am trying to tackle a difficult new problem. My respect for the trades (and the men and women in them) has grown immensely. I am fortunate to love my job as well, but I really do believe that had I known what I know now about how fulfilling, intellectually stimulating, and rewarding the trades are, I might have skipped the four year degree and the masters, picked up automotive and electrical at the local community college, and saved myself and bundle and been just as fulfilled.
This book put flesh on an idea and expressed competently knowledge that I had come across experientially. Had I the chance to do things differently I probably wouldn't, but if my son (or daughter) informs me that they love working on the car with me and would like to do it for a living, I will certainly encourage them in their vocation. Two years ago, my stupid snobbery might have prevented that.
Also, this book clearly communicates why many of the electricians and mechanics I have met are some of the smartest people I have spoken to.
In as much as I am in a position to do so, I will advocate from now on for a return of the manual crafts in the classroom. Any high school education that doesn't teach someone to work a little with wood, and little about their car, and a little about the plumbing in their house is really no education at all.
on January 4, 2010
I think this book did an excellent job of pointing out patterns of behavior in the corporate job world as well as in the academic world. I agree 100% with Crawford's assessment that colleges are purveyors of credentials, and it is those credentials which hold the greatest value to a student, far beyond the knowledge gained through education. So much of this book is enlightening, but I found a couple issues which I felt deserved criticism.
The first of these is the writing style. Who is the intended audience? This book glorifies blue collar work, but it is written with such vocabulary and density of ideas that most blue collar workers I know wouldn't make it past page one. And this is unfortunate because I think many of them could benefit from hearing such a well-detailed perspective.
The second issue is the simplified version of blue collar workers, and how they bond together in a harmonious brotherhood where the master gently guides the apprentice through example, instruction, and criticism. I have worked in shops and in the trades for much of my life, and I still do. First of all, not everyone in the trades takes pride in their work. That should be apparent to anyone. And secondly, people in the trades can be absolutely brutal to one another. There is a bonding which occurs when people work together, and they depend on each other to get their jobs done. But the harmony as described by Crawford is sort of new-agey and idealistic. Guys on the job gang up on one another all the time. Racial and political intolerance is common. I am certain that this is not true for all blue collar environments, but it is surely not rare.
Despite these two criticisms, I thought the book was good.
on September 23, 2009
As an avid motorcyclist (Harley-Davidson) and cubicle dweller (software engineer), I was intrigued by this book: it spoke in intelligent, cogent, and approachable terms to what I have observed in the workplace - and to what I have felt in my own soul searching. Through introspection, there was a realization (epiphany?) that I get a better sense of satisfaction changing my own oil or getting the FXDWG to start in the springtime than I realize installing a major piece of financial software.
While the author is obviously a man with an above-average(quite possibly off-the-charts)IQ, he remains approachable with his occasional wry sense of humor and his pertinent, personal anecdotes. The reader is left pondering what should have been obvious to him all along - there is recognizable and important personal value in working with one's hands. Success - economic and psychological - comes from recognizing that supplying a demand on one hand and exerting noble effort on the other leads to rewards. There is an overabundance of college graduates - armed with a four-year liberal arts degree - hoping to find white-collar office jobs that probably pay less than their freshman year's tuition. Maybe they should fill the demand for competent, honest carpenters, painters, and mechanics.
My formal education (catholic grade school and junior high school under the tutelage of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, catholic high school overseen by the Christian Brothers, catholic college - B.C. - directed by the Jesuits, and graduate school at a world-renowned research university - B.U.) steered me to the white-collar destiny that promised prestige and reward. While I have had economic success - an above average income and benefits package - there has been something lacking: an actual physical product that can be recognized and appreciated. A legacy is missing as I am invisible to those who use my "product" (i.e., the usable software). People are impressed to hear that I am a software engineer armed with a graduate degree - but, am I impressed with myself?
Popular culture depicts men who work in the blue-collar world as primates (I never got through more then 5 minutes of the television program "Tool Time" since the main character actually grunts) and their jobs as something you "end up" doing. Becoming a mechanic or plumber is something that was eschewed and left to those who did not have adequate SAT tutors - or so I thought. The author challenges this long-held notion with pertinent comparisons between white-collar and blue-collar work, the first often seen as cognitive; the latter as just physical and unskilled. As we push white-collar workers more towards unskilled, autonomous labor we realize that the white-collar workplace is no longer intellectually challenging at all. One project I am currently working on will dramatically decrease the number of times a data entry operator has to look left and right while processing a form - how zombie-like. And, these zombies are required to have college degrees.
Recently I began a course in furniture upholstery through a local adult education school. It was for fun but opened my eyes. There is as much cognitive and creative activity in this area then in any other I have tried. A tired piece from a thrift store can be brought back to life, appreciated, touched, admired... and resold. No high school or trade school offers this particular training anymore. There may be a chance for a lucrative business - not to mention the desire to get to work early and leave late that I have not had in a long, long time.