Let’s talk about Shop Class

by David Alm on February 17, 2011

Last fall I finally got around to reading Matthew Crawford’s 2009 book Shop Class as Soulcraft: an Inquiry Into the Value of Work, a rich and compelling meditation on American education, “knowledge” work, and the intrinsic value of mastering a skill. While I have told a great many people about the book, which I loved, in the months since, I have yet to have an in-depth conversation with someone else who’s read it. I’m hoping to rectify that here and now.

For anyone who hasn’t read it, to grossly simplify: Shop Class considers the topics listed above from the perspective of someone who rose to the top of his field only to reject so-called “knowledge work” and open a motorcycle repair shop instead. And not for lack of intelligence or drive, mind you: Crawford finished his PhD in political philosophy at the University of Chicago, was awarded a prestigious post-doctoral fellowship in that university’s Committee on Social Thought, and was then whisked away to Washington D.C. to run a think t ank. After five miserable months, he fled for Richmond, VA, and opened his shop. In fixing motorcycles, Crawford says he encounters intellectual challenges far greater than any he experienced at the think tank.

Crawford’s appeal lies in his frankness, his knowledge, and his evident dedication to the pursuit of worthwhile work. By his own definition, such work can be whatever fulfills you, deeply. Rather than considering people’s abilities, he says, we should pay more attention to their dispositions. Just because someone aces the SAT, for example, does not necessarily mean they should go to Harvard, and then law school, and so on until they make partner at a top firm in New York. Maybe that young genius would be happier, as Crawford was during college, working as an electrician.

Shop Class resonated with me on two levels: as someone who has long struggled to reconcile my own inclinations with the expectations of others; and as a teacher, who routinely encounters students who may be very smart, but who are going through college like round pegs through a square hole. It’s clearly not a fit.

For anyone who has read the book, I would like to know your thoughts. Help me feel like I’m in less of a vacuum.

Jeff McMahon February 17, 2011 at 8:29 pm

But then he had to go and write a book.

David Alm February 18, 2011 at 7:30 am

I don’t see his writing a book about the subject compromises the ideas he presents in it. He clearly has two dispositions, to use his own word: that of a skilled tradesman, and that of an intellectual. Indeed, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. By his own account, working on old bikes requires a great deal of intelligence and attention to detail and nuance, as well as impeccable problem-solving and trouble-shooting skills. Not entirely different from writing a book, really. His detail-oriented mind functions well in both contexts.

And writing, of course, can be viewed as mechanically as a motorcycle. Either a piece of writing works, i.e. accomplishes its goal as efficiently and exactly as its writer intends, or it doesn’t. If it does, why? If it doesn’t, why not? The same intellectual puzzle could be put to the motorcycle mechanic, the electrician, or the general contractor.

Jeff McMahon February 18, 2011 at 9:23 am

I’ve not read the book (and I’m trying to drag a couple of facebook commenters over here who have), so I’m not certain of his distinctions, but I was just going off of your statement that “he rejected so-called knowledge work and opened a motorcycle shop instead.” But now it sounds as if either writing a book isn’t knowledge work or motorcycle repair is. I’ll not harry you about it. I’ll have to read the book.

David Alm February 18, 2011 at 10:21 am

I should have clarified that he refers to “knowledge work” somewhat pejoratively — as that which exists in offices, but does not necessarily demand depth of thought or analytic skill. A perfect example might be the one he uses, of his own job between finishing his MA and starting his PhD program: as a writer of abstracts for academic journals. He found that once the formula was identified and mastered, completing his quota of abstracts (yes, he really had a quota!) each day was merely a matter of painting by the numbers.

I don’t think that he would classify writing a book, or even his current fellowship in the Institute for Advanced Studies and Culture at the University of Virginia, in the same category as such stultifying and mindless work as that which most cubicle dwellers with business cards perform each day.

Jeff McMahon February 18, 2011 at 10:31 am

I see. So the enemy is the one we’ve always known. And the argument is that higher education won’t necessarily save you from it, while vocational work just might.

There’s a related conversation we could have about whether writers should write for a living, or teach writing for a living, or do something entirely else for a living, while writing, on their lunch breaks, for love.

David Alm February 18, 2011 at 10:54 am

That’s a good question. I know that when I’ve worked as a full-time writer at just one magazine, I’ve felt like I’m merely churning out a product, much as I would working on an assembly line. I felt just as divorced from the work before me as I would a drill press and piece of metal. But as some Marxist critics have argued, such alienated labor is even more insidious than factory work precisely because it relies on our human faculties — reason, intelligence, facility with language — as the instrument of our alienation. Meanwhile, the factory worker’s mind is free to do what it wants. Just think of Einstein, dreaming up the theory of relativity while reviewing, stamping, and filing patent applications.

Jeff McMahon February 18, 2011 at 11:19 am

Camus:

“The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”

And yet:

“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

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