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.