“Of Philosophy and Motorcycles”
A Review of
Shop Class as Soulcraft:
An Inquiry into the Value of Work.
by Matthew Crawford.
Reviewed by Debra Dean Murphy.
Shop Class as Soulcraft:
An Inquiry into the Value of Work.
Hardback: The Penguin Press, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
If you were in high school any time before the early 1990’s you remember shop class. Or vo-ag, or industrial arts, or whatever it might have been called back in the day. You may or may not have participated in shop class but you were vaguely aware (and probably wholly uncritical) of the fact that, because of shop class, an intellectual, social, and economic divide was created, one with all sorts of implications for what kind of achievement was valued and rewarded.
When the promise of an information economy dawned those two decades ago, most shop classes were turned into computer labs. The nagging concern of liberal pedagogues had always been that sorting students into “college prep” or “vocational ed” tracks created and fostered a kind of educational apartheid. But this worry gave way to sunny predictions that everyone—all students everywhere—could become “knowledge workers” in the fast-approaching high-tech world of work.
In his new book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford narrates this history and, more importantly, its fallout for our contemporary understandings of work and the value of work. While “college prep” and “vocational ed” denoted and perpetuated a troubling form of occupational determinism, college, Crawford notes, was (and is) thought to be the “ticket to an open future.” Craftsmanship, he says, “entails learning to do one thing really well,” while the new information-based economy celebrates “potential rather than achievement.”
And so Crawford sets out with a great deal of philosophical acumen and curmudgeonly wit to argue for the cognitive richness and moral significance of manual work. He comes by his philosophy honestly, having studied at the University of Chicago and serving for a time as a postdoctoral fellow on its Committee on Social Thought. His tendency to be a bit of grumbler (though a clever and amusing one) also seems hard-won; in his current work as an electrician and motorcycle repairman in Richmond, Virginia, Crawford ponders questions like this: “What sort of personality does one need to have, as a twenty-first-century mechanic, to tolerate the layers of electronic bullshit that get piled on top of machines?”
It’s the capacity to probe the writings of Iris Murdoch or Martin Heidegger and the workings of a late-model Kawasaki liter-class sport bike that make Crawford so interesting to read. Indeed, the oddity of his personal narrative—an intellectual who makes his living doing (and extolling the virtues of) manual labor—threatens to make him, more than his book, an object of inquiry and public curiosity. ( Stephen Colbert’s recent interview of Crawford is a prime—and hilarious—example of this).
But for persons, in whatever discipline or vocation, who lament the separation of knowing from doing, who believe that wisdom in any tradition is cultivated through long practice, and who trust that there are goods intrinsic to work worth doing well, Shop Class as Soulcraft is a welcome, ready ally. “If thinking is bound up with action,” writes Crawford, “then the task of getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on our doing stuff in it.”
I read this book while thinking about such disparate practices as gardening, worship, and classroom teaching, and found rich and illuminating insights for all three throughout its pages. When Crawford suggests that “the mechanical arts have a special significance for our time because they cultivate not creativity, but the less glamorous virtue of attentiveness,” he could be talking about what is required to tend to a backyard vegetable patch or to the “work of the people” in the liturgy or to the task of shared inquiry and community in a classroom.
In a chapter-section called “What College Is For” Crawford lays bare the troubling trend—decades long now—in which the production of credentials rather than the cultivation of practical knowledge has become the point, the end game, the ultimate goal and prize of higher education. Students are consumed with insuring the marketability of their credentials, and teachers feel pressure to give grades not for their intrinsic pedagogical use but for the “value” they will bestow on the student’s whole “package.”
Here’s a passage that kept me awake for several nights as I considered my own vocation as a college teacher:
“Pedagogically, you might want to impress on a student the miserable state of his mind. You might want to improve the student by first crushing him, as then you can recruit his pride to the love of learning. You might want to reveal to him the chasm separating his level of understanding from the thinkers of the ages. You do this not out of malice, but because you sense rare possibilities in him, and take your task to be that of cultivating in the young man (or woman) a taste for the most difficult studies. Such studies are likely to embolden him against timid conventionality, and humble him against the self-satisfaction of the age, which he wears on his face. These are the pedagogical uses of the “D.” But give someone a low grade, and he is likely to press upon you the fact that his admission to law school hangs in the balance.”
When I think about my own teachers through time, from elementary school through graduate school, I’m struck by how the best of them did indeed seek to “crush” me—not to embarrass or humiliate me (the worst teachers do that) but to flatten or deflate the false pride, the bad habits, the egocentrism that make it difficult for children and youth and young adults to see beyond themselves to a world not of their own making, where there is truth, beauty, and goodness to be discovered. Where what they discover might not be immediately useful for landing the “perfect job,” but which is, nonetheless, essential to their thriving as human beings.
The corporatization of higher education makes this sound like romantic silliness. But I want to be hopeful. Crawford’s book — with its vast erudition and its mechanic’s eye for b.s. – gives me hope. Read this book. You’ll be hopeful, too.