A review of Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford. Penguin Press, 2009. ISBN-1594202230, 9781594202230.
In the 1990’s, many jurisdictions eliminated industrial arts from their elementary schools and dismantled many secondary school technology programs. Ultimately, this short-sighted policy resulted in a critical shortage in the skilled trades. As in many sectors, the retirements among skilled tradespeople are outpacing people coming into those trades. The skills shortage has finally caused politicians to take notice, leading to a resurgence of interest in the trades and in technology programs. Even so, there is a long way to go because there is still an unfair stigma attached to the trades.
Matthew B. Crawford’s recent book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, speaks not only of trades as a worthy vocation but also of their place in a well-rounded education. We do students a genuine disservice if we steer them away from what could be a very rewarding career – or simply an enjoyable pastime.
In his introduction to the book, Crawford says, “While manufacturing jobs have certainly left our shores to a disturbing degree, the manual trades have not. If you need a deck built, or your car fixed, the Chinese are of no help. Because they are in China. And in fact there are chronic labor shortages in both construction and auto repair.” How true: many jobs have gone “offshore”, and not just manufacturing jobs. Even some “knowledge economy” jobs are now outsourced to other countries. When you call for technical help for a computer problem, for example, you could very well be talking to someone in India. However, jobs that require the worker to be onsite and/or face to face with the consumer or client are not going to go away, and these are the very jobs that are in demand today.
Crawford knows whereof he speaks. He has a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago and has worked in the “knowledge economy” in several capacities – among them, as a writer of abstracts of academic journal articles and as the executive director of a Washington-based think tank. In both cases, he found the work soulless and mind-numbing instead of intellectually stimulating. In the former, it turned out that he had a quota of abstracts to fill every day, and the only “quality control” was that of grammar internal to the abstract, not of whether the abstract did justice to the original article. In the case of the latter, his job was to “com[e] up with the best arguments money could buy.”
Disillusioned, Crawford quit after five months at the think tank and opened up a motorcycle repair shop. He explains how much thinking actually goes on in his bike shop when he is confronted by a motorcycle that doesn’t work: “You come up with an imagined train of causes for manifest symptoms and judge their likelihood before tearing anything down.” Ultimately, he says, “[m]ost surprisingly, I often find manual work more engaging intellectually. This book is an attempt to understand why this should be so.”
Along the way, Crawford also describes how our society evolved from one that valued craftsmanship to one that became increasingly automated, how that evolution changed both the nature of work and how it was regarded, and how those changes, in turn, influenced our education system. With the advent of factory work, federal funding in the United States for manual training came in two forms: as part of general education and as a separate vocational program. Only the former “emphasized the learning of aesthetic, mathematical, and physical principles through the manipulation of material things.” The vocational programs were meant to produce factory workers who would work without questioning and who could be paid less. No wonder people tried to steer their kids away from such programs. However, not all manual work is mindless – the skilled trades certainly aren’t.
Crawford explores his topic in terms of both the work world and the education system. “Corporations portray themselves as results-based and performance-driven. But where there isn’t anything material being produced, objective standards for job performance are hard to come by.” When this type of theory is applied to education, similar problems arise, as Crawford points out: “When the point of education becomes the production of credentials rather than the cultivation of knowledge, it forfeits the motive recognized by Aristotle: ‘All human beings by nature desire to know.’ Students become intellectually disengaged.”
Students aren’t widgets; they are human beings. We need to give them a well-rounded education that does not separate thinking from doing, whatever the subject area, and that allows them to live rich and satisfying lives intellectually, socially, and economically. Technology programs need to be expanded and valued so that the skilled trades can be seen and promoted as worthy, rewarding careers.