A book you probably do not need to read

|  June 05, 2009 |

But you may like Matthew Crawford’s recently released Shop Class as Soulcraft, An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, anyway.

If you work with your hands or make your living in the trades, most of what Crawford says is old news, but it is refreshing to see these views aired in the larger media universe. And you’ll enjoy that he takes the American education establishment to the woodshed for their failure to value people with a blue collar orientation or provide training and education for the same.

Crawford’s main argument is that the white collar life, especially in the high tech global marketplace, has become a soul deadening—too many people doing too many things that don’t matter. Success or failure isn’t really measured and doesn’t really matter because in the end it can all be papered over—much like the upbeat annual financial reports that issue forth from about-to-go-bankrupt corporations. Narcissists, bloviators and big egos thrive in such work cultures.

A carpenter’s level, however, never lies, Crawford reminds us, and failure in diagnosing and fixing motorcycles or erecting buildings leads to immediate and harsh consequences. Accordingly, those who make their living with their hands see the world, and themselves, in a different light, and a much more honest one at that. An honest relationship between people and their work, keeps them humble and careful and drives away the kinds of celebrity seeking characters, the cults of personality that often rise to the top of the big corporations and government.

Crawford got an early taste of wrenching and working as an electrician’s helper before going to college and getting a PhD in political philosophy. The PhD in him shows up a lot. This is to be expected in that the book is directed in part to the education establishment, but at times it reads like an academic treatise. If you’re not familiar with or interested in these big picture intellectual issues then parts of the book are going to be off-putting.

And unfortunately Crawford’s experience in the white collar world was limited to two fairly awful jobs before he ditched the coat and tie and took up what he loved most, repairing motorcycles, for a living. In the abstract, his analysis of the poverty of cubicle life is accurate for some, but he doesn’t realize or at least acknowledge that not everybody in the corporate world lives like the cartoon character Dilbert.

He also criticizes factory labor, assembly line work, as being soul deadening. One hundred or even fifty years ago, he would have been right, and he quotes a lot of turn-of-the-century and post-WWII social theorists on this point. But while factory work today is not the acme of human self actualization, Crawford fails to mention or acknowledge the Toyota-inspired kaizen revolution that’s reshaped so many assembly lines in just the last ten years—a glaring error of omission in the eyes of anybody involved in today’s manufacturing.

Crawford’s book invites comparisons to the 1974 publication Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance  by Robert Pirsig. I still find the older book more compelling, even though it addresses an issue that seems to lost traction over time–the differences between people who are intimidated by technology and those who embrace it. Pirsig’s book got its power from a dramatic narrative. It was basically a non-fiction novel, whereas Crawford’s book is expository in nature. Pirsig seasoned his book with lots of practical observations that drive home his point without need for argumentation. For example, the advice to put down your tools if it’s late in the day and you’re tired and come back to it the next day when you’re fresh. Or the recommendation to develop what the Zen teachers call a “beginner’s mind,” to diagnose some problems. Then there’s my all time favorite Pirsig quote: “Assembly of Japanese bicycle requires great peace of mind.”

But if Crawford’s goal is to expose the biases in the American education establishment, he’s rendered a valuable service. Unlike the trades, the experience of failure seems to be edited out of the education process, Crawford complains. Grade inflation, speech codes, diversity training, and fierce turf wars over insignificant issues—these have come to dominate the culture of the university because, again, like too many corporations, the universities aren’t attempting to measure anything consequential. They reward conformity rather than the independence of the tradesman who calibrates success by concrete measures. And yet high school guidance counselors urge more than 90 percent of their students to go to college, even though they know fewer than 60 percent will ever graduate.

I like Crawford’s conclusions as well, that the university should be reserved for just those few people who really relish high level books and intellectual discourse. He also brings up an issue that didn’t exist in Pirsig’s time, that of the Internet. As many white collar workers in the last ten years have come to realize, a lot of what they do can be done cheaper in India and China. You can’t hammer a nail over the Internet, as one of his sources says, but you can read an X-ray, program software, process data and engineer a steel beam or the geometry of a gear.

This, the outsourcing white collar work, gives some urgency to Crawford’s message. Guidance counselors may have not caught on yet, but many of the college-level, white-collar careers are gone for good. But mechanics, electricians carpenters,  plumbers and equipment operators, those jobs can’t be outsourced. And to those lucky enough to realize it, the manual arts can bring the most satisfaction and the best part of what philosophers call “the good life.”

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