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Book Review:

Shop Class As Soulcraft

By Matthew B. Crawford

For desk jockeys who like to tinker with things or are do-it-yourselfers, Shop Class As Soulcraft is fun reading. Why do so many of us find repairing things or building things fun? What jobs provide the most satisfaction? Which jobs can't be outsourced or automated? Crawford addresses these questions in his well-written evaluation of the nature of work.

Crawford worked as an electrician, received a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago, and went to work for a think tank. As Crawford said, the purpose of the think tank was to come up with ideas to support the agenda of the think-tank sponsors, e.g., deny global warming. Crawford also had a stint writing abstracts for magazines, including scientific journals, where he was expected to abstract over a dozen articles a day (!), even if he didn't have a clue what the article was saying. Crawford pointed out that any attempt to understand the material interfered with the quota.

Unsatisfied with his desk jobs, Crawford began a small motorcycle repair shop, where he found more personal fulfillment and further developed his insights into the nature of work. Crawford observes many of today's leaders haven't had to confront failure making them blind to the consequences of their own actions. On the other hand, he says fixing things might be a cure for narcissism.


Relating one of his experiences of breaking a cobalt drill bit while attempting to remove a mangled bolt, he writes, "Not only do things tend to go to hell, but your own actions contribute invariably to that process."

Crawford surmises, "…to be a good mechanic, you have to be constantly attentive to the possibility that you may be mistaken. This is an ethical virtue." He continues: "…Any discipline that deals with an authoritative, independent reality requires honesty and humility."

Crawford explains: "…The moral significance of work that grapples with material things may lie in the simple fact that such things lie outside the self. A washing machine, for example, surely exists to serve our needs, but in contending with one that is broken, you have to ask what it needs. At such a moment, technology is no longer a means by which our mastery of the world is extended, but an affront to our usual self-absorption. Constantly seeking self-affirmation, the narcissist views everything as an extension of his will, and therefore only has a tenuous grasp on the world of objects as something independent. He is prone to magical thinking and delusions of omnipotence. A repairman, on the other hand, puts himself in the service of others, and fixes the things they depend on. His relationship to objects enacts a more solid sort of command, based on real understanding. For this very reason, his work also chastens the easy fantasy of mastery that permeates modern culture. The repairman has to begin each job by getting outside his own head and noticing things; he has to look carefully and listen to the ailing machine."

Crawford says many people associate the skilled trades with brainless work, which is incorrect. He laments high schools have done away with shop classes and the trades in general have received a bad rap. Many of the skilled trades offer a measure of job security, because, as Crawford writes, you can't hammer a nail over the Internet, and the Chinese aren't of any help in building a deck. Published in 2009, Shop Class As Soulcraft couldn't anticipate the huge layoffs that occurred in the building trades with the mortgage crisis. But, what Crawford writes is largely true. Crawford notices that today many traditional white collar jobs are being outsourced. Even more, he explains the sort of mindlessazation that factories forced on blue collar workers is now being replicated with white collar workers. The goal of many companies is to turn white-collar workers into cogs who just follow a script.

In his excellent chapter, "Thinking As Doing," Crawford shows why so much work can't just be reduced to following an algorithm. Experience and tacit knowledge of a specific situation can't be replaced with simple rule following. Work like plumbing can't be reduced to algorithms but is affected by circumstances and conditions.

Here is an interesting video of Crawford speaking about his book (http://fora.tv/2009/08/04/Shop_Class_as_Soulcraft_Matthew_B_Crawford)

Overall, I found Shop Class as Soulcraft a very enjoyable read. I think he is correct. When we feel we are doing something useful and being effective at it, we tend to enjoy our work more.

Shop Class As Soulcraft
Shop Class As Soulcraft


This book is also available from barnesandnoble.com: Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work


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