20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on 15 September 2009
Matthew B. Crawford's appeal for a society that engages more with its material world caught my attention some time back in a recommendation that I saw. My father retired from electrical engineering some time ago, and now does all kinds of DIY jobs for people. Because I spend most of my time uninvolved with such work, but intrigued by the idea of finding what so fascinates my father, I picked up Shop Class as Soulcraft thinking that Crawford might provide me with some insights. He did just that, and challenged my thinking with trenchant philosophy to boot.
A word of warning, as much as Crawford's book is the story of a how gearhead came to open his own shop, it is also, and probably more so, an academic philosopher's appeal to the academically-inclined and college-educated to give greater credit to those who are involved in manual labour, the trades, and the crafts. He explains his case as an academic would using academic language, references, end notes, and the other mainstays of academia. This book is not a memoir, neither is it just a story about the pleasures of construction. Instead, it is a philosophical attack on the motives for college education rather than 'vocational training', in which he argues that college education is turning people into cogs, and that 'vocational' training is more cognitively challenging than universities and politicians would have you believe. Consequently, you should not buy this book if you are looking for a comfortable or easy read about restoring and repairing motorcycles. Don't go in thinking it's a quick holiday read, or just a bit of fun - it'll require some serious work if you're unfamiliar with the debates, especially those in which the names of Marx, Smith, Heidegger, Polanyi, and others pop off of the workshop shelves.
With that in mind, I think that Crawford largely achieves what he sets out for himself. He argues that allowing workers to use their judgment provides them with greater happiness and provides non-monetary rewards. He asserts that giving workers objective standards, rather than the mealy-mouthed corporate speak of 'missions' and 'buy-in' allows workers to succeed or fail, and when they fail they better understand their success. He attacks college education for not including places where kids can go wrong, he argues that "The experience of failure seems to have been edited out of the educational process, at least for gifted students... A student can avoid hard sciences and foreign languages and get a degree without ever having the unambiguous experience of being wrong." (p204) He laments the devaluation of genuine mastery, and is frustrated by "the easy fantasy of mastery [that] permeates modern culture." (p17) He believes, probably like many conservatives do, that modern consumer culture, with its emphasis on immediacy and short-termism, damages humanity and, "If the modern personality is being reorganized on a predicate of passive consumption, this is bound to affect our political culture." (p18) So he has many worries and many criticisms, and his proposed solution is what he calls 'progressive republicanism'. He argues that it should be progressive because "the defenders of free markets forgot that what we really want is free men" and thus "It is time to end the confusion of private property with corporate property" (p209). Furthermore, he argues that many politicians fail the electorate because, "Those who belong to a certain order of society - people to make big decisions that affect all of us - don't seem to have much sense of their own fallibility. Being unacquainted with failure, the kind that can't be interpreted away, may have something to do with the lack of caution that business and political leaders often display in the actions they undertake on behalf of other people." (pp203-4) I think that Crawford should have foreshadowed these rather radical statements earlier on, and that in the expectation of such conclusions many people might have read on to see exactly how he motivates such end results.
Notwithstanding the credit he gives to those whose work requires a physical engagement with a physical world, Crawford seems to miss one large fraction of the working population with his 'switch it on and see it work' nostrum for the value of the trades. Computer programmers have the same need, to 'switch on' (compile) their program and see it work. Others appreciate their product because it works for them every day, each hour. Yes, like poor craftsmanship there is poor programming, but good programming and database management have many similar characteristics to their physical brethren in the engineering, trades, and crafts. In my view, Crawford doesn't give programmers, and knowledge workers generally, sufficient credit for their good work, but derogates them for their poor work, and for the apathy and indolence of many of those who inappropriately do programming and IT work.
Additionally, when Crawford says, "Craftsmanship means dwelling on a task for a long time and going deeply into it, because you want to get it right." (p20) By rights, then, many 'knowledge' tasks should be classified as 'crafts'. Should I not, when I spend hours before a computer trying to engage with data, dwelling on it for many hours, be classified as a craftsman trying to craft or model the correct, or most true, set of regressions? For me this differentiates academia from consultancy or an equivalent (Crawford dislikes consultancy and management greatly) - the ability to spend hours pondering one question, or one set of questions, in order to provide a rigorous and honest answer.
Though there may be a few shortcomings to the book, I think it was largely worth my while to read it and to engage properly with what Crawford sets out - an argument for smaller, responsible businesses and responsible, free workers, craftsmen and tradespeople, brought together in markets and allowed to engage in free exchange. Though his dream seems Utopian, and there are occasional flaws in his reasoning, the ideas are nonetheless clearly set out and often beautiful.
9 of 15 people found the following review helpful
"Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord." -- 1 Corinthians 15:58
Imagine that you build sand castles for a living. It could be pretty frustrating. When the tide comes in, a wave will wash away all but the memory of your work. Or if the waves don't get you, a careless foot may. Alternatively, the wind will blow your castle down.
It's the nature of a very secular society to seek enormous satisfactions from work. After all, it's what we mostly do on Monday through Friday. Matthew Crawford describes his experiences and observations about how to gain pleasure and meaning from work. He does so from an unusual perspective. He has a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago but prefers to repair old motorcycles.
After you go through the story of his working life, you'll be reminded of all those wonderful vignettes in Studs Terkel's book, Working. You don't have to be president of the United States to find work satisfying.
Mr. Crawford posits these kinds of qualities for making work meaningful:
1. You work on something you care about.
2. You come into contact with those whose lives will be affected by your work.
3. The nature of the tasks is inherently satisfying to you.
4. You get to solve difficult problems.
5. You develop expertise that makes the work more enjoyable and helpful.
6. You use creative thinking.
7. You are not bound by time, space, or quotas.
For much of the book, he describes in glowing terms how great motorcycle repair is for him . . . and some of the satisfactions of electrical work. He also takes Dilbert-like potshots at routine office work, particularly when it is done in an assembly-line-like fashion. From that platform, it would have been easy to describe many more kinds of work, describing what to seek out and what to avoid. But he held back from making such general points where they cried out to be made.
As a management consultant, I was fascinated to see that his view of management consulting was of something very theoretical and impractical. Having done this kind of work for over forty years, I would say management consulting work is often a great deal like motorcycle repair work . . . but without the skinned knuckles. The book would have been stronger if he had taken the time to do what Studs Terkel did and ask workers what they like and don't like about various occupations.
I do agree that exposure to physical work should emphasize appreciating the disciplines involved rather than just mastering some information, making an ornament for the home, or getting through a required course. It is a big mistake to downplay the various trades. Many of my happiest friends learned to be masters of various trades after finding little practical use for their liberal arts degrees.
To me, the biggest missed point related to the spirituality of work. Your job can be one of the ways that your worship the Lord and serve Him. Some pretty grubby work can feel great when you know that it's what the Lord wants you to be doing for Him: One of the most gratifying days of work in my life was digging latrines for an orphanage in Mexico where the children had no indoor plumbing.
Let me leave you with one word of caution: The book opens more slowly and less interestingly than it becomes. Stick with it for at least a hundred pages before deciding that you like or can't stand what's being described.