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.