Is Shop Class Soulcraft? A Critical Review of Matthew Crawford

download (1)In “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” Matthew Crawford offers a interesting throwback solution to the lack of opportunity that confronts so many Americans–young and old–in this post recession era. The solution, according to Crawford, is to be found in the skilled trades. Here, I offer a deliberately critical review of Crawford’s book, but before I do so, I point out some of the insights that Crawford gives in this thoughtful, worthwhile read.

Crawford is a philosophy Ph.D.  of the University of Chicago, a research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, and the owner of Shockoe Moto, a motorcycle repair and restoration shop.

Shopclass As Soulcraft
Crawford’s general thesis is that the skilled trades are undervalued in America. They are undervalued in the American educational system that has systematically eliminated shop class. They are undervalued in the collective consciousness that views them as lowly, “blue collar”, dirty, unprofessional. But, there is irony in the fact that they are not undervalued in the marketplace, which has seen a greater and greater demand for the skilled craftsman, be he a carpenter, electrician, machinist, mechanic, and so on. On account of his being in demand, the skilled tradesman has his choice of jobs, needs answer to no one, and earns a living wage, perks that are not to be scoffed at in this economic environment. Crawford succeeds in showing us how things came to be this way, based on pipe dreams, visions of a future with no need of manual labor, and how these ideas were systematically implemented into the educational system. All in all, Crawford’s book is a healthy dose of reality given to us by a philosopher.
Throughout the book, Crawford describes the historical underpinnings of the working environment in America. In chapter two, he describes how, in the interest of increasing profits, it came to be in the best interest of managers to remove as much thinking as possible from the process of production, and, as a result, the skilled tradesman was systematically eliminated from the workforce. For Crawford, there is more at stake here than simply historical interest. Philosopher that he is, he forces us to ask ourselves: Is this all for the best?

Crawford is at his best when he takes aim.  He is skilled at cutting through bullshit, and he roots out unclear thinking on his subject like a mechanic who can distinguish purely aesthetic components from functional ones. His opponents are numerous and ubiquitous, and Crawford makes them all look silly. He takes aim at Richard Florida, who extols how Best Buy “harness[es] the creative talents of each and every human being” to the betterment of the company. In the words of the Best Buy CEO, the company’s stated mission is to “unleash the power of all our people as they have fun while being the best.” Crawford’s comment is flippant:

“It seems the unleashed power of all those mavericks in the Best Buy creative sector is fully compatible with near minimum wage. Bohemians live by a different set of rules; they aren’t money grubbing proles. ‘They have fun while being the best,’ these aristocrats of spirit.”
In chapter six, Crawford takes aim at the ridiculous management doublespeak and the “team building exercises” that many of us have been unfortunate enough to experience. At times, Crawford had me laughing out loud.
Throughout, the work of the tradesman is placed as a simple, rational contrast. The skilled tradesman takes time to learn his trade. It must be built up from long experience. Once he acquires the skill, his work engages him mentally and physically, sustains him economically, and he also gains entrance into a community. In this community there is no need for all of the ridiculous add-ons that come with corporate culture or the sparse lifestyle that would come with working at Best Buy.
The Other Side
I have a lot in common with Crawford and know where he is coming from. A former Ph.D. candidate, I spent nearly seven years working as a supervisor in the highly corporate structure of Indian gaming, and I have also been trained and worked as a diesel technician. I can testify first-hand that a lot of what Crawford says is true. But, to properly evaluate Crawford, one has to ask: to what extent is shop class soulcraft as compared to the liberal arts? Having worked as a research assistant in a philosophy Ph.D. program and also having worked in many a shop repairing diesels, I can see that there is a tension here, and the answer is anything but simple.
The skilled trades are valued in the market. The price tag on my undergraduate degree was around 80,000, financed by my parent’s labor and student loans, and I could not find a decent job afterwards. I found that the same was true of many of my college friends. Ten years after graduation, many of my friends with liberal arts degrees were back in school. Even before finishing my diesel tech diploma, there were companies showing up in class “recruiting” future technicians. Being one of the top students, I had a job working for union shop right out of school. Still, jobs were not a certainty for everyone in the class, and I sometimes wonder what became of some of the other students in the class. Would they be better off down the road had they been trained in the liberal arts?
Life in the skilled trades is anything but easy, and this is an element that Crawford does not highlight, possibly because of his background in the skilled trades, or possibly because he is not a full-time mechanic. Crawford earned his stripes as a mechanic in the “speed shop”, a place specializing in aftermarket parts and modifications for people who like to go fast. Although the speed shop is admittedly home to many an excellent mechanic, it is also the exception rather than the rule when talking about life in the skilled trades. The speed shop had is heyday before any of us realized that petroleum was a finite resource. Who has money to “go fast” these days? But, the main question is this: if shop class is indeed soulcraft, then why spend countless hours writing a book about it? It’s a question posed in the film “Good Will Hunting”:
If you wanted to be a janitor, why work at M.I.T.?
Although there may be a living in the skilled trades, it depends on what one values if one wants to call it a “life.” The life of the diesel mechanic as I know it is dirty and tiring. There are dangers all around in the form of heavy things falling, exposure to toxins, fire, explosions, heights, and so on. Such a life can be truly unforgiving. Think of Ice Road Truckers, Gold Rush, American Loggers, or the newer Arctic Roughnecks. There are mechanics always near at hand, and part of the enjoyment we get from watching them working is the fact that we are sitting warm at home, while they are out there in the cold, sleep deprived, dirty, in danger, and surrounded by a host of semi insane characters. To add to this, there is the fact that the skilled trades are looked down upon in American society. The historical underpinnings of this are set out nicely by Borg, but to a point it is irrelevant. In this case appearance is reality: perceived low social status is the same as low social status. Unless you want to spend your life waiting around for the tides public opinion to change, you might be better off getting that engineering degree. The nature of the job is perhaps best described by the workers themselves, who call it “wrenching.” The same is true of electricians who call their job “pulling wire”, and I am sure there are creative names for all of the skilled trades, invented by the tradesmen themselves. In the end, it may be a step up from service industry work, which admittedly is not a living. If one wants a simple life, a small house, a wife, and certainly no more than two children, one can call skilled trades work a life.
In places, Crawford defends the raunchy humor of the shop environment as well as its social hierarchy. The raunchy humor, which admittedly exists in the workplace to greater or lesser degree, probably serves in the end to keep women out of a profession that has historically and continues to suffer from a lack of females in the work environment. As for the social hierarchy, in my experience it is at least ninety percent bullshit. The more it is based on skill, the less of a need there is to accentuate it.
We must remember that Crawford’s question of whether or not life is better in the skilled trades is itself a minority one. It was taken for granted by a generation of skilled tradesmen that there would be something “better” for their children, and, for a time, technology and education seemed to provide an answer. Having experience in the skilled trades, I can see clearly that, while it is a life, it is not an easy one, and it falls somewhere short of “soulcraft”. The shop environment could use a little or a lot more of liberal arts type soulcraft, and certainly many a liberal arts major could use the living wage that comes from a skill that has a market value. Crawford is to be credited for shedding light on the problem and giving us what is perhaps a key part of a solution, but for the rest of the answer, perhaps we will have to wait for his next book.

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