Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford

I finished this book a couple of months ago, but put off writing a review. Then a week or so ago I began to read through it again in preparation for reviewing it, and decided that it would be better if I didn’t try to summarize its contents. What Crawford attempts to do with this book is to defend the manual arts as a worthy and even intellectually rich pursuit—and his clinching argument for me is a implicit one, namely that a manual artist such as Crawford was able to write such a deeply philosophical book as this one.

Crawford is no dilettante. He worked as an electrician while still a young teenager, then moved on to an auto mechanic shop before finally entering college to train as a “knowledge worker.” But after only a few months at a job in a Washington think tank, he decided that such work wasn’t for him, and he opened a small motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, where he continues to work (I think). This was not a rejection of deep and reflective thinking, though, but only a shift away from employing those skills in the service of intangibles and towards applying them to tangible physical tasks with a clear result.

The most valuable aspect of Crawford’s presentation is that he does not fall into the trap of celebrating craft. Craft is certainly worth celebrating, and it is possible to make the same arguments using a craftsman as an example—it’s been done, many times—but that approach tends to veer off into a mystical romanticism that intellectuals find acceptable. One might admire the work of an artisanal breadmaker, say, but mostly based on a shared appreciation of the aesthetic qualities of the bread that results, not the manual skills of mixing or kneading or baking that produced it.

Crawford recognizes that such romanticism is distracting, softening the hard edges of the case he wants to make, and so he emphasizes that he will be focusing not on the work of the craftsman but the tradesman, the distinction being that a craftsman makes things while a tradesman deals with things that already exist, i.e. fixes other people’s stuff. Reflecting his work repairing and modifying motorcycles, he proceeds to show how such work not only demands deep intellectual engagement but touches on many more important aspects of a fully lived life than does the ghostly word-shuffling we’ve been trained to see as superior.

One excellent example involves being asked to restore a motorcycle that objectively isn’t worth restoring. It is an undistinguished machine known to suffer from certain defects that require extensive and sometimes imaginative work to correct. The owner would be better off putting the money towards a good machine. But, unlike the craftsman, the tradesman is not in the position to make such a decision, and in fact is limited in the advice he can give. Who knows what sort of attachment the owner has for the machine, or how much the money means to him? Crawford accepts the job, and then goes on to puzzle over how much effort (which must be charged for) to put into fixing different problems, whether or not certain kinds of effort should be charged for at all, and so on. These puzzles are a constant companion of the tradesman, and struggling with them is an important part of forming the person he becomes.

I would strongly encourage homeschooling Christians of all persuasions to read this book, and to ponder its portrayal of the tradesman. There are practical reasons—most Christian homeschoolers are committed to equipping their children to live a thoughtful and reflective life, and yet the careers we tend to see as being most compatible with that are ones that are very likely to evaporate during the difficult times ahead. (Crawford also argues that those careers are often not compatible with the life of the mind but antithetical to it.)

But, more importantly, Christians are uniquely positioned to examine the issue and come up with some concrete answers. Crawford approaches the matter from a humanist’s point of view, and can only do so because he is a very unusual humanist, the rest of them haunting the halls of universities and think tanks. But struggling with the issue of how to live a full and righteous life in a fallen world is the stock and trade of Christians of all varieties, or ought to be. Schooling is one area of life where at least some Christians have rejected conventional wisdom, re-examined their assumptions about its purpose, and charted alternate courses whose strengths and weaknesses they have demonstrated through years of practice. I think we could bless ourselves and the world at large by reflecting and acting on the matter of how to go about living a full life while providing for one’s family.

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5 thoughts on “Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford

  1. Thanks for this review! I am definitely putting this on my list. Our oldest (only 7.5 years) is so interested in these things (repairing things, making things, growing things), but because he appears intellectually gifted to his elders, folks are ALREADY trying to push him toward college and becoming a doctor, a lawyer, or whatever. I cringe every time, but it is hard for folks to accept that someone who seems so gifted with language would want to work with his hands. Whenever he says he wants to be a farmer, we encourage him, but I must confess we don’t have much “vision” as far as the actual value of the things he shows interest in. Perhaps this book would get us thinking in this direction…

  2. Sounds like a thought-provoking book.

    One of the many wonderful things about homeschooling is that it gives you the flexibility to let your son start acquiring marketable skills in the field of his choice early enough that by the time he’s ready to start a family, he can have sufficient experience in that field to either draw a comfortable wage or go into “business” (including agricultural pursuits) for himself. In other words, he can get paid to learn instead of spending the first quarter of a century of his life jumping hoops and acquiring debt!

    It seems that a big part of a satisfying occupation is attaining a sufficient level of skill that one can take personal ownership of the resulting “product.”

  3. I read this book a while back, because I read the original article on your sidebar, and I liked it. Here was my (admittedly long) review: http://morningsidefamily.blogspot.com/2009/07/shop-class-as-soulcraft.html No pressure to read it, of course!

    I like the distinction you made in your review between craftsmen and mechanics. Could be the lack of distinction between romanticism and day to day reality is what sometimes confuses people when they read *The Omnivore’s Dilemma,* partly because Pollan himself hasn’t made the distinction very clear.

    I say this because Pollan finally chooses the hunter/gatherer meal as his favorite, even though it isn’t sustainable or even practical. “Shared appreciation of the aesthetic qualities…that result” is a pretty apt description of that meal.

    One thing to note about Crawford: He is most definitely a mechanic, but he is also most definitely educated (and still works in academia), and I’d even venture to say that he’s classically educated in some form. I do like the combination, but not every homeschooler will want to go that far. I’m not even sure my own daughter would.

  4. Laura,

    Thanks for reminding me about your review. I read it when you posted it, and it was helpful to read it again. Since this post doesn’t go talk much at all about what Crawford actually wrote, folks interested in the book should definitely look at what Laura wrote.

    One thing to note about Crawford: He is most definitely a mechanic, but he is also most definitely educated (and still works in academia), and I’d even venture to say that he’s classically educated in some form. I do like the combination, but not every homeschooler will want to go that far. I’m not even sure my own daughter would.

    What encourages me about Crawford’s example is that he didn’t reject philosophy in favor of the manual arts; he not only sees the two as compatible, but throughout the book uses experiences in one realm to inform and shape his thinking in the other.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, I think that the impulse is good to raise up children who are capable of living a life of the mind, but it also leads parents to stumble over a misguided modern assumption, namely that such a life can only be lived in the realm of what Crawford calls “knowledge work”—which, Crawford argues, is more likely to stifle a life of the mind than to support one.

  5. Crawford, instead of idealizing the craftsman, idealizes the repairman. In reality, they are just people too. In fact, you can find a fair number of jackasses who are gear heads. My first job at the age of 16 was for a Master Plumber who was not a prime example of humanity and cheated me out of my hard earned pay. What Crawford fails to understand, is that the activity will not develop one’s character unless you have an intention for it to do so.
    If you want a purer and less romantic example of work that keeps you humble and in touch with reality, look at the life of a farmer. Not as macho as motorcycle and leather pants, but is an engagement that is not so connected to one’s testicles.

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