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.