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Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Critical Review of Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft

A Critical Review of Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft
Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft is a philosophical investigation into the nature of work in America. It could be described as a polemic, but not in a strong sense, because it is not full of fire and brimstone. He does, however, have a point, and that point is his conclusion, based equally on his own experience and on intellectual investigation, 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, the funny thing is that there is one place where they are actually not undervalued at all, and that is 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 true philosopher.
Some of the best parts of the book are the parts in which Crawford describes the historical underpinnings of how work came to be the way that it is. 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 perhaps at his most entertaining when he takes aim. A philosopher through and through, he is skilled at cutting through bullshit. 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, without exception, Crawford makes them 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 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 living at home that would come with working at Best Buy.
I have a lot in common with Crawford. I spent some time in a philosophy Ph.D. program, 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. I don’t believe that Crawford is saying simply that “it is better to be (say) a mechanic than (say) a professor of philosophy.” If that were the case, I would disagree. When I come into contact with another person who has a strong interest in the liberal arts, we are able to speak on a certain level. These sorts of people, and the sorts of conversations we have, are simply different from the sorts of conversations I have working as a diesel technician. When I speak to “liberal arts” people, there is a lot more sarcasm, and there are broader issues being discussed beneath the surface. When I’m around diesel technicians, there’s a lot more raunchy humor, more razzing, and of course there is a lot of talk about the right way of doing things mechanical.
My experience in the job market has shown that what Crawford says is unequivocally true. My parents spent around, say 80,000 on my formal education in liberal arts, and I could not find a decent job afterwards. I found that the same was true of many of my college friends. Even before finishing my one year diesel tech diploma, there were companies showing up in class “recruiting” future technicians, and I had a guaranteed job in the field, making a living wage. One other perk is that I can travel just about anywhere I like in the United States and be able to find employment. How many “professionals” can claim that?
If I had a criticism to make of Crawford’s book, it might be that his view of the skilled trade is a little bit too influenced by the “speed shop” in which he first began earning his stripes as a mechanic. The speed shop specializes in aftermarket parts. It is the opposite, the antithesis of “factory” or OEM. In places, Crawford defends the raunchy humor of the speed shop as well as its social hierarchy. Perhaps it’s just a matter of taste, but I don’t really see a need for either in the workplace. 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, it is to my mind usually more pronounced in a less professional atmosphere. Take for example a group of (say) Ford factory trained technicians. Here, there is less of a need for a strict social hierarchy in which knowledge is retained by the most experienced and skilled mechanic because the technology is constantly evolving, and therefore sharing knowledge on a more egalitarian basis becomes of prime importance. A young technician, having been recently trained, might know important things about recent technologies that it would be good for an older tech to know.
But, here I am nitpicking. Like the Volkswagen manual that he admires, there are abundant traces of humanity interspersed through the book, and that is part of the charm. Throughout, Crawford reveals the sometime Orwellian sometime Kafkaesque realities of working life in the United States, and goes beyond them to provide a plausible solution. Perhaps the greatest praise I can give Crawford is that he has written a good and interesting philosophy book that can appeal to many.

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