Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work

by Matthew B. Crawford

This book is primarily about restoring honor to the manual trades. Crawford writes about the “rich cognitive challenges and psychic nourishment” that come with “the experience of making things and fixing things.”

It makes sense to start with some context about the author’s career path. “I started working as an electrician’s helper shortly before I turned fourteen… When I couldn’t get a job with my college degree in physics, I was glad to have something to fall back on, and went into business for myself.” Later, Crawford went back to school and earned a Ph.D. in political philosophy. He took a job as executive director of a think tank, but he found the work dispiriting. “Despite the beautiful ties I wore, it turned out to be a more proletarian existence than I had known as a manual worker.” After only five months, he quit and opened a motorcycle repair shop. “Perhaps most surprising, I often find manual work more engaging intellectually.”

“More than 90 percent of high school students ‘report that their guidance counselors encouraged them to go to college.’ … In this there is little accommodation of the diversity of dispositions, and of the fact that some very smart people are totally ill-suited both to higher education and to the kind of work you’re supposed to do once you have a degree. Further, funneling everyone into college creates certain perversities in the labor market.”

“It was in the 1990s that shop class started to become a thing of the past, as educators prepared students to become ‘knowledge workers’ … Meanwhile, people in the trades are constantly howling about their inability to find workers.”

Crawford writes about “the assembly line’s severing of the cognitive aspects of manual work from its physical execution. Such a partition from doing has bequeathed us the dichotomy of white collar versus blue collar, corresponding to mental versus manual… Yet there is evidence to suggest that the new frontier of capitalism lies in doing to office work what was previously done to factory work: draining it of its cognitive elements.” A recurring theme is the “stupidification” of various things.

“You can’t hammer a nail over the Internet… Princeton economist Alan Binder… finds 30 million to 40 million U.S. jobs to be potentially offshorable… MIT economist Frank Levy puts the issue not in terms of whether a service can be delivered electronically or not, but rather whether the service is itself rules-based or not.… Levy gestures toward an answer when he writes that ‘viewed from this rules-based perspective, creativity is knowing what to do when the rules run out or there are no rules in the first place. It is what a good auto mechanic does after his computerized test equipment says the car’s transmission is fine but the transmission continues to shift at the wrong engine speed.’”

“The degradation of work is often based on efforts to replace the intuitive judgments of practitioners with rule following… The crux of the idea of an intellectual technology is ‘the substitution of algorithms (problem-solving rules) for intuitive judgments.”

“But, in fact, it is often the case that when things get really hairy, you want an experienced human being in control…  An experienced mechanic can intuit what is wrong… The basic idea of tacit knowledge is that we know more than we can say, and certainly more than we can specify in a formulaic way.”

“Some diagnostic situations contain so many variables, and symptoms can be so under-determining of causes, that explicit analytical reasoning comes up short. What is required then is the kind of judgment that arises only from experience; hunches rather than rules. I quickly realized there was more thinking going on in the bike shop than in my previous job at the think tank.”

“Often this sense making entails not so much problem solving as problem finding… The cognitive psychologists speak of ‘metacognition,’ which is the activity of stepping back and thinking about your own thinking. It is what you do when you stop for a moment in your pursuit of a solution, and wonder whether your understanding of the problem is adequate… The truth does not reveal itself to idle spectators.”

“In the real world, problems do not present themselves unambiguously. Piston slap may indeed sound like loose tappets, so to be a good mechanic you have to be constantly attentive to the possibility that you may be mistaken. This is an ethical virtue.”

“Fixing things, whether cars or human bodies, is very different from building things from scratch. The mechanic and the doctor deal with failure every day, even if they are expert, whereas the builder does not. This is because the things they fix are not of their own making, and are therefore never known in a comprehensive or absolute way. This experience of failure tempers the conceit of mastery… Fixing things may be a cure for narcissism.”

“Any discipline that deals with an authoritative, independent reality requires honesty and humility.”

“The master has no need for a psychology of persuasion that will make the apprentice compliant to whatever purposes the master might dream up; those purposes are given and determinate… On a crew, skill becomes the basis for a circle of mutual regard among those who recognize one another as peers, even across disciplines… This is the basis of which his submission to judgments of a master feel ennobling rather than debasing… Clear standards provide the basis for the solidarity of the crew, as opposed to the manipulative social relations of the office ‘team.’”

“Most people take pride in being good at something specific which happens through the accumulation of experience… You can’t buy entry to this world, you have to earn it”

“The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence [relieve man] of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on… His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous ‘self-esteem’ that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.”

“It is common to locate one’s ‘true self’ in one’s leisure choices. Accordingly, good work is taken to be work that maximizes one’s means for pursuing these other activities, where life becomes meaningful. The mortgage broker works hard all year, then he goes and climbs Mount Everest… On the other hand, there are vocations that seem to offer a tighter connection between life and livelihood.”

Crawford, Matthew B. Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. New York: Penguin Books, 2010. Buy from

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