22 Dec 2010

Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford

Occasionally, one comes across a book that seems very important. Important to whom? Well, in this case probably to a lot of people and even to our society as a whole. I owe the discovery of this book to VonSontag, author of the excellent (mainly in French) blog Le Dépassionné, whose subtitle reads "the blog for real men, who cannot piss on their own".


As so often when titles of films or books are translated, they get badly distorted. This was no exception, since the French edition's title, Eloge du Carburettor bears little relationship to the spirit of this book. So I went out and bought an English language edition.

For those of you not brought up in the USofA, it is worth knowing that Shop Class signifies the teaching of manual skills in schools. Matthew Crawford is unusual in that he is not only a fully trained university teacher, with a PhD in political philosophy, but he also works as a motorcycle mechanic, specialised in the repairing and rebuilding of old bikes. This book, which mixes quite a bit of theory and some practice based on his own experiences, is a not only a testimony to the fact that one can be several "things" in one's lifetime, it is also a very strong and well-argued critique of modern society in its more blatant consumerist aspects and where these lead us, as well as of the failure of our educational systems to place the value of work, and manual work in particular, in its rightful and most useful place.

Crawford does not make any attempt at romanticising manual trades: "I want to avoid the precious images that intellectuals sometimes traffic in. I also have little interest in wistful notions of a "simpler" life that is somehow more authentic, or more democratically valorous for being "working class". I do, in fact, want to rehabilitate the honor of the trades, as being choice-worthy work, but to do so from within my own experience, which I find is not illuminated by any of those fraught cultural ideals."

He also investigates the field and human value of individual responsibility, as against anonymous "teamwork", which has "opened the way for new and uncanny modes of manipulation of workers by managers, who now appear in the guise of therapists or life coaches." He is naturally critical of the excesses of consumerism and the state of dependance that these engender: "This becomes most clear in advertising, where Choice and Freedom (the capitals are his) and A World Without Limits and Master the Possibilities and all the other heady existentialist slogans of the consumerist Self are invoked with such repetitive urgency that they come to resemble a disciplinary system. Somehow, self-realisation and freedom always entails buying something new, never conserving something old". Crawford obviously acts on this observation in his own life by specialising in the repairing of old motorcycles.

He is unconvinced by marxist analysis of the alienating effect of work in the case of craftsman, and emphasises the "social" role of manual work in communities: "work is improved through the relationships with others". Through his varied experience (community life as a child and adolescent, university studies partly financed by manual work, professorship and consultancy, and now back to the workshop), Crawford is able to make links and jump bridges that I do not often notice in this kind of book. For instance : "The practitioner of a stochastic art, such as motorcycle repair, experiences failure on a daily basis. Just today, before sitting down to write, I was faced with a mangled screw frozen in a cylinder head (and he goes on to relate how he botched up the job of removing this screw)." He continues, a little later, by relating a maxim attributed to Lyndon Johnson's press secretary "No one should be allowed to work in the West Wing of the White House who has not suffered a major disappointment in life".

Of course, having followed an equally chequered path in terms both of interests and of earning my living, I tend to lean naturally towards Crawford's thesis (I was, for several years, a professional woodworker before falling into a wine barrel). But I really think that this book has some serious things to tell us about education and work. Let's hope many of the powers-that-be will take a good look too.

Read on...