- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 2, 2009

By Matthew B. Crawford
Penguin Press, $25.95, 210 pages

Matthew Crawford’s book about why we work arrives at a time when jobs are disappearing and unemployment is increasing. By exploring the “insidious hopes and rising insecurities that seem to be endemic in our current economic life,” “Shop Class as Soulcraft” plumbs the logic of the modern economy and examines the fundamental role of labor in it.

But this isn’t a typical book about economics or economic policymaking. Instead, Mr. Crawford takes readers on a romp through the seamy warehouse that houses his Richmond, Va., motorcycle repair shop, and he draws upon the writings of Aristotle and Tocqueville to understand what it is that makes work worthwhile.

A mechanic and electrician, Mr. Crawford offers the reader insights into “the experience of making things and fixing things.” He describes how to bend conduit and rebuild a cylinder. However, this repairman has a Ph.D. in political philosophy and is currently a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. By reflecting on what it means to work with one’s hands, Mr. Crawford aims to pay tribute to manual work. Competence in the “trades” — the work of the mechanic, plumber, electrician — can’t be outsourced, he reminds us. More importantly, these forms of manual work are intellectually engaging, more than most people think.

Today’s “knowledge worker,” by contrast, does less and less thinking and has fewer opportunities for personal judgment, a key component of meaningful work. The modern economy, Mr. Crawford contends, is based on cognitive stratification. Truly intellectual and creative tasks fall to a shrinking pool of elites, who codify their work into an efficient and uniform systems of rules and processes that govern what most people do for a living. The young people who enter the work force after four years in college find that the jobs available to them are repetitive in practice and obscure in outcome.

Unlike the staff worker who enters data, organizes files and phones clients, the work of the skilled tradesman is based on standards of obvious competence that require excellence: for the electrician, the lights either go on or they don’t. There is a satisfying concreteness to the outcome of work in the trades that is frustratingly absent in much office work. Describing a job he once held at a think tank in the nation’s capital, Mr. Crawford writes, “I was always tired, and honestly could not see the rationale for my being paid at all — what tangible goods or useful services was I providing to anyone?”

The author’s criticisms of modern work have clear implications for education: Stop trying to funnel all students into college. In his recent book, “Real Education,” AEI scholar Charles Murray argues that more students go to college than are cognitively able to benefit from it. But Mr. Crawford focuses instead on disposition. “There is much talk of ‘diversity’ in education,” he writes, “but not much accommodation of the kind we have in mind when we speak about the quality of a man, or woman: the diversity of dispositions.” For many people, sitting through 16 years of schooling to prepare for a job sitting behind a computer just isn’t a good fit.

A corollary for education: Learn how to do something in particular. Mr. Crawford’s advice to young people is summed up by vocational education advocate Ken Gray: “All my life I’ve always wanted to be somebody. But I see now I should have been more specific.” Mr. Crawford makes clear that he doesn’t mean to idealize the idea of the “craftsman.” He is not writing to romanticize the basket weaver and the potter. That clarification is helpful, because there are tendencies in his argument that move in this direction. “The softly despotic tendencies of a nanny state are found in large commercial enterprise as well,” he writes. “A humane economy… would require a sense of scale.” When Mr. Crawford encourages consumers to take the producer into account when making purchasing decisions, something akin to the “small is beautiful” theme emerges.

Mr. Crawford seems to be aware that while jobs in select trades pay well, the wage scales of modern post-industrial societies appear to reject his work preferences. Large and complex economic systems are necessary to produce the goods demanded by consumers. Not to mention that much manual work is drearily repetitive, while there are many office workers ready to testify to the intellectually satisfying character of their work, even if its impact is intangible.

Mr. Crawford is at his best discussing what economics misses in any consideration of human existence. “There seems to be a tension between a certain kind of agency and a certain kind of autonomy” at the center of modern life, he writes. It is certainly true that the more advanced and helpful technology becomes, the more it relieves us of many of life’s chores. We are more autonomous and have more choices. However, at the same time, we are increasingly dependent upon things we cannot understand. The complexity and scale of modern life makes us less self-reliant. “The growing dependence of individuals in fact is accompanied by ever more shrill invocations of freedom in theory,” he concludes.

This bait-and-switch — freedom in theory but dependence in fact — is intellectually and spiritually unsatisfactory. “We want to feel that our world is intelligible, so we can be responsible for it,” says Mr. Crawford. Echoing Tocqueville: “Too often, the defenders of the free market forget that what we really want is free men. Having a few around requires an economy in which the virtue of independence is cultivated, and a diversity of human types can find work to which they are suited.”

Mr. Crawford doesn’t offer his book as public policy; individuals, not government, are responsible for weighing the economic and spiritual benefits that accompany varying economic arrangements. Instead, he offers us a philosophy of work, and his personal testimony will resonate with many readers. It may cause some to rethink what they do for a living.

Phil Brand is director of Education Watch at the Capital Research Center.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide