I suspect that Matt Crawford’s publisher came up with the title of his book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. The title attracted and repelled me for a year before I read this book. The now largely defunct shop class was still around when I went to high school in the eighties. I learned a measure of competence in handling materials and their machines that has proved useful and satisfying over the years. This connection piqued my interest, but “soulcraft” had the distinct ring of marketing. The subtitle was even more difficult, a clear pitch to fans of Pirsig’s famous novel, a book I have read once per decade for the last thirty years. I would not lightly judge a poser. Fortunately, Crawford speaks with his own voice on a timely issue, the role of the trades and right livelihood in the information age.
Too many children are being hustled off to university in pursuit of so-called knowledge work. Trained in electrical work and vehicle maintenance as a youth, Crawford pursued a doctorate in philosophy. On the way he took a job that seemed ideally suited to him, writing abstracts of journal articles for a database, only to find the quota impossibly high for comprehension. After obtaining his PhD he was hired by a think tank and paid very well, only the results of their “thinking” were predetermined by the oil company that funded it. He left the academic world to open a motorcycle shop. To hell with economics and opportunity cost. He preferred the cognitive challenges of the trades. Historically, scientific thinking came from a close handling of materials by bright workers. Crawford explains how the separation of thinking and doing is an artificial and harmful practice that started with industrialization and advanced by Taylor at Harvard.
Crawford asserts that the separation of thinking and doing is now being applied to office work. In my dozen years of work in corporate IT, I personally find there are some satisfactions of the manual kind that Crawford thinks are reserved for the trades. Like the craftsman, I take pride in writing code that I know will never be appreciated by anyone except perhaps another developer. I get excited when the switch is about to be flipped on for a major program I wrote. Still, it is true that the only tactile experience I get is that of the keyboard. Worse, as programs begin to write programs, lower level coders are being phased out in favour of higher level configurators who have little real control over their products. This shift eliminates the need to master technical skills. Computers are becoming the assembly lines of thought sausages.
The problem is not technology. Crawford knows his Heidegger. We are technological beings, handy to the core. We need to feel our tools in our hands, not manage them remotely or regard them abstractly. There is a big difference between the explicit and universal nature of Ohm’s law, compared to the tacit and situational knowledge of the mechanic that electrical circuits must be tight, dry and clean. He is not being anti-intellectual, but attesting to the satisfaction and cognitive challenges of the trades. It is good advice even from an economic viewpoint. In the face of global outsourcing, one still cannot hammer a nail over the Internet.
The book is dedicated to his girls, which is nice, but the sexism in Crawford’s writing is glaring. The text is masculine in almost all of its pronouns. References to firefighters and chess players are stereotypical, while the one “she” plays music. Sexist jibes are considered appropriate training for young men. According to Crawford, classrooms can only contain boys prone to action by the use of psychiatric drugs, and corporate teamwork is for girls. Call me politically correct if you must, but the sexism is too much. We should have learned by now to welcome girls into the trades rather than scare them off with this tiresome prejudice.