Shop Class as Soulcraft

An Inquiry into the Value of Work

by Matthew B. Crawford

Number of pages: 246

Publisher: Penguin

BBB Library: Corporate Success

ISBN: 9781594202230

About the Author

Crawford is a philosopher and mechanic. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy and served as a fellow on the Committee on Social Thought. Currently he is a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.


Editorial Review

Those of us who sit in an office often feel a lack of connection to the material world, a sense of loss, and find it difficult to say exactly what we do all day. Here, we seek to restore the honor of the manual trades as a life worth choosing. It is a call for self-reliance and a moving reflection on how we can live concretely in an ever more abstract world. Manual trades are very different from the assembly line and the dumbed-down white collar work as well. They require careful thinking and are punctuated by moments of genuine pleasure. They provide intrinsic satisfaction and cognitive challenges and are secure because they can’t be outsourced or made obsolete, and they tie us to the local communities in which we live.

Book Reviews

“Crawford promises more than good taste; his book sets its sights on the blue-collar worker, not on the fussy consumer. And so he writes dutifully about economic trends, changing labor markets, and the uncertain future of America’s information economy. But he can’t feign much enthusiasm for, say, jobs in the health-care sector, no matter how satisfying or useful or plentiful those jobs might be. Really, he likes engines and building things and fixing things; his dedication to his shop is rooted in his admiration for his clients and for what he calls the “kingly sport” of motorcycle riding.” Newyorker

“Shop Class as Soulcraft is a beautiful little book about human excellence and the way it is undervalued in contemporary America.” The New York Times

"Mr. Crawford is principally concerned with the effect of work on the "soul," but he can't help noting that economic trends favor the humble tradesman. Globalization and information technology are fast undermining the job security of architects, accountants, radiologists, and anyone else whose work can be outsourced abroad or (using applications like TurboTax) performed by machines." Wall Street Journal

"Shop Class as Soulcraft provides a perceptive and provocative analysis of America's movement away from a cultural mind-set that sees the work of skilled craftsmen and tradesmen as critical to building the nation." National Writing Project

"Reviving a serious interest in the manual arts among the literati is what Matthew B. Crawford’s book, Shop Class as Soulcraft is for. It was a surprise best seller back in 2009 and many fine reviews of the book are readily available on the internet. With all that electronic ink, what more can I add? Well, not much perhaps—but I’ll give it a go. I think Crawford’s book has a lot to offer for anyone interested in home economics." The Imaginative Conservative

"With wit and humor, the author deftly mixes the details of his own experience as a tradesman and then proprietor of a motorcycle repair shop with more philosophical considerations." Publishers Weekly

"Crawford believes we should rethink how we value working with one's hands and reclaim that skill as a valid intelligence. Shop Class as Soulcraft serves as an example of how to blend the skills of abstraction with the demanding nature of the trades. Crawford weaves together personal narratives about the intensity of motorcycle maintenance with rich political and philosophical history. In diagnosing engine problems he writes, '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.'"ASCD

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Wisdom to Share

Manual trades are very different from the assembly line and the dumbed-down white collar work as well. They require careful thinking and are punctuated by moments of genuine pleasure.

Manual trades provide intrinsic satisfaction and cognitive challenges and are secure because they can’t be outsourced or made obsolete, and they tie us to the local communities in which we live.

Modern educational systems have done violence to our true nature as handcrafters or Makers.

The disappearance of tools from common education was the first step towards a wider ignorance of the world of artifacts we inhabit.

A decline in tool use represents a shift in our relation to our own stuff: more passive and more dependent.

Meaningful work and self-reliance are tied to the struggle for individual agency, which is found to be at the very center of modern life.

With hard economic times looming, we want to become frugal. Frugality requires some measure of self-reliance—the ability to take care of your own stuff.

We want to feel that our world is intelligible, so we can be responsible for it. This seems to require that the provenance of our things be brought closer to home.

This longing for responsibility that many people experience in their home lives may be a response to changes in the work world, where the experience of individual agency has become elusive.

Those who work in an office often feel that, despite the proliferation of contrived metrics they must meet, their job lacks objective standards of the sort provided by a carpenter’s level, and that as a result there is something arbitrary in the dispensing of credit and blame.

There are efforts to revive shop class programs, but finding people competent to teach has become difficult. We have a generation of students that can answer questions on standardized tests, but they can’t do anything.

The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and happy.

Boasting is what a boy does because he has no real effect in the world.

Skilled manual labor entails a systematic encounter with the material world, precisely the kind of encounter that gives rise to natural science.

From its earliest practice, craft knowledge has entailed knowledge of the “ways” of one’s materials—that is, knowledge of their nature, acquired through disciplined perception.

“Our testaments to physical work are so often focused on the values such work exhibits rather than on the thought it requires.”

Once the cognitive aspects of the job are located in separate management class that requires no ongoing judgment or deliberation, skilled workers can be replaced by unskilled workers at a lower rate of pay.

If the thought of four more years sitting in a classroom makes your skin crawl, the good news is that you don’t have to go through the motions and jump through the hoops for the sake of making a decent living.

Spiritedness may be allied with a spirit of inquiry, through a desire to be master of one’s own stuff. It is the prideful basis of self-reliance.

There is a paradox in our experience of agency: to be master of your own stuff entails also being mastered by it.

The current educational regime is based on a certain view about the important kind of knowledge: “knowing that” as opposed to “knowing how”.

Practical know-how is always tied to the experience of a particular person. It can’t be downloaded, it can only be lived.

If thinking is bound up with action, then the task of getting an adequate grasp on the world depends on doing stuff in it.

It is argued that real knowledge arises through confrontations with real things. Work, then, offers a broadly available premonition of philosophy.

Being viewed from a wider angle, self-reliance is a sad doctrine, a consolation for the collapse of institutions of mutual care.