Book Review: Shop Class as Soulcraft

I finally made it to the top of the library waiting list for Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, by Matthew Crawford, and this snowed-in week gave me the chance to sit down and read it.  I have to say that I was underwhelmed by it.  I thought that the passages where he describes his work on motorcycles were lovely — Laura was right  when she said “I dare you not to get carried away by his intoxication with his work.”  But the rest of the book read like it was written by the philosophy PhD  that Crawford is — and that’s not a compliment.  I got lost in the jargon, and found myself skimming long passages.

As best as I can tell, Crawford makes four different arguments.  Three of them I basically agree with, although I don’t think they are particularly original.

  • Skilled trades jobs can be as lucrative (or more so) than white collar jobs, and are less vulnerable to being outsourced to other countries.
  • Skilled trades jobs can be as intellectually demanding as white collar jobs, and should not be considered as only an option for people who can’t cut it on the academic track.  (Crawford cites Mike Rose’s The Mind at Work on this, which has been sitting on my to read pile for at least a year)
  • There is a value to doing work where you can see the results of what you do, where the people who benefit from your work know you, and are known to you, where you learn from people who have done the same work, not just from books.  This reminded me of Wendell Berry’s statement (which I’ve talked about here before) that “The right scale in work gives power to affection.”  (I’m not agreeing that this is the only work with value, but there is a power to it.  It’s why I used to volunteer to make meals at Food and Friends before going off to work at HHS — I needed to something where the results were tangible.)

And finally, Crawford argues that there is an autonomy and independence that comes from work where it is objectively clear whether you know what you’re doing or not — the light turns out when you flip the switch, or it doesn’t, the motorcycle starts or it doesn’t.  He contrasts this with an office culture that rewards conformity, where judgments are made about workers’ beings, because their product can’t be objectively measured.  I’m just not sure I buy this argument.  I think he’s comparing the most easily caricatured aspects of office work with idealized versions of his job — because even most motorcycle mechanics don’t own their own shops, and can’t spend 20 hours in search of the truth when the client isn’t going to be billed for more than five.  And at the same time, he seems to blame the flaws of offices on the drive for profits, although not-for-profits can be just as dysfunctional work environments in their own ways.

It’s almost impossible to write a review of this book and not think of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.    I haven’t read Zen in 20 years, and don’t remember that much about it, but I remember my outrage near the end when you learn that after riding thousands of miles with his son, he’s only just noticed that while he has a view of the open road, his son only has a view of his back.  Crawford has some similar blind spots, particularly around gender.  Early on he writes “It so happens that most of the characters who appear in this book are men, but I am sure that women, no less than men, will recognize the appeal of tangible work that is straightforwardly useful.”  Well, yes, but there’s also an issue that the forms of tangible, straightforwardly useful work that are traditionally done by women are paid far less than the forms of tangible, straightforwardly useful work that are traditionally done by men.

I also suspect that there are very few women in the trades who would agree with Crawford’s claim that the objective quality of your work is all that matters in achieving acceptance.  (He makes a nod towards acknowledging this reality in a footnote where he tells a story about a time where he was hazed by his coworkers and notes that “the new guy, the nonwhite guy, and the woman are especially likely to incur extra hardships.”  But he doesn’t seem to notice that there’s something categorically different about being the “new guy” — which you will be on one job, but not the next, and being nonwhite or female, which are permanent characteristics.

So, in spite of finding parts of Crawford’s story very appealing, I found the book a disappointment.  Go read Life Work, by Donald Hall, instead.

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