'Shop Class': An argument for the trades

Posted: Thursday, February 11, 2010

D o you feel insulted by automatic faucets, throw-away electronics and high-end automobiles that have USB ports but no dipsticks? In Matthew B. Crawford's unique book "Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work," careful attention is given to the anatomy of frustration many of us share as we encounter technological advancements that claim to save our time by removing independent thought and the physical manipulation of things from our daily experience.

As both the owner of a motorcycle repair shop and a doctor of philosophy, Crawford brings elements of both worlds to his exploration of the philosophy, economy and ethics of work. "Shop Class" is an articulate, passionate argument in support of a return to the skilled trades, in opposition to the over-emphasis on advanced degrees and certifications.

Though it is, at times, difficult to push through the dense academic prose, this should be required reading for parents and students alike, especially those preparing for the transition to college or the working world. Anyone currently considering a career change or navigating unemployment with cynical frustration should proceed with caution, however, as "Shop Class" journeys into the psychology and cultural notions of identity and self-worth and how these ideas are tied to the work we perform.

The book's central argument focuses on the increasing automation of white-collar work and the intangibility of the products and services that workers in today's cubicle culture are expected to produce and market.

"The popularity of Dilbert, 'The Office,' and any number of other pop-culture windows on cubicle life attest to the dark absurdism with which many Americans have come to view their white-collar work," Crawford writes. "Absurdity is good for comedy, but bad as a way of life."

The problem with white-collar work in today's global market is that it is easily outsourced, leading to a domestic labor market saturated with college graduates who can't find work and severely lacking in skilled carpenters, electricians and mechanics who perform the essential work which can't be outsourced to China.

In the not so distant past, a career in the trades was a respectable choice, but then something happened. Shop classes began to disappear from school curriculum in favor of computer and technology courses, and college became the only way.

"Oregon's Department of Education says there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the fastest-growing segments of the student body at community colleges are people who already have a four-year degree and return to get a marketable trade skill." Crawford writes.

Though leaning heavily at times in favor of the trades, Crawford ultimately returns to middle ground and encourages college education but with summertime apprenticeships in a trade.

Those hoping for a travel narrative reminiscent of Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" will take pleasure in the chapters focusing on Crawford's own unique journey through the working world, from full-time electrician's apprentice at age 15, to unemployed doctor in philosophy. One moment of clarity occurs when, on a disorienting journey to India, Crawford sees a group of electricians preparing to pull wires and, sensing a common bond, muses, "I wanted to leap out of the rickshaw and say, 'I do this too!'"

The ensuing discussion is particularly interesting, in which international labor unions (seldom actually international in nature) are portrayed as more effective at recognizing global human excellence in unlikely places than international institutions like the UN, which declare universal human rights but in abstract terms. It is in these passages that Crawford's odd brand of self-reliant conservatism and Marxism resonates as true and insightful:

"It is precisely our attraction to excellence - our being on the lookout for the choicer manifestations - that may lead us to attend to human practices searchingly, without prejudice, and find superiority in unfamiliar places. For example, in the intellectual accomplishments of people who do work that is dirty, such as the mechanic. With such discoveries we extend our moral imagination to people who are conventionally beneath serious regard, and find them admirable. Not because we heed a moral injunction such as the universalist egalitarian urges upon us, but because we actually see something admirable, and are impressed by it."

However, much of the book lacks narrative momentum and verges on overly philosophical, semantic diatribes on corporate management, labor economics and how ethics and morality factor into work. In a dichotomy that mirrors the book's central premise, Crawford's voice as a storyteller truly emerges when exploring the visceral worlds of grease and pneumatic tools that grind with precision at the heart of motorcycle maintenance.

As a whole, Crawford's at times unbalanced indictment of the modern workplace is a thought-provoking journey through the philosophy and ethics of craftsmanship and an insightful memoir of work in a changing world. Pick this up for the philosophical high-school kid in your life or as you stand on the brink of a mid-life career change in a marginal economy, or for yourself if you have the stamina to skim though some dense, overly-academic prose for the moments when the craftsmanship of the author's skilled hands weave a story that hits on the growing disparities in our individual experiences as we journey through our lives at work.

• Jonas Lamb is a librarian and poet currently navigating unemployment, considering a trade apprenticeship and pursuing gratifying "knowledge work" in Portland, Oregon.

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