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Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work

Matthew B. Crawford 's review of 'Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work.'

Before globalization, the American workplace was woven into our communities; think of the corner grocery store, the Main Street café or repair shop. In some cases, the workplace constituted the community itself, like the gritty company towns that rose up around our coal mines and steel mills. And for generations, families striving to escape the spiritless servitude of the job site looked on education—particularly a college education—as the surest path to a better life.

In Shop Class as Soulcraft, philosopher/mechanic Matthew B. Crawford encourages us to cast a critical eye on that particular route to success. Crawford guides us through the history, philosophies, and public policies that have shaped and often distorted our eternal quest for meaningful work. He is an impassioned chronicler of our society's directive to clean up, dust off, go to college, and forsake practical, blue-collar skills for the supposed superiority of white-collar working conditions, compensation, and status. Crawford lays out his premise: "This book advances a nestled set of arguments on behalf of work that is meaningful because it is genuinely useful."

As the workplace continues to evolve, however, those who toil with their brains—accountants, medical technicians, computer programmers, and the like—are finding they must compete for useful work in a community that is suddenly global in scope. In India, China, the Philippines, and elsewhere, well-educated, well-qualified workers stand ready to do the same jobs for much less money, effectively commoditizing those once-highly-touted white-collar skills. Yet as Crawford laments, American high schools are dropping shop classes to balance their budgets, while high-school counselors continue to urge students to obtain a college degree—any degree—to (supposedly) guarantee themselves a secure and comfortable future. Instead, Crawford suggests, "let us publicly recognize a yeoman aristocracy: those who gain real knowledge of real things, the sort we all depend on every day."

The author disputes the distinction between "knowledge work" and skilled manual labor that has sent us off to college to study, well, philosophy, for example, and to forsake our ability to "fix things." Let's concede his expertise on both fronts: Crawford has degrees in physics and political philosophy, and he runs a motorcycle-repair shop in Richmond, Virginia. Today we are beginning to pay the price, writes Crawford, for an incipient shortage of skilled workers. Doubt his point? Just check the steadily increasing hourly rates for plumbers, electricians, or car and motorcycle mechanics. As the marketplace responds to this shortfall, it is providing a path to a secure living for those willing to follow it. The advantage for skilled manual workers today is that their abilities—unlike those of their white-collar, pixel-pushing colleagues—cannot be outsourced. And, perhaps just as important, they derive a deep sense of satisfaction from successfully working with their hands.

Early in the book, Crawford hints at the root cause of his high regard for honest work: "I started working as an electrician's helper shortly before I turned fourteen. I wasn't attending school at that time and worked full-time until I was fifteen, then kept the trade up during the summers while in high school and college, with steadily increasing responsibility. When I couldn't get a job with my college degree in physics, I was glad to have something to fall back on, and went into business for myself."

This explains Crawford's appreciation of skilled labor, yet he clearly also knows the joys of manual work. Peppering his prose are some colorful real-world characters who have influenced him. One of my favorites is the "gear head" Chas, who helped the young Crawford convert his 1963 VW Bug into a hot rod. "Chas was a good man," Crawford recalls, "and he didn't want to be responsible for starting me down this path. Though he tried to warn me against the speed mentality, his whole life was a repudiation of such sobriety. The sheer perversity of making a VW go fast attracts a different human type than the type who is attracted to cars that are supposed to go fast. Chas clearly had a kink in his soul, and suddenly the world was a less lonely place for me."

Shop Class as Soulcraft is a challenging but ultimately rewarding appeal to the reader to rethink the value of skilled manual labor. If you buy Crawford's argument, you'll reach the last page, as I did, with the sense of satisfaction achieved, and purpose fulfilled, that comes from a job well done. Even a lofty tome like this, someone should remind him, is a handcrafted labor of love.

Mel Baughman, quality manager of AARP Publications, services and repairs his own motorcycle—an ideal vehicle for navigating the country roads of his home state, Virginia.