On The Page: Shop Class As Soulcraft

Although my dad was involved in the construction industry the whole time I was growing up and built me a desk and assorted bookshelves, the expectation of me was that I would go to school and obtain white collar work. Shortly after I met F, I read this New York Times Magazine article about skilled labor by Matthew B. Crawford. Since I had just met a free spirited motorcycle mechanic, my interest was primed for some musings from a Ph.D. philosopher turned mechanic on finding fulfillment in your work. Somehow I didn’t get around to reading his full book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work until just last month.

This is really a book that you need to read if you’re interested in how the dynamics at intersection of work and fulfillment play out. Crawford’s background as a philosopher definitely shows in the dense, intellectual analysis. Crawford says, “This book grows out of an attempt to understand the greater sense of agency and competence I have always felt doing manual work, compared to other jobs that were officially recognized as ‘knowledge work.’ Perhaps most surprisingly, I find manual work more engaging mentally.” I totally connected with him there: sometimes making something or physically doing something can be more fulfilling to me than generating an knowledge “product.”

Crawford places great emphasis on the craft of manual work. He discusses at length the importance of a mechanic or craftsman obtaining an understanding of their work through years of working at it rather than relying on computer diagnostics or “how tos”:

“To repeat, when Bob looks at a part and judges it to have ten thousand miles on it, he is relying on a tacit integration of sensual knowledge, unconsciously referring what he sees to patterns built up in his mind through long experience. With computerized diagnostics, what is happening is rather an explicit integration of information, but this explicit integration is happening at the level of a knowledge system that is social in character. The results of this explicit integration are communicated to the mechanic by the service manual, written by people who have no personal knowledge of the motorcycle.”

To this end, Crawford mentions the past utility of apprenticeships as ways to learn a trade rather than through classroom education. In an apprentice-master relationship, the apprentice is able to learn the patterns and thought processes of the master rather than just accumulating facts and figures.

I really enjoyed Crawford’s views on the value of connecting with things and having an objective way to judge the value of work (does the motorcycle run?) as well as his understanding of how work can contribulte to living the “good life”:

“My point, finally, isn’t to recommend motorcycling in particular, nor to idealize the life of a mechanic. It is rather to suggest that if we follow the traces of our own actions to their source, they intimate some understanding of the good life. This understanding may be hard to articulate; bringing it more fully into view is the task of moral inquiry. Such inquiry may be helped along by practical activities in company with others, a sort of conversation in deed. In this conversation lies the potential of work to bring some measure of coherence to our lives.”

While not “light” reading I completely recommend Shop Class As Soul Craft for anyone interested in why we do the work we do, what work makes us happy, and how we connect with our material goods.

How do you feel about a connection with objective work? Have you read Shop Class as Soulcraft? What did you think?

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