Book Review–Shop Class As Soulcraft

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on February 22, 2010

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As mentioned in my previous book review, I entered this year having to do two reviews for books that I read in 2009. This is the second one. Thank Heavens I am finally caught up.

Matthew Crawford is a smart guy and a talented writer. His book is a fascinating and unorthodox analysis of how we ought to regard the nature of work. As Crawford notes–and as anyone knows–traditionally, people with desk jobs are perceived as doing “brain work,” while people engaged in mechanical labor are believed to be engaged in mind-numbing labor that does not require too much–if any–thinking. Of course, in many instances, the reverse is true; as Crawford recounts, despite the fact that he was once employed by a DC think tank after getting his PhD from the University of Chicago, he has to use his brain more as a motorcycle repair wizard than he ever did as a think tanker. The common belief is that working at a think tank–especially as a newly minted PhD–is the more intellectually stimulating job, but in recounting his life experience, Crawford shows why this is not necessarily so.

He takes the point further by stating that although we consider a four-year college to be the expected next stop for students out of high school, the fact is that some high school students may not be cut out for the traditional four-year college program, and that instead, they ought to try their hands at community colleges, or trade schools. Crawford asks us to imagine whether we, or our kids would be genuinely happy at four-year colleges, or whether happiness would be found in learning a trade instead. On that basis, and on the basis of gauging the skill sets of high school graduates, he encourages a choice between the two stations. He fights against the negative stereotype associated with working with one’s hands, and fixing things, by reminding us that being involved in a trade can be tremendously intellectually challenging and satisfying. He also tells us that it can lead to very secure employment; in the Internet age, when jobs are outsourced overseas, Crawford reminds us that “you can’t hammer a nail over the Internet.”

This last point is a good one, but Crawford may have underestimated the degree to which trades are vulnerable to economic forces. This recession has hurt tradesmen just as much as it has hurt white collar workers; there are plenty of people holding off on making repairs, since they want to save money, and a BBC report I heard some months back featured the owner of a plumbing company in Los Angeles who stated that his business was surviving on savings, and that because of the economic downturn, more customers were trying to engage in do-it-yourself fixes for plumbing problems. Moreover, it bears repeating that the dangers of outsourcing are wildly overstated, and that nowadays, more jobs are actually being insourced into the United States.

If one enjoys learning a trade, can make a good living with it, and would do better working with one’s hands than laboring in a lab, or a library, then by all means, Matthew Crawford’s advice should be followed. By challenging our traditional conceptions of work, Crawford makes a valuable contribution. But in some respects, his thesis deserves challenging, and his arguments fall short.

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