The Saturday Read – ‘Shop Class As Soulcraft’ – Matthew Crawford

What can you do with a degree in philosophy? Matthew Crawford received his PhD in political philosophy from the University of Chicago in 2000. After a series of jobs as a ‘knowledge worker’ he created a career that combined philosophy, writing and custom motorcycle maintenance. Drawing from his personal journey, he wrote about the value of work and producing tangible results. His book, ‘Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into The Value of Work’, was published in 2009.

In a New York Times Magazine essay he argued ‘The Case for Working With Your Hands’.

“A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world. Academic credentials do not guarantee this.”

He provides the historical context to explain how we got to where we are today.

“High-school shop-class programs were widely dismantled in the 1990s as educators prepared students to become “knowledge workers.” The imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. This has not come to pass. To begin with, such work often feels more enervating than gliding. More fundamentally, now as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses.”

Contrasting his experience at a policy organization with his part-time experience tearing down an old Honda motorcycle under the guidance of an experienced tradesman: “As I sat in my K Street office, Fred’s life as an independent tradesman gave me an image that I kept coming back to: someone who really knows what he is doing, losing himself in work that is genuinely useful and has a certain integrity to it. He also seemed to be having a lot of fun.”

He then considers the broader implications to our society when the best and the brightest are channeled into elite institutions bypassing an apprenticeship in problem solving in the world of grease and dirt.

“The visceral experience of failure seems to have been edited out of the career trajectories of gifted students. It stands to reason, then, that those who end up making big decisions that affect all of us don’t seem to have much sense of their own fallibility, and of how badly things can go wrong even with the best of intentions (like when I dropped that feeler gauge down into the Ninja). In the boardrooms of Wall Street and the corridors of Pennsylvania Avenue, I don’t think you’ll see a yellow sign that says “Think Safety!” as you do on job sites and in many repair shops, no doubt because those who sit on the swivel chairs tend to live remote from the consequences of the decisions they make. Why not encourage gifted students to learn a trade, if only in the summers, so that their fingers will be crushed once or twice before they go on to run the country?”

He remains optimistic as he concludes the essay: “The good life comes in a variety of forms. This variety has become difficult to see; our field of aspiration has narrowed into certain channels… For anyone who feels ill suited by disposition to spend his days sitting in an office, the question of what a good job looks like is now wide open.”

Enjoy the Saturday read, ‘Shop Class As Soulcraft’.

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