Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Book Review: Shop Class as Soulcraft

Shop Class as Soulcraft
By Matthew Crawford

Author Matthew Crawford has a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago, but he owns and operates the Shockoe Moto motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, VA.

I don't agree with Crawford completely, but I do think he is right to point out that the centuries-long transition from an economy of tradespeople to mass production and hyper-specialization is ongoing.

Despite increasing levels of education, many workers, especially white-collar workers struggle to find "meaningful work" in corporations that often do not value self-reliance. Crawford says that these two phrases are tied to a struggle for individual agency, which he sees as a central challenge of modern life (7, original emphasis). While blue collar work in the trades has kept some of its autonomy, certainly in the public mind this kind of work has been demeaned.

There are times when Crawford seems to criticize technological development simply as dumbing down material culture. For example, he goes to great lengths to praise the mental effort required to kickstart a vintage motorcycle and manually pump oil to lubricate the engine while riding. Carrying this logic to its extreme would seem to imply that the most difficult way of doing a thing is the best way!

In his call for greater autonomy, Crawford reminds me of an earlier book I reviewed, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown. That book also emphasized the need for children and adults to be able to choose their activities, at least when playing.

I find parallels in a friend who turned to dairy farming after graduating from college in computer science and now has a partnerth a partner, a former CPA, who gave up accounting full-time to milk cows 3 times a day, beginning at 5 a.m.

While I don't agree with all of Crawford's argument, it is thought-provoking, and for that I give it a qualified recommendation.

Other related books that you might enjoy include:

Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano

The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker
by Mike Rose

The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson

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