Crawford, Matthew B. (2009). Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. The Penguin Press; New York.
As those I’ve had the occasion to speak with about employment well know, I am obsessed with the value and significance of work. This beautifully-written book by Matthew Crawford provides a philosophical investigation of abstract, knowledge-based work versus the gritty and concrete world of manual labour. I particularly appreciate Matthew’s insights because although he has a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago, he has also worked as an electrician and motorcycle mechanic. He therefore offers a broad depth of experience which spans across the conceptual working world.
In seeking to restore “the honor of the manual trades” in this book, Matthew also highlights the beauty of self-reliance, questions the obsession with creating knowledge workers in our educational systems, and investigates the division between thinking and doing (Crawford, 2014). I love his personal references to the work which damaged the most integral, core part of himself. I was in tears when he passionately expounded the intricate delicacies of manual labour – the “intrinsic satisfactions and cognitive challenges” of directly handling the ‘things’ in our world (Crawford, 2014). It sounds, for me, like a state of perfection, bliss, and freedom.
My academic background – particularly my exploration of phenomenology and Martin Heidegger – were valuable in my reading of this book (which I gobbled up in one evening). Although the book is accessible to all readers, you definitely gain more from Matthew’s extensive philosophical references by having some knowledge of the subject. The book suggests that the societal and educational pressure to be a generalist in one’s skill set is misguided, and that truly fulfilling work can be found in dedication, absorption, and fascination in a particular subject area. (Note that the idea of a ‘craftsman’ mindset, or gaining fulfilling expertise in one area of life, can also be found in Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You).
Certain elements of the book did leave me feeling empty-handed, however. Women are non-existent characters; outside of one isolated reference to Matthew’s wife, there is a distinctly macho-man character to the insider-groups of motorcycle riders and repairmen (Garner, May 28th, 2009). I also felt that the novel was quite backwards-looking, and provides little guidance to individuals seeking to take action (though in all fairness, this is in keeping with the philosophical inquiry of the novel). I hope that Matthew’s other book, The Case for Working with Your Hands, provides more forward-looking possibilities for the questioning thinker/doer. Otherwise, a highly recommended read for people of all backgrounds!
Goodreads Quotes – Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work
Matthew B. Crawford. (Summer 2006). Shop Class as Soulcraft. The New Atlantis, Number 13, pp. 7-24.