I always regret not being more handy than I am. The feeling I get when wielding a screwdriver is the closest I can come to understanding what people mean when they say, “I just can’t do math!” It always bothers me when people insist upon this, as if mathematical skill is something that you either have or you do not. But when I am reduced to basic manipulation of the physical world, I understand their frustration. Like any skill, there are some who have a talent for it and others for whom it will always be an uphill slog. Some are like that with math, and I am like that with tools and any kind of physical labour.
So I have immersed myself in the world of intellect, becoming exactly the kind of disembodied, disconnected ivory tower individual against which Matthew B. Crawford argues in Shop Class as Soulcraft. Well, it’s not so much that he’s arguing against such people—he admits that, if academic pursuits are your thing, you should go for it—but he laments that we have somehow become the standard against all rising stars are measured. Crawford would rather see the trades and the crafts restored to a place of honour; for that matter, so would I.
Crawford paints a bleak picture of how our rising exuberance for computers at the end of the twentieth century muscled out shop classes in high schools across the United States. I think the situation in Canada is little better, though my limited experience here in Ontario shows glimmers of hope in the more enlightened, trades-oriented options that many high schools offer students. In some places, we are beginning to realize that a balance can be had, and we are striving to attain it. Whether the rest of society is willing to follow, I don’t know.
As the subtitle, An Inquiry into the Value of Work, suggests, Crawford sings the praises of the “honest work” of the people who build, repair, and make things. He intersperses more theoretical and academic approaches to the subject with his own, personal experience, first as an electrician and then as a motorcycle mechanic. In both cases, Crawford emphasizes how physical work offers access to a type of knowledge different from that which we acquire from books and from social interaction. There is certain wisdom one can only acquire through direct experience.
I enjoyed the sections in which Crawford describes his journey from novice to confident mechanic more than I thought I would. Even with the wonderful artist illustrations and his own explanations, I still can’t fathom or picture the magic he worked inside the guts of those machines. The way he describes doing something, the number of variables that he must account for, the amount he must know … it baffles me how anyone is able to do it. I guess that’s how people feel when I describe working on a math proof or programming. It’s a very weird feeling, knowing that someone else knows something you can barely comprehend.
I’m not sure how successful Crawford is at convincing someone more sceptical of his ideas, since I began the book firmly believing in the value of work. For that reasons, a lot of his arguments left me with a, “Yes, so?” reaction, simply because I felt like everything he was stating was pretty obvious.
Instead, Shop Class as Soulcraft was more useful to me as a mirror for my own frustrations. In my first year of teaching, which I spent in England, I ran up against a most fearsome dragon, that of standardized testing. I was teaching 16-year-olds who had no concept of how to multiply properly, let alone finding area and perimeter or the missing angle of a triangle. Somehow, though I was supposed to prepare them for a test that would give them a grade that would determine where they could go next for schooling and what kind of jobs they could get. It was madness. I could have taught much more basic math, arithmetic and personal accounting, the kind of thing that could really seem relevant to them. But my hands were tied by the test.
I always feel a little hypocritical when I try to extol the virtues of the trades to students. After all, it’s clear I didn’t go down that road—so who am I to try to convince them it’s worthwhile? Not only that, but it’s painfully clear I didn’t go down that road. Some teachers have the virtue of straddling the divide between academic and applied, of fusing these worlds together into a harmonious whole. That distinction is not mine to hold. Throughout my life, people have remarked that I give off the vibes of one dedicated to intellectual pursuits. That gives me pleasure, of course, but it also makes my attempts to downplay the academic life a lot more problematic. I basically feel like a fraud. Unlike Crawford, who has truly lived in both worlds, I have always been confined to one.
As I mentioned above, Crawford is at his best when recounting his own personal experience with the value of work. When he strays further into the territory of sociology and psychology, his arguments become less captivating even if they are more objectively robust. Probably most interesting of these sections is his explanation of how the introduction of assembly lines and mass production offered an effective alternative to the craftsman in his own little castle. It was the era of the assembly-line worker that ushered in the harsh distinction between blue collar and white collar, Crawford argued.
I’m not so sure, but I think he makes a good point when he links the rise of mass production to a reduction in respect for the trades. We are raised now as consumers first, producers second—production is something other, something that happens away from us. Moreover, society continues to become blazingly, bewilderingly complex. It’s just not possible to be good at everything any more or to know everything the human species knows. We have to specialize, and in turn this means we have to outsource certain tasks, whether it’s tax preparation or car repair, to other people whose specialities those are. Crawford provides some compelling explanations for why this makes us feel uneasy.
Shop Class as Soulcraft is exactly what it claims to be. It’s competently written, with an interesting mix of personal anecdotes and more abstract, philosophical reasoning. It isn’t quite as inspirational or awe-inspiring as it might be; this is more a sobre prod towards thought and action that it is a plea for swift change. You wouldn’t do wrong to read it, but I’m not particularly put out that it took me this long to get around to doing so.