Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

I am living as I please … Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford

Shop class and soulcraft cover

Shop class and soulcraft

Matthew Crawford, a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, owns and operates Shockoe Moto, a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia. Stand back and take a look at that statement. Is it not pleasing? Do you not like the incongruity of it: a state-registered intellectual running a hobby bike mechanic’s rather than a hobby farm? Rare breed classic bikes and gallons of fork oil instead of rare breed sheep and stinky cheese.

The odd thing is that Crawford is more mechanic than philosopher. He grew up on communes where he practiced various trades, including wiring houses, at an age when he should not have been. If you grow up
on a commune, you rebel by becoming a gearhead: machines are metal and wood is for hippies. At fifteen, he got a job in a Porsche repair shop where he started by cleaning the owner’s flat and moved on to cleaning parts which were then sprayed black, fitted to a customer’s car and photographed as if they were new spares. “It became clear that in stepping off the reservation of the commune and into the world of commerce, there were some psychic adjustments I was going to have to make.”

Precious little though the mechanical education was, Crawford had to begin working on his old VW Beetle and discovered a difference between the intellectual world of his father, a physicist, and the reality to be dealt with in fixing things. He learned that “mechanical work has a chancy, elusive character, very different from mathematics, even for expert mechanics.” As he summarizes the lessons of working on cars and bikes:

This experience of failure tempers the conceit of mastery; the doctor and the mechanic have daily intercourse with the world as something independent, and a vivid awareness of the difference between self and nonself. Fixing things may be a cure for narcissism.

No matter how smart you are, how experienced, how knowledgeable, the thing is what it is and your feelings, hurt or otherwise, make no damn difference at all.

After acquiring a taste for driving sideways (“I’d sometimes lock eyes with some startled matron, keys in hand, as I came round the bend at full drift, a skinny kid with poofy hair and a demonic grin.”) Crawford studied physics at university, where he was introduced to philosophy. This led to him learning Greek and acquiring a PhD in the history of political thought at the University of Chicago. During a one-year gig when he was supposed to be turning his thesis into a book and looking for a tenured academic job, he used the money that should have been going toward a book on Plutarch to buy a compressor to drive the pneumatic tools in the motorcycle repair shop where he was building a CB350 (relation of the CB550) based cafe racer. This brought him into the orbit of mechanics and craftsmen specializing in obscure and awkward jobs, of the type known to anyone who has ever done anything for themselves on a vehicle. He took a job as director of a think tank, “making arguments about global warming that just happened to coincide with the positions of the oil companies that funded the think tank”, but hankered for the life of the independent tradesman, “an image of liberality that I kept coming back to.”

Crawford makes two main arguments in the book: one philosophical, the other political. The philosophical argument is that fixing things is good for you. He denounces Build-A-Bear, which involves anything
but building a bear, and its car and motorcycle equivalents, which involve bolting on some accessory from a catalogue as a way of expressing your individuality:

The consumer is disburdened not only of the fabrication, but of a basic evaluative activity. (For example, in customizing a car or motorcycle from scratch, the builder must harmonize aesthetic concerns with functional ones, and make compromises so the result isn’t prone to, say, catching on fire.

Fixing, or making, really making, things cures narcissism. If you get this wrong, it does not care about your self-esteem: it will break off, fly through your fuel tank and wreck your motorcycle. This, Crawford argues, is an experience too many people are, by design, spared: “A student can avoid hard sciences and foreign languages and get a degree without ever having the unambiguous experience of being wrong.” Part of being adult in the real world is the consciousness of a reality, physical or social, where your feelings do not matter. Things are what they are and they must be dealt with as they are.

For this reason, Crawford laments the decline of `shop class’, the teaching of metal- and woodworking in school. Not only does it teach you things which might be useful to you, giving you control over your stuff, it helps you become a proper adult because you learn that it matters to get things right by some objective measure. People who have mastered a hard skill form a better society than those who have not, because they are not merely passive consumers of goods which control them, and because they are not narcissists, people who “view everything as an extension of [their] will, and therefore [have] only a tenuous grasp on the world of objects as something independent. [They are] prone to magical thinking and delusions of omnipotence.” Is there a more coherent antithesis to the self-help happiness industry which teaches that you need only look far enough inside yourself to get what you want, what Crawford calls the “cult of the sovereign self”?

Crawford’s politics are hard to pin down: he quotes Marx and Marxists (especially Harry Braverman) with approval where they talk about alienation, but he is no socialist. He argues for a `progressive-republican’ approach (note the small `r’), recognizing that “we are basically dependent beings: one upon another, and each upon a world that is not of our making.” His vision is of a society of people practicing trades which cannot be offshored (try getting a Bombay call centre to fix your leaking toilet), which situates them in a “particular community.” Quite apart from other considerations, a trade which requires your presence on-site is a steady job. In Crawford’s world, skilled work is a good thing, for the people who do it, and for the society they do it in.

Predicting classics, especially future ones, is a risky business, but this book looks set to become one. It lays out the pleasures and responsibilities of living as an adult, learning from being wrong and dealing with the world as it really is. Read it and force it on anyone who talks about `self-esteem’.

Shop class as soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford, ISBN
978-1-59420-223-0

13 comments on “I am living as I please … Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford

  1. Gwilym
    June 7, 2010

    Well, my resistance to buying this book weakens by the day – not through any ideological objection to it but an attempt to curb spending on books! I am an advocate of restoring practical skills classes to the core of the curriculum here in the UK, and Crawford’s exploration of the value of skills seems to reinforce that. I sense from this and other reviews that it also appeals to a great sense of wanting to actually “do” (physically) something bound up in people by the modern office environment. Which, incidentally, is referenced in the edition of the book available here in Britain :

    “The Case for Working with Your Hands: or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good”

    An interesting background should make for an interesting read – thanks for the review (or, no thanks, as I add this to my “To Buy” list ;))

  2. Jackie
    June 7, 2010

    What a novel idea for a philosophy book. I do agree that more people ought to go in for trades such as plumbing, mechanic etc. because there will always be a demand for that sort of job. Though I’m not sure about his maturity theory of shop class. I took 2 years of it(one of the few girls to do so) & found the kids in the class to be just as goofy as other students. Plus they used to steal my projects from the varnishing room, so some of them were definitely not mature. But I digress.
    The author’s unorthodox upbringing & career path would make for interesting reading, but I have to wonder at anyone who is so anti-teddy bear.

  3. paraffinalia
    June 7, 2010

    “The author’s unorthodox upbringing & career path would make for interesting reading, but I have to wonder at anyone who is so anti-teddy bear.”

    He is no cuddlyursyphobe, but he objects to the Build-A-Bear `making’ of a bear where you make choices from a limited selection and a bear is made for you. The one thing you do not do is build a bear. I think he might like the idea of giving a child a pile of stuffing, some glass eyes and bit of time alone to make their cuddly yoke.

  4. Jackie
    June 7, 2010

    Oh yes, children playing with glass eyes, perfectly safe.

  5. Lynne
    June 8, 2010

    I can understand this philosophy. After all, after spending all day with clients and computers and fidning answers, I much prefer to go home and make something. A cake, a shirt, cross stitch, lace, or the lasest obsession, glass beads, it doesn’t matter what so long as I do something with my hands. Even doing the cleaning is worth while. I find it medatative.

    Working with your hands is as every bit an important job in society as working on Wall Street, or teaching or nursing. If we paid people for what they actually contributed to society, bankers and advertisers would be at the botom of the heap and nurses and teachers would be at the top.

  6. Moira
    June 8, 2010

    I SO wanted to do metal or woodwork at school, but in the 60s and early 70s, if you were female, you had to do domestic science and needlework instead. It’s only in my later years that I’ve actually started to ‘fettle’ things (to use a wonderful local expression) and the number of times I’ve been smugly pleased with my efforts, only to realize I’ve driven a screw straight through and out the other side, or attached the whole thing back to front … It’s a great ego-deflater.

    It’s also only comparatively recently that I’ve overcome my loathing of needlework and cookery – engendered by that enforced learning of it so long ago – and he’s completely right about the Build-a-Bear thing. It’s much more satisfying, educational and – dare I say it – character-forming to do it yourself, from scratch – glass eyes and all. If a child’s old enough to be making its own bear, it’s old enough to be told not to put things where they shouldn’t be. You only learn to avoid life’s dangers by encountering them.

  7. Hilary
    June 8, 2010

    I am very intrigued by this book, and I think you’ve sold it to me!

    I’m with Moira – I had a bizarre fascination with machines when I was young. I loved cars, the faster the better, but have always found motorbikes rather terrifying, if beautiful. I look back with satisfaction at the minor routines I used to be able to do to my first cars – I had a couple of Triumph Heralds one after the other, so mechanically crude that I could do stuff like fix the brakes, set the points, keep the clutch working until I’d earned enough money to get it fixed. These days, if my car misbehaves, its functioning is so hidden behind computer science that I just have to book it in to be re-booted or similar.

    If I say that from your description it reminds me of ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’, will you roll your eyes heavenward and go ‘tsk, tsk’?

  8. Jackie
    June 8, 2010

    I just bet Michael is sitting there thinking “The teddy bear is so NOT the point!”

  9. Tito Padilla
    August 18, 2010

    Children did play with glass marbles, and in my experience the only injury was loosing them, which is what a lot of liberals have done.

  10. Aaron
    August 29, 2010

    I have mixed feelings about the book. I understand what the author is driving at with regards to tacit knowledge, the way we really learn and understand things, the inadequacy of 3-ring-binder interchangeable approaches to doing certain jobs.

    But I don’t think he has a good appreciation for the real economics behind why mechanized work really dominated the economy. He is talking in one chapter about alienated workers on an assembly line producing cars that will be “ripped away by the capitalist class” never to be seen by the same class of people that built them. If anything, the exact opposite is the case!

    The advent of the assembly line and mechanized labor produced some of the first cars that were made efficiently enough to be affordable by the common laborer. On the other hand – hand-tooled vehicles, a modern example would be Porsches, can never be more than the playthings of the wealthy – no one else has the time to indulge such hobbies, or the ability to pay for that much skilled human attention.

    Efficiency may end up producing mindless jobs that are crushingly dull, but it is also an extremely important economic good, in that it brings the price of objects once requiring thousands of skilled man-hours to produce into the reach of the middle class. We don’t have flying cars because gen-av aircraft never developed beyond the craft stage. We do have personal computers, because their production, once done by PhDs hand-wire-wrapping each board, is now done automatically by robots.

  11. Pingback: Where is Professor Ludd when you need him? | Paraffinalia

  12. Pingback: How do you mooc a project? | Paraffinalia

  13. Mac McJunkin
    May 12, 2014

    I recently came across a paper from written by Frank Elwell who must be a professor at Rodgers State University that explains the fix we’re in at present.

    http://www.faculty.rsu.edu/users/f/felwell/www/Theorists/Weber/SocOfWeber.htm

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This entry was posted on June 7, 2010 by in Entries by Michael, Non-fiction: philosophy, Non-fiction: science and tagged , , , , , .

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