Shop Class book cover and Matthew Crawford headshot

Shop Class as Soulcraft

In “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work,” Matthew B. Crawford explores the value and importance of manual labor and the trades in modern society. It is routinely compared to the 1974 hit “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

Published in 2010 as a surprise breakout in the wake of the Great Recession, the book argues that the emphasis on a college education as the path to success has led to the closure of shop classes and a loss of appreciation for the skills and knowledge of craftsmen.

Crawford discusses the history of vocational education and the divide between “thinking” and “doing” work. He also examines the ways in which corporate culture and technology have changed the nature of work and the importance of agency and individuality in the workplace. Through his exploration of these themes, Crawford makes a case for the value of hands-on, practical work and the fulfillment it can bring.

The book deeply informed a vocational high school I am active in supporting. As a one-time plumber’s apprentice, I certainly appreciate the perspective. Check my notes below.

My notes

  • Craftsman is an ideal, tradesman is in action
  • 3/4 shop classes closed in California since1980s focus on computers
  • “The craftsman and a bitch all different is not toward the new but toward the objective standards of his craft. However narrow and complication, this is a rare appearance in contemporary life – a diss interested articulable and publicly affirmable idea of the good.”
  • Vocational Ed viewed as a determined life where as college offers an open future
  • TJ Jackson Lears writes in his book about the history of the progressive era No Place of Grace that “toward the end of the 19th century many beneficiaries of modern culture began to feel they were the secret victims”
  • Smith Hughes Act of 1917 funded manual training , for both vocational and general ed
  • If a high school principal shoots for anything less than 100% college attainment, she is viewed as under shooting
  • Alan Blinder says rather than low wage and High wage jobs we could divide jobs by those that can be done via the Internet from anywhere in those that must be on site, similarly MIT economist Frank Levy argues the big difference is between whether the service is “rules based” like accounting or not and therefore harder to offshore or automate
  • Separation of thinking and doing is a 20th century industrialized phenomenon. 1974 HARRY Braverman, a Marxist, published labor and monopoly capital which is highly political but can today have more more audience now that we are far away from the Cold War. He wrote critically of “scientific management”, which people like Frederick Winslow Taylor introduced as a cost savings and efficiency strategy allowing unskilled labor to be used by a smaller professional class
  • “Consumption engineers” were the names of early marketers
  • How liberalism erodes individual agency: we remove authority from individuals in public sector to replace with rules (standardized tests and mandatory minimums for judges) and corporate efficiency in private sector
  • Barbara Garson’s 1988 Electronic Sweatshop: “ extraordinary human ingenuity has been used to eliminate the need for human ingenuity.”
  • The trades have already been so automated that what remains is high level and people powered
  • Mercedes’ models don’t have a dipstick, you only get a “Service Required” message. You just can’t work on them yourself
  • Albert Borgman: commanding reality vs disposable reality. Thing vs device (musical instrument vs stereo)
  • “ in the contemporary office the whole person is an issue, rather than a narrow set of competencies.” Products had specifications, now it is about emotional intelligence
  • In 1942 Joseph Schumpeter warns of the expansion of higher education beyond what the labor market demands. This creates for white-collar workers “employment in substandard work or at wages below those of the better pay manual worker… It may create unemployability of a particularly disconcerting type. The man who has gone through college or university easily becomes physically unemployable in manual occupations without necessarily requiring employability in say professional work”
  • “Work is necessarily toilsome in-service of someone else’s interest. That’s why you get paid.” 136
  • Marx: When estranged from his labor, man “no longer feels himself to be freely active in anybody’s animal functions”
  • Randall Colin describes a cycle of credential inflation that “could go on endlessly until janitors have PhD and babysitters are required to hold advance degrees in childcare
  • In the 1970s the Discovery of “corporate culture” and teamwork of emerging knowledge work. “ David Franz writes that “the expectation that corporate culture could be managed was both central to its appeal and it is crucial to its conceptual innovation. “Culture is a social scientist use the term is a mostly subterranean force, taken for granted, assumed, and articulate… Corporate culture however can be diagnosed valuated and altered“
  • In 1966, Phillip Reiff wrote that the ideal character type for the coming age will be “a man of leisure, released by technology from the regimental discipline of work so as to secure his well-being and highly refined alloplastic ways”
  • Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw “soft despotism” coming for Americans who depended on the state. In modern times this also can mean relying too much on big business
  • Author argues DEI shows up in corporate offices because people didn’t have objective measures. “When no appeal to a carpenters level is possible, sensitivity training becomes necessary“ 157
  • Martin Heidegger wrote “the nearest kind of association is not near perceptual cognition, but rather a handling, using and taking care of things which has its own kind of knowledge” .. we only come to know a hammer by holding it
  • Our education is focused on “knowing that” not “knowing how” 161
  • Daniel bell rights in the coming of Christ industrial society of “intellectual technology “in which we will substitute algorithms for intuitive judgments
  • We can’t outsource working with our hands
  • Perception in Chess by WG Chase and HA Simon 1973: expert chess players only remember more pieces than novices when they are common chess configurations
  • John Muir famous for writing the VW bug manual. Once written by experts and engineers, Now manuals are written by technical writers, so as Heidegger wrote in a different context “a projection of thing this which as it were skips over the things”
  • John Searle’s critique of AI
  • Marx: in work w learn our “species character”
  • The local journalist is more like the carpenter than the general technical writer or knowledge worker . We are in a “community of use” author writes 187
  • The Darwinian view is that the “happy as a pig in shit” pig does that in order to pass on his genes, but the pig would probably say he lives in order to be in shit as opposed to being shit in order to live
  • that’s the Aristotlean view: when you ask, her experiences are intrinsically good
  • Aristotle begins in metaphysics by writing “all human beings by nature desire to know”
  • Stachotistic act like motorcycle
  • Solipsism
  • Make elite kids be humbled by the trades
  • “too often the defenders of free markets forget that what we really want is free men” 209

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