Reflections on how and why…we work and live.

“Shop Class as Soulcraft – An Inquiry into the Value of Work ” – ©2009 Matthew B. Crawford, Published by the Penguin Group

“The truth does not reveal itself to idle spectators.” –Matthew Crawford

My first thought, as I ponder how to begin this review, is to remind myself that it’s not the goal here to get you to read this review instead of the book. Thus I can, without too much guilt, admit to you that I have no idea how to do justice to this reflective little book.

Crawford’s writing, like Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” weaves its way in and out of many layers of philosophical abstraction – within, not perhaps coincidently, a story about restoring vintage motorcycles.

It’s difficult, and unfair to Crawford, to try to distil “Shop Class as Soulcraft” into some tidy phrase that can describe what he’s created here. It is certainly, as his subtitle says, an inquiry into the value of work. But his extended descriptions of “work” and “value” are at the heart of his observations and he writes at length about them because his intent requires it.

Crawford’s story moves back and forth between observations of the work of the individual and observations of the larger economic context. One of his central tenets is that thinking is inherently bound up with doing, and to the extent that the modern workplace separates the two it does violence to our sense of agency, our sense of community, and the satisfaction we derive from, in his words, “rational activity together with others”. In the end he describes a “humane economy” as one in which “the possibility of achieving such satisfaction is not foreclosed ahead of time for most people.”

Part of what Crawford celebrates is the particular sort of intelligence required in what he calls the “stochastic arts” – those endeavors that have both clear evidence of success (my motorcycle runs) and uncertain paths to that success (the problem – and the solution – are not always known ahead of time). But this insight does not come without mastery and mastery does not come without experience or without failure.

Crawford’s own path to these insights is a circuitous one. He’s worked as an electrician, a technical writer, the executive director of a think tank, a motorcycle repairman, and is currently a research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

One of Crawford’s observations is that the invention of the assembly line and the parsing of craftsmanship into small, standardized chunks of largely mindless behavior served the interest of capital but did damage to labor – psychic as well as economic damage. He also asserts that managers are caught impossibly between the competing interests of capital and labor. As the source of our work becomes more distant from its uses, we lose our sense of community, become less engaged, and less fulfilled by our work.

Crawford sees an important role for the local entrepreneur in those niches that are relatively immune to the labor advantages of globalization. In his argument against the concentration of capital he says, “It is time to dispel the long-standing confusion of private property with corporate property.”

What this implies for the future remains uncertain. Crawford himself registers “a note of sobriety, as against hopes for transformation.” His council is to “seek out the cracks where individual agency and the love of knowledge can be realized today, in one’s own life.”

In Gallup’s recent “State of the American Workplace” report, Minnesota ranked last in the percentage of “engaged workers” – 26%. This book review won’t give you much insight into engaged workers, “Shop Craft as Soulcraft” might. Don’t be an idle spectator.

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Learning and knowing

June 6th, 2011 | Posted by admin in Learning - (0 Comments)

I’ve been struggling through James Gleick’s “The Information” and it dawns on me that we are today still trying to figure out how to talk and think about profound technological changes influencing how we find, share, and create “information”. As Gleick points out, the changes are not simply in the tools but, more profoundly, in how we think about and interact with the world.

Case in point, there’s a difference between wanting to learn something and needing to know something. I want to “learn” to play the piano but I need to “know” how to set up my wireless network at home. Although they may seem equally difficult to some people, they are fundamentally different types of efforts.

I have done both but today I can sit down and play the piano but I couldn’t tell you how I set up my network. The “learning” (if that’s the right word) in the latter case involved knowing how to find the needed information, not the retention of that information (which will probably be useless by the time I need it again anyway).

It seems to me that people involved in helping learners would be well served to be thinking about the distinction and its implications in the design of “soft” tools and training.

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I got involved in a discussion about “training” in a forum of “Chief Learning Officers” over at LinkedIn.  The initial question was “How will training look 10 years from now”. Here are my thoughts:

Training and teaching are of interest to the “supplier”, learning is of interest to the “consumer”- assuming, of course, that what the consumer is after is knowledge. That’s not always, or even often, the case. Collecting certifications and credentials is a different sort of supplier/consumer relationship.

In the U.S., at least, we’ve always had the wrong person in the driver’s seat. Thinking about the supply side of this relationship (in a technological sense) ten years from now seems ultimately irrelevant, partly because the pertinent question is how will people be learning, but mostly because the uncertainty of that future doesn’t really inform any particular action today.

I agree that learners should lead the way, not follow the trainers. The question then is not “How should I train” but rather “How do I get things out of learners’ way”, which presumes I have some knowledge of how the best learners go about teaching themselves today.

In the business world the goal of training is largely a typically ineffective attempt at behavior modification. The trainers and the learners both have a vested interest in appearing to be successful, leadership is worried about more prosaic issues like the financial viability of their company, and thus their question is “Did our people learn anything?”, to which the answer always is “Yes”. The deeper questions of “what” and “how” are not deemed worthy of too much corporate investment.

But the fact is that people are alway learning, regardless of whether or not they’re being “trained”. More insidiously, what people learn often is not what those trainers thought they were teaching or what a company wants their people to “know”.


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The Value of Higher Education?

May 27th, 2011 | Posted by admin in Learning - (0 Comments)

Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, has made headlines lately for an interview he did on ABC News where he talked about the “anti-scholarships” he’s giving to students with “big ideas” to drop out of college and pursue those ideas.

A more intriguing interview with Thiel was done by Sarah Lacy over at TechCrunch. In that interview Thiel describes higher education as the next big bubble. “A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed,” he says.

In a way, his anti-scholarships are a way for him to thumb his nose at what he regards as an unchallenged narrative regarding higher education, namely that the one single guaranteed path to a secure future is college. Thiel doesn’t see it that way: “You have to get rid of the future you wanted to pay off all the debt from the fancy school that was supposed to give you that future.”

To me there’s a more fundamental issue lurking here that has nothing to do with “fancy schools” or “big ideas”. Access to education and training is quickly pricing itself out of the reach of ordinary Americans. All of the tax-payer money that supports public schools creates resources only a few of those taxpayers can afford to take advantage of.

Worse, the model of four years (or more) of intensive study, followed by the urgent need to get any job to pay off the debt incurred, often results in the “value” of that education not being leveraged for some years into the future. By which time the certification too often becomes simply a “get in free” card to an interview and the conversation switches to “experience”.

In my view, the “education bubble” is more about an ineffective model for a fast-changing world than a value calculation. Access to education needs to be easier, more flexible, and available over a person’s lifetime.

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