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Shop Class as Soulcraft – An Inquiry into the Value of Work

August 21st, 2013 | Posted by David H in Book reviews | Learning | Management

“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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