Shop Class as Soulcraft: A Review by Bill Buppert


I previously highlighted the importance of a survival library and plenty of readers chimed in on the need for real hands-on experience and training as a necessity to having the knowledge to set the flame to the candle as it were. Matthew Crawford gave us a glimpse of the importance of that. -BB

It seems that during every shift in the fundamentals of industry, there has been an intrinsic reaction on the part of man to protect the older forms of production as a means to alleviate the perceived threat of the looming change. One example would be the original saboteurs, who were so named by throwing their wooden clogs, or sabots, into the gears of automated looms. Another example would be the arts and crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which sought to provide the newly minted white-collar industrial manager with a weekend outlet via the manual arts.

There is a familiar sneer and condescending attitude of white-collar workers on blue-collar “hands-on” professions that don’t demand formal engineering credentials. The office and knowledge workers have the mistaken impression that no problem solving nor cognition are necessary to achieve these “dirty-hands” task yet these very men are the ones who will not only survive and persevere but may possess the heterodox knowledge necessary to muscle through difficult times whether mundane or apocalyptic.

Much like thrift stores are capitalism’s savvy answer to rational recycling, blue-collar workers may be the ultimate conservationists and environmentalists in a way no current envirus can even envision in their beggared imaginations freighted with collectivist fantasies of government supremacism.

The latest entry into this tradition is Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work.  Crawford’s work is a serious philosophic examination of the value of the manual trades, specifically those who build and repair material things. Crawford has serious credibility both as an academic, with a PhD in Political Philosophy from the University of Chicago, and as a mechanic since he owns and operates Reclaimed Vehicle Fabrication Laboratory in Richmond, Virginia. Crawford’s theses is that as the American economy rapidly shifted from manufacturing to nebulous “knowledge work”, we began a sort of cultural schizophrenia, where consumption and the management consultant’s definition of “creativity” replaced skill with tools and a certain level of mechanical competence and experiential knowledge about how things worked.

He is publishing a new book this year called The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction available on 1 April 2015.

Crawford’s work first appeared in an essay in The New Atlantis Magazine. Since Mr. Crawford can summarize his points better than I could, here is a brief excerpt:

“A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our mode of inhabiting the world: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves installing a pre-made replacement part.

So perhaps the time is ripe for reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen out of favor: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world. Neither as workers nor as consumers are we much called upon to exercise such competence, most of us anyway, and merely to recommend its cultivation is to risk the scorn of those who take themselves to be the most hard-headed: the hard-headed economist will point out the opportunity costs of making what can be bought, and the hard-headed educator will say that it is irresponsible to educate the young for the trades, which are somehow identified as the jobs of the past. But we might pause to consider just how hard-headed these presumptions are, and whether they don’t, on the contrary, issue from a peculiar sort of idealism, one that insistently steers young people toward the most ghostly kinds of work.”

In particular, the modern education system is called onto the carpet for criticism. This excerpt from a NYT Magazine article clearly articulates his, and presumably many others, frustration with the current state of government schools:

If the goal is to earn a living, then, maybe it isn’t really true that 18-year-olds need to be imparted with a sense of panic about getting into college (though they certainly need to learn). Some people are hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, against their own inclinations and natural bents, when they would rather be learning to build things or fix things. One shop teacher suggested to me that “in schools, we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement. Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.”

A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic rather than to accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not self-destructive. There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions. Further, there is wide use of drugs to medicate boys, especially, against their natural tendency toward action, the better to “keep things on track.” I taught briefly in a public high school and would have loved to have set up a Ritalin fogger in my classroom. It is a rare person, male or female, who is naturally inclined to sit still for 17 years in school, and then indefinitely at work.

I have a preparedness background with a rich hippie pedigree, as do most of my friends, so the concept of being able to make and repair items is not foreign to us and probably familiar to most of our readers. I tend to be rather unhandy but intensely interested in the implication of the outsourcing or diminishing of these skills. I have noticed that in general terms that these skills are in decline, with probably close to two generations of people who are unable to repair items around the house or their own vehicles.

11 thoughts on “Shop Class as Soulcraft: A Review by Bill Buppert”

  1. Choices, and the freedom to explore one’s choices are what is important. There is infinite room for every choice except aggression in a truly free society. One person’s choice to buy new or hire someone to repair their things gives opportunity for someone else to pursue his/her own choice to offer new products or skills to repair old ones.

    Left to random fate, things are never truly balanced. I’ve lived alone for more than 30 years, and have had to learn to fix things myself when I can’t afford to hire it done… that, or live with it broken. I can do a lot myself, out of necessity and not actually by choice, but I’d love to understand the joker of the universe that decided every house I’ve ever lived in for the last 50 years needed the guts to the toilet tank replaced… and I was usually the one that had to fix it. In 40 lifetime moves… that adds up to a lot of toilets, but I’ll never come close to being a plumber. 🙂

  2. They say that no man is an island. I have heard this many times in debates with collectivists as they try and discredit individualism, in defense of collectivism. But not too long ago in our not so distance past, men and women were in a sense islands.

    We are told this as if to point out, that very few people can do all the things that they need in life. Admittedly, there are very few who indeed can. I can sew, but I am no tailor, I can draw, but I am no artist, I can strum a guitar, but I am no musician. I would consider myself a jack of all trades, and a master of very few, if any.

    Truly the division of labor has carried man further, faster than he could upon his own talents and accords, this I do not dispute. But consider this, was the spirit of rugged individualism, more or less alive in those times?

    Being multi-faceted, is another means to independence, which is, I suppose, why a system that desires a dependent and obedient class of minions, scorns the idea of a man being an island.

    But who cares more for my island other than I?


    1. Centurion_Cornelius

      Well-put, CM!

      I was a tool and die maker, shop class teacher, and for 35+ years a practising attorney.

      My Dad worked the steel mills, was extremely handy, and I inherited this trait. “Hold the dang flashlight still, Son!” was his mantra and my ticket to hands-on learn. And, boy, did I learn. It has served me well.

      Where I now reside, my corporate white-collar “Cs,” meaning “Chief” Executive, or “Chief” Financial, or “Chief” Legal Officer neighbors sneer and look down on me changing my 5w-30 oil, roofing my home, or even cutting my own grass.

      In a perverse fashion, they actually speak, brag, and revel in the fact of their self-inflicted helplessness in that: “I paid $50 to have an electrician come in and put in a light switch plate.” I get the “I didn’t go to Harvard to cut grass. response.” REALLY! Perhaps you should have.

      I could care less–these ivory-tower snobs are not living my “enjoyed” life nor paying my bills.


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  4. “What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves installing a pre-made replacement part.”

    Yup-and that’s the problem. Before I quit framing new homes in disgust at the methods being used,we used to have these guys who were actually carpenters-we cut rafters to frame a roof,we didn’t call in a small crane to set pre-built trusses.

    We also used to build custom homes that were just that-custom-not a development of “custom homes” that were all just variations of the exact same framing plan with a few interior walls rearranged,a few different fake gables-pre built fake gables at that stuck here and there on the truss-framed roof.

    Then I did vinyl siding,doors and windows for a five years or so-it was extremely difficult to find laborers/helpers who comprehended how to measure and cut siding panels-it ain’t freakin’ rocket science-make every course with every seam running in the same direction,don’t make one seam above another seam,don’t pound the nails all the way in,and leave 1/4″ space at the end of each run to allow for expansion/contraction.

    Trim with aluminum coil stock-never found a kid that could comprehend how to measure,mark and bend the shit on a brake-another thing that ain’t rocket science-sure there’s some basic math involved-but it just ain’t all that complicated.

    Then the builders started using freakin’ cardboard for the upper gable ends of new homes-that’s all there is-cardboard-with vinyl siding over it. The cardboard has wood strips on the back-at 24″ on center-means you waste a lot of siding when you get to the top of the gable-because your scraps from the 16″ centers don’t line up with anything but cardboard.

    But that’s legal-according to the building code in Ohio-that cardboard bullshit was the last straw for me for siding new homes. Told the builder to go side that shit himself-I refuse. So we packed up our tools and went home.

    Then I go to just doing repairs on condo complexes-and I finally find a kid that comprehends all the simple shit like patching drywall,replacing doors and windows,repairing vinyl siding,painting,replacing the cheap-assed faucets,hot water tanks,and garbage disposals the builders put in-and he graduates college-and got a job at the end of the summer he graduated-as a mechanical engineer.

    Now,I gave up on finding competent help-and just do the shit myself.

    To fix this problem-we need shop classes and vocational schools that teach actual trades-not shit like computer “repair”where the kid just pulls on part out,plugs the new part in,and that’s his “skill”
    Or Auto technician-another bullshit “trade” if those guys can’t buy a new part and put it on-they have no ‘effin clue what to do.

    Okay enough-sorry about the rant.

    1. Spot on. When I was a contractor, I finally paired up with a contractor friend. I had one guy – well trained, and when either he or I had a job that was “too big” we jumped on it together.

      Most millennials are untrainable. The wonder around, checking texts and adjusting their earbuds, and can’t produce anything.

      In the southwest, construction went to shit when it became mostly illegals working for big developers. Before the bubble, no one cared. If they bought in the first phase, they pocketed 50 to 100 k when they sold, and rolled it into another couple of houses, stimulating the bubble market.

      Then can Reagan amnesty. The contractors who’d been run out of business were gone – the newly minted citizens discovered they couldn’t make a living carrying liability, comp, and paying the fees to be contractors. So they filed class-action lawsuits against the developers and builders they were previously in cahoots with to drive down labor prices. Get ready for the next phase of that.

      On an unrelated note, I’ve met “upper class” people who hate “rednecks” – rednecks being someone who produces something tangible for a living. But when they have a problem, they have to call a “redneck.” Oh, how it burns their asses…

  5. This is the exactly the problem I have been facing for longer than I would like to admit. Having been gifted/cursed with the ability to reason and understand basic mechanical principles, I have found the IT work I am involved with to be mostly unfulfilling. Not to mention seeing the silliness/uselessness of many white collar industries that I service compounds that. Many sectors seem to be nothing more than make work industries not unlike the human farming that the .gov does.

    As a result of this unfulfillment I spend most of my fee time learning and practicing the hands on principles of the past. Machining, Welding, Carpentry, Handy Man services, Shooting, Reloading, Hunting, Fishing, Fire craft, Axemanship, Gardening, etc. I only rarely turn down to opportunity to learn a new skill.

    Anyways I offer this poorly worded response to parrot the idea that you are not what you own but what you know. More is better in the world of skills.


  6. My late father, who held a Doctorate in Immunology from the University of Chicago, taught me that a truly educated man knew something of all the sciences, the household arts, the fine arts, and what he called the manual arts. A world authority in his field, he taught himself auto mechanics at age 50, and before that he did all of the maintenance, modification and repair work around the house. He was a skilled cabinet maker, paper hanger and photographer among many other skills. My late mother was equally talented, perhaps more so.

    I follow in my father’s footsteps, and only very rarely do I pay someone to do maintenance and repair; trades such as HVAC system repairs require expensive tools I don’t have, for example. I grew up thinking that this was normal, that everyone’s parents did these things. Perhaps 75 years ago it was, and it doubtless will be again, but today few people can handle the basic technology that sustains them. So much the worse for them!

  7. “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently and die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
    – Robert A. Heinlein

  8. There is much here in Bill’s proposition, it is rich with essence of what handcraft work entails. And it isn’t found in how-to books or Utube clips. It comes from desire and creativity, and industriousness, from a need to create things out of raw material, constructs of the realities and needs of life.

    I’ve been a welder fabricator for all my life, from a young boy it has been a 40 plus year journey, along that path I have delved into other handcrafts, from lapidary work to copper ‘smithing, foundry work to aerospace welding. All along I never lost my sense of wonder and desire to use my mind and eyes and hands ti create something to the best of my abilities, the right WA is the only way. And amongst it all, what matters most, what always mattered most, is my mind set. To do these things right, within the limitations of my resources, it is desire and passion that count and inspire to always do better. That is the essence of craftsmanship.

    You never stop learning and bettering yourself, and it is never too late to begin.

    Handcraft work is liberty, it is secession from tyranny’s clutch. It is empowerment. And greatest of all, it is greatness of self determination.
    We are all beings who require implements, devices, products, and tools to get along our path through life. Crafts and the products of craftsmanship are implements of our liberty. Never mind the conveniences they provide in our daily needs.

    And I say all this because of a need of another sort. The need to recognize and elevate the ideas and execution of the myriad of crafts which produce the essential components of our living.

    Too long has the intelligentsia, the elitists, scoffed and pooh poohed these fundamental elements of what differentiates us as a species from all other.

    The nobility inherent in a craft can never underestimated, no matter the narrative of the day, the powers that sway, nor the thought leaders convey.

    When you choose to craft, you choose freedom, independence, essential liberty. You create practicality, fill many niches, and you are a revolutionary naturally.

    Like all things of liberty and freedom, every effort is made to discount and eliminate them, and the crafts and hand trades are an especially prime target of tyranny.

    I have witnessed the demise, in conceivable fashion, of the classic industrial trades. It has been deliberate and calculated, and the stigmata attached to tradesmen no less malicious.

    But it is time.

    Time to take up a trade and a craft, or many, and begin a revolution. Revolt of the unwashed who create and are creative. Who produce, who provide, who declare their independent from the leviathan.

    It is profound what a craft and trade brings. What can result from it. There is creation of real wealth, of value, there is virtue in it, there is trade, and barter, independence from the state, it is a true go fuck yourself to the corrupt nature of government, it is the one thing aide from our guns they despise more than anything. You deny the bastards there cut, you deny them their power.

    And you become independent in the most fundamental way imaginable.

    Below is a great insight into the nature of the dynamics of the statist verses the self sufficient, the free.

    A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance. If you were to show an engine or a mechanical drawing or electronic schematic to a romantic it is unlikely he would see much of interest in it. It has no appeal because the reality he sees is its surface. Dull, complex lists of names, lines and numbers. Nothing interesting. But if you were to show the same blueprint or schematic or give the same description to a classical person he might look at it and then become fascinated by it because he sees that within the lines and shapes and symbols is a tremendous richness of underlying form.

    The romantic mode is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate. ‘Art’ when it is opposed to ‘Science’ is often romantic. It does not proceed by reason or by laws. It proceeds by feeling, intuition and aesthetic conscience. In the northern European cultures the romantic mode is usually associated with femininity, but this is certainly not a necessary association.

    The classic mode, by contrast, proceeds by reason and by laws…which are themselves underlying forms of thought and behavior. In the European cultures it is primarily a masculine mode and the fields of science, law and medicine are unattractive to women largely for this reason.

    Although surface ugliness is often found in the classic mode of understanding it is not inherent in it. There is a classic aesthetic which romantics often miss because of its subtlety. The classic style is straightforward, unadorned, unemotional, economical and carefully proportioned. Its purpose is not to inspire emotionally, but to bring order out of chaos and make the unknown known. It is not an aesthetically free and natural style. It is aesthetically restrained. Everything is under control. Its value is measured in terms of the skill with which this control is maintained.

    To a romantic this classic mode often appears dull, awkward and ugly, like mechanical maintenance itself. Everything is in terms of pieces and parts and components and relationships. Nothing is figured out until it’s run through the computer a dozen times. Everything’s got to be measured and proved. Oppressive. Heavy. Endlessly grey. The death force.

    Within the classic mode, however, the romantic has some appearances of his own. Frivolous, irrational, erratic, untrustworthy, interested primarily in pleasure-seeking. Shallow. Of no substance. Often a parasite who cannot or will not carry his own weight. A real drag on society. By now these battle lines should sound a little familiar.

    This is the source of the trouble. Persons tend to think and feel exclusively in one mode or the other and in doing so tend to misunderstand and underestimate what the other mode is all about. But no one is willing to give up the truth as he sees it, and as far as I know, no one now living has any real reconciliation of these truths or modes. There is no point at which these visions of reality are unified.

    — Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values

    My only comment is to the last paragraph:

    Why attempt to unify them. They are entirely different aspects of the human condition on the practical level of basic needs.

    But even further, it is a hint at the conflict between liberty and the statist state we face. For liberty is industrial and economic freedom unfettered if it is nothing else. How can you have freedom, liberty, secession, and abolition, without a free economy based upon the products of the fruits of our labor and creativity?

    I think it all goes hand in hand.

    And that goes to my premise, that the handcrafts, be it making cloth from sheep’s wool, to forging knives and tools, traditional remedies and medicines, to timber framing, all the myriad of crafts involved in providing for our lives, creating free commerce, prosperity really, and happiness, you have to look upon the virtue inherent in the crafts and trades and see them for what they truly are, the pinnacle of human destiny, your destiny, my destiny, our destiny, because we make more than something physical tangible, we create value profoundly beyond the dollar, products of the sweat of our brows and art born of our desires and spirits. And you can’t be more free than that.

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