23 Mar 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.