Shop Class as Soulcraft Book Review

Bart Madson | January 18, 2011

The philosopher mechanic speaks in Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. Penned by Matthew Crawford, a philosophy Ph.D. turned independent motorcycle mechanic, SCAS tackles big questions about the activity we spend most of our waking lives doing – work. The 246-page book is a thoughtful treatise on work itself, as well as a defense of the manual trades as a rewarding career path.

The philosopher mechanic speaks in Shop Class as Soulcraft, a thoughtful examination of the value of work and the manual trades in our modern world.

Work is work, but finding meaningful work – that’s a tougher nut to crack. And that is the central question SCAS endeavors to define: What is meaningful work? Part memoir, SCAS tracks the author’s own journey to find a satisfying occupation.

Crawford relates his gearhead education, learning to wrench on his high school VW Bug and later with motorcycles. In between came college, which extended into a Master’s Degree and later a Ph.D. in Political Philosophy from the University of Chicago. Throughout it all, the author straddled the worlds of academia and the trades, continuing to wrench on his own rides and working summers as an electrician. Unsatisfying desk jobs followed his formal education, first as a writer of abstracts for academic journals, and then later at a high-paying position at a Washington D.C. think tank. The absurdity of the latter position overwhelmed him, part of the job being the creation of global warming arguments that jived with the positions of the oil companies that funded the think tank. He wasn’t being paid to think, rather the opposite. Finding the work distasteful, he saved money for enough tools to quit and start his own motorcycle repair shop.

The book’s conclusion that college is unsuitable and even wasteful to some students is not original, but it is one of the more compelling arguments for the notion. The motivation for higher education should not be securing a high-paying career, which is proving to be a fallacy (how many workers with a Master’s Degree are slaving away at $10/hour, or less!). Instead, higher education is just one route to the work place, with high school graduates, or drop outs for that matter, far better off learning skilled trades if it be their true calling than spinning their wheels at expensive universities.

Challenging the accepted notions about education is just one subject that Crawford engages, saving his harshest critique for the nature of white-collar work. Crawford presents his case with the authority of personal experience and hammers home points that will have frustrated cubicle drones nodding in agreement.

Says Crawford in the text: “The popularity of Dilbert, The Office, and any number of other pop-culture windows on cubicle life attests to the dark absurdism with which many Americans have come to view their white-collar work. Absurdity is good for comedy, but bad as a way of life.”

Crawford’s view on corporate management philosophy is, to say the least, dim. Dealing in abstracts and intangible ideas, white-collar workers can be judged less by competence at an actual skillset and more about how well they negotiate office game-playing and courtier-like hierarchical struggles. He doesn’t have kind things to say about the modern office’s cult of teamwork either. And don’t even get him started on the namby pamby games adults are forced to play at team-building seminars!

Instead, the author extols the cut and dried nature of the manual trades, where individual accountability and clear measurable standards reign supreme. A broken engine is either repaired, or not repaired. The standard is whether it runs or not. An electrician knows his work is done when the light comes on. A plumber routes the vent for a toilet correctly, or backed up sewer gas makes the house stink. There is defined, direct personal accountability in these trades.

Not all can become plumbers or electricians, but Crawford widens his swath by praising the universal virtues of self-reliance and becoming “Master of One’s Own Stuff.” It isn’t until the author points out how far our society has slipped into passivity and dependence that we can see the true decline in just a handful of generations. An example: How many of our grandfathers changed their own oil compared to all of us with Jiffy Lube stickers in our windshields? Now, as Crawford relates with disgust, there are cars manufactured without oil dipsticks! He also vents about such things as automatic sinks and paper towel dispensers that force grown men to wait like children for a machine to let them wash their own hands. The virtues of self-reliance, accountability and becoming master of ones things are touted as bulwarks against the increasing dependence fostered by modern consumer culture. There’s a way to opt out.

The book’s arguments aren’t without flaws. Crawford’s notions, while noble, can warble into idealism. Fortunately the book is too pragmatic to derail into pure utopian screed. The prose itself is enjoyable, and often funny, in spite of the subject matter. The tone is also pleasingly vulgar too, so readers too genteel to handle a discussion on the “motherf@$!er process” for removing a valve cover off a 1983 Honda Magna V45 should perhaps pass. Crawford deserves praise for tackling the subject in an approachable manner without dumbing things down. As for readers, gird up your loins for a dose of references from such heavies as Aristotle, Heidegger and Kant, just to name a few… Hang in there, it’s worth the ride.

Weeks after reading, I’m still thinking a lot about the book, and this review only touches on a small portion of the interesting questions this work raises. SCAS delves deep, wrestling with some substantial ideas. No doubt this book will inspire at least a couple office drones to kick down the cubicle wall and strike out on their own – like the author. At the very least, it gives readers comfort knowing that somewhere out there a wrencher is earnestly grappling with the intricacies of this modern world of ours.

Penguin Books
ISBN: 9780143117469
MSRP: $15


Bart Madson

MotoUSA Editor | Articles | Bashing away at the MotoUSA keyboard for 10 years now, Madson lends his scribbling and editorial input on everything from bike reviews to motorcycle racing reports and industry news features.

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