Shop Class as Soulcraft

We tell today's students to head to university, to "put their brains to work" and to "make the real money." How wrong might we be?

October 30 th 2009
Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Workby Matthew B. Crawford. New York: The Penguin Press, 2009.

Therein is the secret of cheerfulness, of depending on no help from without and needing to crave from no man the boon of tranquillity. We have to stand upright for ourselves, not be set up.—Marcus Aurelius.

We've got a decent set of kitchen knives at home. Nothing fancy, mind you—just a few reasonably workable set of Henckels. Reasonably workable, that is, when they are sharp.

Anyone who's done the slicing, dicing and mincing that is required for a good meal will know that a sharp set of knives makes all the difference. If they're too dull it is inevitable that you'll end up with red liquid and pain. The difference, of course, is whether it's the tomato that gets smushed, the liquid is juice and the pain aesthetic, or it's your finger which gets cut, in which case you've got blood and a world of agony.

Now, when my wife and I used to live in an older, downtown part of Hamilton, Ontario, we could count on a little green cube truck festooned with Italian flags and paintings of blades of all sorts—axes, shears, knives and saws—to come around once a month. The fellow who did the sharpening would slowly work his way up the streets ringing his bell and those in need of his services would storm out of their houses with knives, axes and other sharp instruments above their heads, sometimes shouting to get him to stop, like barbarians intent on sacking Rome. (As an aside, the ice cream truck, which had a similar sounding bell, would also frequent our street, and more than once we witnessed the sight of a desperate domestic cook brandishing a chef's knife at full tilt, before belatedly realizing that groups of children trying to buy soft-serve prefer to purchase their treats in peace.)

However, when we moved cities a few years ago, the little green truck did not move with us. Thus, a few months after our move, we were faced with the real and dangerous prospect of having to use dull knives.

We both felt a little hopeless. I, despite having been given an SAS Survival handbook by my grandfather when I was twelve, did not know how to sharpen a knife. I knew the theory, of course, but had never actually practiced it.

So, I did what anyone in my position would do: I plucked up my courage and consulted YouTube. Once there, I discovered a video of a woman in a kitchen showing the viewer how to sharpen a Wusthof chef's knife. Simple, effective, and clear. Then, with some trepidation, I hiked off to my local hardware store, bought a whetstone and returned home to try out this new skill.

The results were incredible. After some time, a mistake or two and a few minor adjustments to my technique, I felt as if I was on par with my Italian friend. No longer would I have to wait for a sharp edge. I could make one whenever I wanted. The edges of my knives were restored, and slicing and dicing moved from being a frustrating and dangerous chore to one of pure aesthetic bliss. I can say, without the slightest hint of irony, that cutting up the tomatoes, onions and peppers for our dinner that evening was sublime. My manhood was confirmed and I thought to myself, "Surely this is the way the world was meant to be."

All of which is a rather long-winded way of summarizing the basic tenets of Matthew Crawford's recent and justly praised Shop Class as Soulcraft. Meditations of a Motorcycle Mechanic might have been a more apt subtitle for the book, not only because of its stoic resonances, but because its content is formed around the experiences and thoughts of the author as he moves from electrician to philosopher to think-tanker to motorcycle mechanic to an interesting amalgam of these.

The book, which covers similar ground to Richard Sennet's more detached The Craftsman, weaves philosophical insight with personal experience to examine the decline in prestige and worth of manual work, and to make a case for its resurrection. At least, that is Crawford's specific goal.

His broader goal is to attempt "to map the overlapping territory intimated by the phrases 'meaningful work' and 'self-reliance.' Both ideals are tied to a struggle for individual agency, which I find to be at the centre of modern life."

Meaningful work in North America has come to be defined as work in which theoretical knowledge is the most valuable commodity. Students who might otherwise be disposed to laying bricks are encouraged to head to university to pursue design, management and finance because (a) that's where one can put one's brain to work and (b) that's where the real money is. Only a fool wanting to remain poor would go into the trades.

Crawford makes a strong case that on both counts this trend is wrong. He states in summary:

Those who work in an office feel that, despite the proliferation of contrived metrics they must meet, their job lacks objective standards of the sort provided by the carpenter's level, and that as a result there is something arbitrary in the dispensing of credit and blame . . . [The college student] senses that what is demanded of him is not knowledge but rather that he project a certain kind of personality, an affable complaisance. Is all this hard work in school somehow just for show—his ticket to a Potemkin meritocracy?

Nor is the money all it's cracked up to be. Students who complete the undergraduate and graduate degrees needed to gain jobs in these sectors find themselves saddled with debt and not always making the eighty dollars an hour that can be charged by a plumber or mechanic.

There's a reason why Dilbert and The Office are smash hits. They are tapping into a general sense of alienation inherent in the work pushed on today's students as ideal. Laughing at ourselves in front of a screen is a much easier opiate to take, it seems, than religion.

Crawford's recommendations for pulling our culture out of this malaise is a rediscovery of manual work and a stoic ideal. His recommendations here are interesting, if not wholly fleshed out. In a section titled "The Tradesman as Stoic," Crawford offers his alternative vision:

Against confused hopes for the transformation of work along emancipatory lines, we are recalled to the basic antagonism of economic life: work is toilsome and necessarily serves someone else's interests. That's why you get paid. Thus chastened, we may ask the proper question: What is it that we really want for a young person when we give him or her vocational advice? The only creditable answer, it seems to me, is one that avoids utopianism while keeping an eye on the human good: work that engages the human capabilities as fully as possible.

Crawford suggest that, more than anywhere else, this type of work can be found in manual trades. The trades allow one to be "master of one's own stuff" and bring together the head and the hand: "In diagnosing and fixing things made by others (this may be Volkswagen, God, or Natural Selection), one is confronted with obscurities, and must remain constantly open to the signs by which they reveal themselves." So much for the hewer of wood as a mindless idiot.

This book is excellent, and is made more so by the examples Crawford uses from his own life as a motorcycle mechanic and a philosopher. It really should be recommended reading for anyone pondering their vocation, but especially for university students.

I have but a few critical comments. First, it struck me that while Crawford laments the hollowing out of office work, there are very few recommendations for instilling his stoic ideal into office culture. As some are not disposed to laying bricks or plastering walls, one can assume that there are some who are disposed to working as a government bureaucrat. How would one go about engaging all of one's capabilities as a civil servant or a mid-level administrator for a logistics company? Learning to sharpen knives and to garden part-time is not the answer, nor is a full-scale jettisoning of office cultures. Administration is also as old as the hills, after all. More work is needed on this subject.

Also, I pondered another question: if we are made less human by not being able to engage the physical world around us, is the reverse true? My assumption (with some evidence to support it) is that a tradesperson (or anyone else for that matter) who does not possess a Ph.D. or an interest in philosophy might read the book and hand it back with a disinterested shrug. Is it only Ph.D.-level folk who think about work this way? Are those unable to discuss their work philosophically also missing something the same way that a philosopher unable to sharpen a knife is? There are a host of motivations and complications behind work that are not discussed.

A line from the Canadian author Alistair Macleod—whose writing on labour is unmatched in my mind—comes to mind: "And then there came into my heart a very great love for my father and I thought it was very much braver to spend a life doing what you really do not want rather than selfishly following forever your own dreams and inclinations." These types of tensions are not fully discussed, and the book at times skirts the line of self-absorbtion and narcissism. A more robust thinking of how work and workers are embedded in a variety of communities each with needs and responsibilities would strengthen Crawford's analysis.

Finally, I'd be interested to hear from women what they make of the book. Crawford notes that what he writes applies equally to women as to men, but my impression is that women will be less struck by this book than men. Women are still not well represented in the trades, despite their growing numbers in the field, nor have they given up much of the manual labour which has historically been theirs. Studies routinely show that even when both partners work full time, the women carry the bulk of the manual labour in a household. This is not necessarily a fault of the book, but further discussions of the differences between men and women's approaches and evaluations of manual labour and its psychic effects would appreciated.

That said, the book is an excellent read both in content and style. It is a valuable contribution to the ongoing discourse on work and modern life. I highly recommend it.


Brian Dijkema is Program Director, Work and Economics at Cardus and senior editor with Comment. Prior to joining Cardus, Brian worked for almost a decade in labour relations in Canada after completing his master's degree with Cardus Senior Fellow, Jonathan Chaplin. He has also done work on international human rights, with a focus on labour, economic, and social rights in Latin America and China.