BOOK REVIEW: Shop Class as Soulcraft, An Inquiry into the Value of Work

by Matthew Crawford, 2009

All Rights Reserved © 2009 Thomas W. Day

_shop_1This book could easily have been a lot like most R&R records. It opens with a lot of good stuff in the first pages and Crawford could have been satisfied with being a 20-page wonder. But that isn’t the case. Matthew Crawford has thought a lot about Work, the value of doing things rather than having them done, and the effect outsourcing the most basic tasks of invention and maintenance has on the quality of the lives we live.

Crawford isn’t just talking about doing real work for the sake of personal satisfaction. “The craftsman has an impoverished fantasy life compared to the ideal consumer’ he is more utilitarian and less given to soaring hopes. But he is also more independent.” Crawford suggests that people who know how to tighten a bolt, perform precision measurements, or make a useful piece of furniture are less likely to be suckers for a con from a salesperson, marketing schemes, a boss, or politicians.

Shop Class provides Insights on culture and technology on practically every page. One of my favorite bits was the comparison between Yamaha’s Harley-copycat ad campaign for the Warrior’s collection of Star Custom Accessories (“Life is what you make it. Start making it your own.”) and Betty Crocker cake mixes.  General Mills found that the product was more desirable when the “cook” had to add a couple of her own ingredients, providing the satisfaction of pretending to be part of the creative process. Crawford links that to a range of simulated “creative” products such as “Build Your Own Bear” teddy bear stores, Japan and the USA’s “customizing” features for cars and motorcycles, and a variety of “creative products” that require nothing more than desire and money to become involved in the “creative process.” Convincing consumers that selection options are akin to invention and creativity was a clever marketing tactic, but that doesn’t make it real. Shop Class is about the kind of effort it takes to “be the master of your own stuff.” Tacking leather and chrome to an existing framework is as far from motorcycle maintenance as playing a video war-game is from battle.

Occasionally, Crawford engages in an academic complexity that limits access to some his best ideas to patient, well-educated readers; not the young people for whom his argument might educate and inspire. Crawford, sometimes, uses complicated language to explain simple concepts but he is at his best when his irritation with consumerism and ignorance overwhelms his academic background and he says what he thinks plainly and with power.

I believe a lot of the media’s reviewers completely missed Shop Class‘s purpose. Crawford is not celebrating menial, physical work over the modern “knowledge worker.” He’s saying the latter sort of work has no “objective standards” of performance and “is not terribly demanding on the brain, or even requires the active suppression of intelligence.” I once had a job where I was supposed to browse through all of the descriptions of medical device product failures and rewrite that text to disguise the failure similarities to prevent FDA from spotting a trend. Cleaning toilets is more satisfying than that kind of “work.” Unclogging toilets, wiring homes and businesses, and a variety of skilled labor jobs pay better, even at the entry level, than many clerical “knowledge work” positions. If the work isn’t intellectually valuable to the worker, it devolves to Crawford’s definition, “Work is toilsome, and necessarily serves someone else’s interests. That’s why you get paid.” 

Crawford argues that society is better served by skilled tradesmen than by docile clerks. This is probably his best message to the few young people who will read Shop Class. From consumerism and marketing tactics to “self-esteem building” education systems to job outsourcing to the decline of our national GNP, Shop Class is full of insights and observations. Crawford is opinionated and unafraid of pissing off a good percentage of the people who might read his book. His opinion of modern American management, for example, is that it is a destructive force that only serves to “push details down and pull credit up” while destroying motivation and creativity in phony “team building” exercises. He saves his most clear (and derisive) writing for when he goes after the management and marketing gurus who promote and worship this kind of self-serving activity. He describes the business-maligned “teamwork” concept, as it applies to modern management techniques as not having a “progressive character” and being amorally dependent on “group dynamics, which are inherently unstable and subject to manipulation.” 

As with his beginning, Crawford concludes Shop Class with power, “What defenders of free markets forget that what we really want is free men.” If you work on your bike or car, maintain your home, create any kind of art or product from raw materials, and read at a true college-educated level, you’ll be reinforced in your activities and your opinions by Shop Class. If you think Mercedes did a cool thing when they removed the oil dipstick from their top-of-the-line luxury cars, you’re going to feel a bit picked-on when Crawford explains to you that Mercedes engineers didn’t think you were smart enough to deal with “idiot lights.”

Shop Class as Soulcraft is the kind of book that could be read a few times over the course of several years and each reading might turn on a new light. Like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, it’s an added bonus that Crawford uses motorcycles and motorcyclists to illustrate his key points. There are moments in Shop Class where Crawford makes it clear how he feels about motorcycles and the people who ride them, “People who ride motorcycles have gotten something right, and I want to put myself in the service of it . . . ”

Shop Class as Soulcraft is available from RiderWearhouse (www.aerostich.com).

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