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And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper? And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand; When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.

-Genesis 4

The strangest thing about the world of work is the widespread expectation that our work should make us happy. For thousands of years, work was viewed as something to be done with as rapidly as possible and escaped in the imagination through alcohol or religion. Aristotle was the first of many philosophers to state that no one could be both free and obliged to earn a living.

-Alain de Botton, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

This book advances a nestled set of arguments on behalf of work that is meaningful because it is genuinely useful. It also explores what we might call the ethics of maintenance and repair, and in doing so I hope it will speak to those who may be unlikely to go into the trades professionally but strive for some measure of self- reliance—the kind that requires focused engagement with our material things. We now like our things not to disturb us. Why do some of the current Mercedes models have no dipstick, for example? What are the attractions of being disburdened of involvement with our own stuff? This basic question about consumer culture points to some basic questions about work, because in becoming less obtrusive, our devices also become more complicated. How has the relentless complication of cars and motorcycles, for example, altered the jobs of those who service them? We often hear of the need for an "upskilling" of the workforce, to keep up with technological change. I find the more pertinent issue to be: What sort of personality does one need to have, as a twenty-first-century mechanic, to tolerate the layers of electronic bull[****] that get piled on top of machines?

What follows is an attempt to map the overlapping territories intimated by the phrases "meaningful work" and " selfreliance." Both ideals are tied to a struggle for individual agency, which I find to be at the very center of modern life. When we view our lives through the lens of this struggle, it brings certain experiences into sharper focus. Both as workers and as consumers, we feel we move in channels that have been projected from afar by vast impersonal forces. We worry that we are becoming stupider, and begin to wonder if getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on getting a handle on it in some literal and active sense.

Some people respond by learning to grow their own vegetables. There are even reports of people raising chickens on the rooftops of apartment buildings in New York City. These new agrarians say they get a deep satisfaction from recovering a more direct relationship to the food they eat. Others take up knitting, and find pride in wearing clothes they have made themselves. The home economics of our grandmothers is suddenly cutting edge chic—why should this be?

-Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft

It is a dilemma as old as the species, that work is essentially a punishment for our sins and that we are alienated from our own labor. And whereas our ancestors at least had the satisfaction of harvesting a finished good or producing one start to finish, the specialization of labor and the rise of bureaucracy and white collar jobs has only exacerbated our sense that our hours of work are disconnected from the production of anything meaningful. Now, we face a new reality, that machines and computer programs are perfectly capable of replacing us in the workplace and doing our jobs as well or better and, obviously, much cheaper. Labor appears, at long last, to have no value.

Here's the curious thing though : at least as we stand on the brink of this revolution, many are treating our liberation from labor as if it were a catastrophe. There is much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands over the prospect that we will no longer have jobs. This despite the fact that we have had such an eternally tortured relationship with those very jobs.

On the one hand, there are worries that because the traditional means of redistributing wealth has been via the paycheck, that wealth will stop being redistributed. This seems to me to ignore the simple architectonics of democracy. The likelihood that the many of us will tolerate a system where only very few of us have access to wealth that the economy produces is awfully remote. We will, instead, find a means of getting that ever greater wealth into the hands of the many. On the other hand, there is much fretting about what will happen once the many of us have "idle hands." Many, especially my conservative/religious brethren, fear that we will turn into the fat couch potatoes of Wall-E.

Matthew B. Crawford offers an unwitting solution to this latter concern, although his own focus is on the traditional worry about meaningless labor. His book makes an impassioned plea for a return to the sorts of skills and craftsmanship that we associate with woodworkers, bakers, artisans, mechanics and the like. Mr. Crawford, himself, left the world of DC think-tanks to open a motorcycle repair shop and he compares, favorably, the challenges and satisfactions of using one's mind and hands to repair a mechanical problem to the relative futility of producing reports and articles on arcane topics to influence political kerfuffles.

I think all of us would accept the basic thrust of his argument. Consider just the deep feeling of contentment when you look out across the lawn you just mowed, the garden you just planted, or the household repair you just managed on your own and compare that to how you felt the last time you sent a finished report up the foodchain at work. Or, even more revealing, consider the last spontaneous project you undertook around the house : making a piece of furniture; putting up a fence; planting trees; etc. I'll give one minor enough example. The Youngest and I found two lengthy, heavy branches in the woods and stripped, sanded and treated them to make our own walking sticks. They are likely inferior to those you can buy, but not by much. And the fact that we made them ourselves, from local wood, makes them special in a way that a store-bought model never could be.

So, what if we take Mr. Crawford's contention that you should seek employment that requires manual/mechanical skills instead of just jockeying a desk and a PC terminal, and shift it to a recommendation that our schools return to teaching the sorts of skills that will be useful in a post-employment age?

Mr. Crawford describes and decries the decline of shop class in most of the nation's schools, but our town has a comprehensive woodshop class where the Eldest made his own Harry Potter wands and the Youngest has made everything from a hockey stick rack to a mini pool table. There are also classes, which we would have called Home Ec thirty years go in "fabric arts," "foods," and even snack shack, where they make snacks in class and then sell them to the rest of the students. Such courses should be available universally, along with auto shop, plumbing and even electronics/computer repair, to prepare the coming generations for lives of greater self-sufficiency, both because we'll want everyone to "consume" less, as their wealth will be coming from external sources, and because utilizing these skills will give us opportunities for satisfying labor around our homes. Without being too Pollyannish the possibility exists that, rather than a workless future, what we could have is a future where we all do "work" for ourselves, work that engages us precisely because we are utilizing skills that we reap benefits from. We could see a return to the "home economics of our grandmothers" and of our great-great-grandfathers; a return to soulcraft.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Matthew Crawford Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Matthew Crawford
    -GOOGLE BOOK: Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford
    -BOOK PAGE: Shop Craft as Soulcraft (New Atlantis)
    -ESSAY: Shop Class as Soulcraft (Matthew B. Crawford, Summer 2006, The New Atlantis)
    -ESSAY: The Case for Working With Your Hands (MATTHEW B. CRAWFORD, May 21, 2009, NY Times Magazine)
    -ESSAY: Science Education and Liberal Education (Matthew B. Crawford, Spring 2005, The New Atlantis)
    -ESSAY: The Computerized Academy (Matthew B. Crawford, Summer 2005, The New Atlantis)
    -ESSAY: Medicate U. : The triumph of the therapeutic over liberal education (Matthew B. Crawford, September 2008, American Interest)
    -ESSAY: How We Lost Our Attention (Matthew B. Crawford, Summer 2014, The Hedgehog Review)
    -ESSAY: The Cost of Paying Attention (MATTHEW B. CRAWFORD, MARCH 7, 2015, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW: The World Beyond Your Head : Becoming an individual in an age of distraction. (Ian Tuttle, NR Interview April 6, 2015, National Review)
    -VIDEO INTERVIEW: The Value of Work in ‘Shop Class as Soulcraft’ (Jeffrey Brown, 9/04/09, PBS Newshour)
    -VIDEO INTERVIEW: Book Discussion on Shop Class as Soulcraft : From the 2010 Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, Virginia, Matthew Crawford discussed his book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work. (C-SPAN BOOK.TV, 3/19/10)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: 'Soulcraft' Honors An Honest Day's Work (Guy Raz, July 12, 2009, All Things Considered)
    -INTERVIEW: 'The Case for Working with Your Hands' - by Dr Matthew B. Crawford (Claudia Cragg, 5/31/10, Chatting Up a Storm)
    -PROFILE: 'Shop Class as Soulcraft' Author Champions Do-It-Yourself Approach to Life (Neely Tucker, 6/26/09, Washington Post)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Shop Class as Soulcraft (Dave Iverson, Jun 12, 2009, KQED)
    -INTERVIEW: Questions for Matthew B. Crawford, Author of Shop Class as Soul Craft (Popular Mechanics, 9/30/09)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Matthew Crawford (Diane Rehm, 6/02/09, WAMU)
    -DISCUSSION: An FPR Symposium: Shop Class as Soul Craft, by Matthew Crawford (Patrick J. Deneen, July 17, 2009, Front Porch Republic)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Is making something or fixing it yourself a radical act? (Your Call 05/26/09)
-BOOKLIST: Books on Working: As Labor Day nears, Matthew B. Crawford says these books about working truly get the job done (Matthew B. Crawford, Sept. 4, 2009, Wall Street Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford (Francis Fukuyama, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Francis X. Rocca, Wall Street Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (William Voegeli , Claremont Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (C. R. Wiley, Imaginative Conservative)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Jeremy Rozansky, Counterpoint)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Dwight Garner, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Britton Gildersleeve, National Writing Project)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Michael Agger, Slate)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Richard E. Walton, The Montana Professor)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (George Whisstock, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Gideon Lewis-Kraus, n+1)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Carolyn Mooney, Chronicle of Higher Education)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Ezra Klein, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Kelefah Sanneh, The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Charles Keller, Technology and Culture )
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Ashbrook)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (David Schneider, IEEE Spectrum)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Travis R. Wright, Metro Times)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Peter Forbes, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Hank Will, Grit)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Gadi Amit, Fast Company)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Elaine Margolin, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Entertainment Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Christopher Shea, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Lachlan Markay, Washington Examiner)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Cindy Donaldson,
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Hope Perlman, Psychology Today)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Sean Cavanagh , Education Week)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Suzanne Lindgren, Utne Reader)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Journey of Life)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (Paula Cerni, State of Nature)
    -REVIEW: of Shop Class as Soulcraft (James Livingston, History New Network)
-REVIEW: of Why We Drive by Matthew B. Crawford (Mark K. Spencer, Law & Liberty)

Book-related and General Links: